Anna Hazare: 'Gandhi Lite'?

He may dress, talk and fast like his hero Mahatma Gandhi, but critics say anti-graft activist Anna Hazare has only managed to co-opt the style, not the substance, of India's independence icon.

delhi Updated: Aug 25, 2011 08:07 IST
Mahatma Gandhi,Anna Hazare,hunger strike

He may dress, talk and fast like his hero Mahatma Gandhi, but critics say anti-graft activist Anna Hazare has only managed to co-opt the style, not the substance, of India's independence icon.

The figure of Gandhi looms large - and literally - over Hazare's anti-corruption campaign, with a giant photograph of the apostle of non-violence providing the backdrop to the 74-year-old's public hunger strike.

Hazare's speeches are peppered with Gandhian references to a "second freedom struggle" and his own diminutive, bespectacled appearance, and preference for simple white clothing, all serve to reinforce the link in the public mind.

If the effort to embrace Gandhi's legacy is sincere, it is also conscious and calculated, and observers say it has paid dividends by tapping into a national yearning for an inspirational leader.

"Hazare has clearly appropriated symbols connected with Gandhi, from sitting on a stage with Gandhi's picture behind him to using terms like 'civil disobedience' which most Indians associate with Gandhi," said Yamini Aiyar, senior fellow at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research think-tank.

"It's helped him capture the public's attention, since Gandhi still commands the popular imagination in this country," she said.

Suhel Seth, a Mumbai-based brand management expert with Counselage India, said Gandhi provides a comfortable, nostalgic reference point for many Indians at a time of swift and sometimes difficult change associated with rapid economic growth.

And that includes young Indians - the bulk of the population - who know the Mahatma ("Great Soul") through images rather than his political philosophy.

"They understand the visual symbols associated with Gandhi, not necessarily his ideas. So it makes sense that they are buying into this phenomenon... they trust Anna," Seth said.

"In an environment where so much seems hopeless as far as corruption is concerned, people clutch at straws, and here the straw is a 74-year-old man, which is rather ironic for such a young democracy," he added.

But where Gandhi's hunger strikes against British colonial rule are still seen as models of principled self-sacrifice, Hazare's fast for stronger anti-corruption laws strikes some as belligerent to the point of arrogance.

Rajiv Vora, chairman of the Delhi-based Global Gandhian Movement for Swaraj (self-rule) said that Hazare's inflexible approach to negotiations with the government was "not Gandhian at all."

He also took strong exception to the activist's widely publicised calls for officials convicted of serious fraud to be hanged.

"Gandhi would never have spoken like that, he would never have used threats," Vora said.

And Gandhi's great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi, denounced what he saw as "a very Machiavellian strategy" to use emotive, independence-era images and soundbites to pull on public heartstrings.

"The attempt to take over the space left behind by Gandhi reveals the dishonesty of the whole movement," he said. "It's a sham, they are basically trying to pull a fast one on the nation."

Hazare's campaign has benefited from some media-savvy choreography, especially the activist's triumphal procession through the streets of Delhi last week, when he moved his fast from jail to its current venue -- an open ground in the city centre usually reserved for religious festivals.

The journey, on an open-top truck surrounded by huge crowds of cheering supporters, included a camera-friendly stop at Mahatma Gandhi's memorial to lay a wreath.

For Mani Shankar Aiyar, a veteran Congress party politician, the campaign has been stage-managed in a fashion that betrays the integrity of the historic events it seeks to emulate.

"Inside a democracy... to say I don't care a damn for your institutions, your procedures, and I am going to launch a second freedom struggle and start imitating Ben Kingsley in the Gandhi film, I think you are reducing what was the first really noble freedom struggle into a farce," Aiyar said.

First Published: Aug 25, 2011 07:59 IST