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From soldier to savior: India's Hazare another Gandhi?

By Kevin Voigt, CNN
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A modern day Gandhi?
  • Ascetic social activist Anna Hazare has galvanized the nation of India
  • Has risen to national prominence in the wake of high-profile corruption cases
  • A former Indian soldier, he took a vow of chasticy and service after retiring
  • Has captivated India this week when the government tried to block his protest fast

(CNN) -- He wears only khadi, a simple garb of homespun cotton, and lives in a small room off a temple in a remote, drought-prone western Indian village. A veteran of the 1965 India-Pakistan war, he retired from the Indian army and took vows of chastity and public service.

According to public statements in June, the septuagenarian bachelor has $1,500 in his bank account.

But ascetic social activist Anna Hazare has galvanized the nation of India, rattling the country's leadership at the highest levels, as he garners support that cuts across economic and social divides.

His grassroots effort to fight corruption through public fasting has drawn comparisons to Mohandas Gandhi, whose non-violent efforts helped lead to India's independence from British rule in 1947.

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"We are tired of the problem of corruption, but he is saying: There is another way," said Usheer Mohan, a New Delhi business owner who took to the streets to protest Hazare's arrest this week ahead of a planned anti-corruption demonstration.

"He gives hope for all Indians. There is a feeling he can take us out of these problems. People have started considering him another Gandhi."

Hazare has been a vocal opponent against corruption for two decades, but only in recent months has he catapulted onto the national stage as the people's voice against endemic corruption that plagues one of the world's fastest-growing economies.

"If you keep track of Indian news, you know how truly widespread and national this is - it is in every nook and corner of this country today," Kiran Bedi, a Hazare aide, told CNN.

"One and all have either seen bribes or experienced bribes or suffered from a bribe, so it's both at bottom and the top, and it's truly united this country in a wave against corruption."

Bedi, a former senior police official, is like Hazare himself a Magsaysay Award winner -- one of Asia's biggest accolades for public service leadership. Other activists involved in his anti-corruption crusade -- which the Indian media dubs "Team Anna" -- have fought for "right to information" laws to make India's notoriously labyrinthine bureaucracy more transparent.

Kisan Baburao Hazare -- known to his admirers as "Anna" or elder brother in his native Marathi -- is a former soldier who, after watching compatriots die fighting in the 1965 war with Pakistan, considered suicide until he had a spiritual conversion after reading the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, according to his official biography. Vivekananda, a father of modern Hindu philosophy, emphasized the importance of social service in his teachings.

Hazare first garnered attention for helping to turn his village, Ralegan Siddhi, in the western state of Maharashtra into a model for water use and sustainable development --work for which he received two of India's highest national prizes in the early 1990s.

He also launched a campaign against the distilling and consumption of liquor in the village, which he believed was leading to widespread alcoholism among men. The anti-alcohol drive was controversial: Drunk men were sometimes tied to posts and flogged, but women supported an effort to impose prohibition on the village.

Hazare began to work against corruption in 1991 in a local campaign against the state forestry agency, resulting in his first hunger strike -- a tool he has used repeatedly in his public campaigns over the past 20 years.

People have started considering him another Gandhi
--Usheer Mohan, a New Delhi business owner

Hunger strike as a popular weapon of public protest in India "goes back to the days of Mahatma Gandhi," said Zoya Hasan, professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "He employed fasting as a weapon of protest, a weapon of struggle. Since then, because of its association with Gandhi and the iconic status of Gandhi, fasts have been a very popular form of protest."

Hazare conducted a five-day hunger strike in April which ended after India's prime minister agreed to introduce long-pending legislation meant to crack down on graft.

The latest stalemate is over the scope of powers the proposed independent commission, known as Lokpal, would have. Hazare and his supporters want the body to be able to independently investigate the prime minister and Supreme Court; government officials say such a move would give too much unchecked power to the new watchdog agency. The government also says Parliament should be the forum where this law should be finalized, without undue pressure from unelected activists.

In a statement to Parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said his government wants a Lokpal established quickly to combat corruption, but "the path that he has chosen to impose his draft of a Bill upon Parliament is totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our Parliamentary democracy."

Hazare's aides see it differently.

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"The hunger strike has been a last resort by Anna Hazare ... nobody wants to go to a hunger strike at the drop of a hat," Hazare confidant Bedi said. "The process has failed, dialogue has failed, meetings brought about no results."

Hazare was planning to go on a hunger strike to call for stronger anti-corruption measures when he was detained Tuesday. As thousands took to the streets to protest the arrest, authorities let him free, but he refused to leave the jail.

The anti-corruption crusader has accepted a police proposal that will allow him to proceed with his public fast and demonstration in New Delhi in public for two weeks. He walked out of jail Friday to a thunderous ovation from hundreds of supporters.

Government moves to detain Hazare before his planned public hunger strike catalyzed supporters like 43-year-old Mohan, who took to the streets of the capital on Tuesday night after Hazare's incarceration.

"We were shouting slogans, waving flags and banners, singing the national anthem," said Mohan, who is a director of Studio Thorn, a retail design firm in New Delhi.

The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- who has overseen an economy that has more than doubled in size the past seven years to an estimated $1.7 trillion this year -- is now roiled in a string of high-profile corruption scandals.

In April, Suresh Kalmadi, the chief organizer for last year's Commonwealth Games, was arrested and accused of buying a time, scoring and result system from a Swiss company at inflated cost. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, India's former telecom minister A. Raja, several bureaucrats and corporate officials are facing trial in connection with a multi-billion-dollar scandal involving the suspected below-price sale of mobile-phone radio waves or spectrum in 2008. Government auditors estimate the scandal cost the Indian exchequer some $39 billion dollars in lost revenue.

"(Hazare) was well-known in his state, but he catapulted to national fame thanks to his leadership in India against corruption in the context of these numerous, major corruption scans that have hit the headlines in recent months," said Hasan of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

For many Indians, corruption pervades at all levels of Indian society, even mundane processes such as receiving a driver's license or getting a death certificate -- anything that requires government approval.

"For example, if I'm starting a new venture like a resort, when I have to get permission to develop that land as a resort, I have to get a license, I have to go through government channels - there's a lot of corruption involved in getting the permission. If I have some good government connections, I can avoid those channels," Mohan said.

"There is corruption both high and low."

But for Mohan and thousands of other Indians, Hazare's long crusade has become their own.

"(Fighting corruption) used to be a drawing room discussion - now it's people in the streets," Mohan said.

Max Foster, Ram Ramgopal and Harmeet Shah Singh contributed to this report