Long-time activist hopes to tap youth power in quest to root out corruption.
For 16 months, anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare and his "Team Anna" lieutenants have agitated against pervasive graft. On August 2nd, their quest took a new turn.
Addressing a large crowd, on the sixth day of one of his signature Mahatma Gandhi-style fasts, the 74-year-old army soldier turned social reformer announced the formation of a new political movement which will campaign in the next general election.
"We have decided to enter politics and change things by getting into government. I will oversee the formation of this party and every candidate will be screened for personal integrity," Hazare told the crowd, indicating however that he himself will not be a member.
]It was a change of heart for Hazare, who until now has worked outside the political party system. The decision, he indicated, was prompted by Parliament's failure to pass an anti-graft bill.
Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax official who leads the India Against Corruption grassroots movement, with which Hazare is associated, said Indian politics is due for a fresh voice.
"The people are tired of the same political parties and want a real change. Though some members initially disagreed, they are now coming round to the idea of forging India's first ever truly clean political party," he told Khabar South Asia.
But Santosh Hegde, a former judge from Bangalore whose investigations led to the resignation of the Karnataka state chief minister last year, is less impressed.
"I went with 'Anna' because he promised something higher than politics. Now I'm reconsidering," he told Khabar.
"I hope he is aware that large sums of money are required in running a party structure and contesting elections across India. Without state funding of elections, political candidates are forced to accept cash gifts which are often illegitimate," Hegde said.
Will India's youth rally behind him?
Young Indians under 35 comprise 70% of the population and provide the battleground support the Team Anna movement seeks to build upon. Some, like Delhi University Students' Union leader Paramjit Sondhi, are critical of Hazare's new direction.
"We are disappointed by the decision to form a party. People are put off too easily by politics because most of what they promise end up undelivered. This mistrust will also be transferred to Anna’s party," he told Khabar.
Team Anna spokesperson Shazia Ilmi, however, insists Hazare has the support of most young Indians.
"This is a struggle for the future of India and the youth realise it, which is reflected in their overwhelming numbers at Team Anna events. Our decision to go ahead is based on surveys in which most students have remarked that Anna must clean politics and government from within," she said.
Critics say Team Anna supporters represent an idealistic but naïve subset of India's youth. "It's true that in Delhi and Mumbai a large number of youngsters paraded their support for Team Anna," said Rahul Navrekar, secretary of the right-wing Shiv Sena party.
"But in no way are they representative of the masses of India's youth who are put off by their use of English, the trendy clothes they wear and their limited agenda of fighting only bureaucratic and political corruption," he said.
The ruling Congress Party, meanwhile, says it does not feel threatened.
"There are more than 1,700 registered political parties under the Election Commission of India. Most of them are wedded to anti-Congressism. Team Anna's party will be one more and we are ready for the challenge," party spokesman Manish Tewari told Khabar.
Senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh wonders if the movement is ready for the rigours of campaigning. "Team Anna's members are used to operate out of air-conditioned offices," he told Khabar. "Will they be able to rough it out in the Indian heat?"
Kisan Baburao Hazare, who is widely known by the Marathi honorific "Anna" (elder), has been a social activist since the 1990s, agitating on a wide range of issues including caste discrimination, alcoholism, and the need for improved education. But it was his April 2011 hunger strike on behalf of anti-graft legislation, which captured the attention of India's mass media, drawing thousands of supporters.
Despite the publicity – and a government pledge to meet Hazare's demands – lawmakers have not succeeded in passing legislation aimed at rooting out corruption.
In 2011, India ranked only 95th on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, which surveys 183 countries. The score represented a drop of eleven places from the previous year.