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Going beyond Occupy

What makes Team Anna and Wall Street protesters similar - and different. Bill Keller writes.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2011 20:57 IST

Since I was passing through India on a reporting project, I decided to drop in on Anna Hazare, the anti-corruption campaigner whose admirers speak of him as the reincarnation of Gandhi. I wondered what Hazare, as an exemplar of a venerable style of civil pressure, made of Occupy Wall Street.

Back home, the Occupiers have been pandered to ('Love your energy!'); patronised ('Here, I've drafted you a list of demands ...'); co-opted by unions and activists for various causes; demonised by the right; arrested in some cities and taken lightly by the likes of me. They have been a combination national mood ring. Perhaps by consulting someone who is a serious candidate for the pantheon of protest, I thought, I could sharpen my understanding of what the Occupy project means.

About the time I put in my request for an interview, Hazare, exhausted by his latest hunger strike and weary of the media melodramas that have bedeviled his team, announced that he had taken an indefinite "vow of silence". So I went to visit his associate, Kiran Bedi, who speaks with the intense energy of a high-voltage circuit. It turned out the subject of Occupy Wall Street has been very much on the minds of Team Anna.

Like Occupy Wall Street, Hazare embodies a national frustration with broken democratic institutions. Like Occupy, his grievance is the wholesale diversion of wealth from the middle class and poor to the unworthy few - in India's case through payoffs, patronage and thievery, in America's through tax and regulatory policies that have expanded the gap between the richest few and the rest.

In many telling respects, however, that's where the similarities end.

"When we started the movement, it was like Occupy," Bedi told me. "But we went beyond Occupy." For starters, while Occupy Wall Street is consensus-oriented and resolutely leaderless, Hazare is the centre of attention. When he announces his intention to starve himself, he parks himself on an elevated platform in a public place, thousands gather and TV cameras hang on his every word. Hazare and his entourage can seem self-important and high-handed, but he is a reminder that leadership matters.

Second, the Occupiers are a composite of idealistic causes, many of them vague. Much of the Occupy movement resides at the dreamy level of John Lennon lyrics. "Imagine no possessions. ..." Hazare, in contrast, is always explicit about his objectives: fire this corrupt minister, repeal that law bought by a special interest, open public access to official records.

Occupy Wall Street is scornful of both parties and generally disdainful of electoral politics. Team Anna likewise avoids aligning itself with any party or candidate, but it uses Indian democracy shrewdly, to target obstructionists. The Occupation has at least a strong undercurrent of anti-capitalism. But capitalism is one thing most Indians believe in. "We're not anti-capitalism," Bedi told me. "We're pro-integrity."

"Occupy has been, to my mind, an engaging movement, and it's driving home the message, to the banks, to the Wall Street circles," Bedi said. "That's the way Anna did it. But we had a destination. I'm not aware these people, what is their destination? It's occupy for what?"

I'm prepared to celebrate when the Occupiers - like the lone hunger artist of India - accomplish something more than organising their own campsite clean up, demonstrating their tolerance for tear gas, and distracting the conversation a little from the Tea Party. So far, the main achievement of Occupy Wall Street is showing up.

New York Times

First Published: Oct 31, 2011 20:54 IST