A Little Respect

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Sajjad Hussain / AFP / Getty Images

What would Gandhi do? Hazare channels the Mahatma

As I listened to the crowds gathered in New Delhi's Ramlila Maidan these past weeks in support of an anticorruption crusader named Anna Hazare, echoes of Cairo's Tahrir Square were everywhere. Like the Egyptians who took to the streets of their capital, the Indians who got together in New Delhi — the young, frustrated unemployed men, the teachers and doctors — were rising up against the only system they had ever known, many protesting for the first time in their lives. In both New Delhi and Cairo, the nonviolent approach was one preached by Mohandas Gandhi. On the day that Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power, U.S. President Barack Obama even compared the Egyptians to a previous generation of Indian protesters, seeing in the Cairo demonstrations similarities with "Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice."

Some Indians won't be comfortable with comparisons to the Middle East. They will point out that India, unlike Egypt (or Tunisia or Libya), has remained free of dictatorship since winning independence. True, it is a proud democracy. Even Indira Gandhi, who suspended many civil liberties during two years of emergency rule in the mid-1970s, eventually sought the legitimacy of the vote. (Indian voters rejected her experiment with authoritarianism; she was beaten badly in the 1977 national election and accepted the result.) Defenders of the Indian government will also say that Hazare's anticorruption movement flowers precisely because Indian democracy is so strong. As television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai puts it: "In how many other countries could you abuse the political class, burn draft bills, create a confrontational situation and yet have the space and opportunity to be heard?"

And yet Indians are not satisfied with their democracy. They feel their disillusionment just as bitterly as the Arabs and rail against the exhausting indignities of daily corruption — against the police who have to be bribed to approve passport applications, against the clerks who demand money to disburse ration cards or farming subsidies. Politicians euphemistically call corruption India's "implementation problem," as though it were a minor administrative hitch to be smoothed out with smart cards and biometric scanners. Indians aren't buying it any longer. They have become fed up with a democracy that exists mainly in form rather than function, and they are forcing the government to face an uncomfortable truth: daily life in India, particularly for those who are poor (in other words, the majority), is barely different from life in Mubarak's Egypt. What good is the vote when, to obtain their ordinary rights as citizens, Indians must live at the mercy of an unaccountable bureaucracy and police force?

The scandals of the past year have also convinced many Indians that corruption goes way beyond the petty venality of poorly paid clerks and constables. The 2010 Commonwealth Games, its organizing committee chaired by a senior member of Parliament, was supposed to be a showcase for the new India. Instead, allegations of massive cost overruns, shoddy workmanship and graft turned it into a national humiliation. During the height of this year's global food crisis, India was faced with another scandal: tons of subsidized grain meant for the poor was found rotting in warehouses. Thanks to the government, the hungry can't eat — even when there's enough food.

Indians may not be fighting to overthrow a dictator, but they share with the Arab world a yearning for dignity. An editorial by the Christian Science Monitor made a point that could be applied to both places: dignity, it said, means worthiness, and "a government can't move a country forward if leaders don't value the people, don't find them worthy."

The Indian government seems to value its people mainly as workers, consumers and entrepreneurs who have propelled the country to 9% growth. But the decadelong boom has also led to vast inequalities of income. India now has 55 billionaires, their combined $250 billion fortune amounting to a sixth of the country's GDP. And yet all that wealth has failed to remedy a terrible truth: 500 million Indians lack access to any kind of sanitation.

When citizens are made complicit in an immoral system, they suffer a different kind of indignity. Under repressive regimes, like those in Turkmenistan or Zimbabwe, they have no choice. India shows that complicity can be impossible to resist even in a democracy. But it also offers the hope of change. When Hazare ended his fast on Aug. 28, he asked supporters to never pay a bribe again. India won its fight for independence 64 years ago; the fight for dignity is just beginning.