Is Hazare Uprising India’s ‘Arab Spring’?

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NEW DELHI – The anti-corruption movement led by the feisty 74 year old social activist Anna Hazare is snowballing into one of the biggest challenges in decades for the ruling Congress party and if not contained risks sparking the country’s own version of an Arab Spring revolt.

While no one is expecting an Egypt like overthrow in the world’s biggest democracy, a galvanised and frustrated middle class and the mushrooming of social networking sites, combined with an aggressive private media may be transforming the political landscape.

Hazare has quickly become a 21st century Mahatma Gandhi like inspiration for millions fed up with rampant corruption, red tape and inadequate services provided by the state despite the country posting near-double digit economic growth for almost a decade.

“Democracy means no voice, however small, must go unheard. The anti-corruption sentiment is not a whisper-it’s a scream. Grave error to ignore it,” Anand Mahindra, one of the leading businessmen and managing director of conglomerate Mahindra Group, wrote on Twitter.

Hazare’s arrest on Tuesday, only hours ahead of a planned fast until death against graft was the last straw and sparked spontaneous protest across the country.

The young and old, rich and poor, without apparent political affiliations, took to the streets in a rare voice of solidarity — a potential lethal cocktail for any party in power.

Politicians are increasingly being judged on governance rather than old caste and regional ties – as has already happened in states like Bihar – and the new social shift will push national parties to be more responsive to voters’ needs.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Congress party and the police stood isolated over the decision to arrest a man for planning a peaceful fast.

The Congress has for the past year reeled from mounting corruption scandals, including allegations of millions of dollars in kickbacks in the sale of mobile phone licences in what is emerging as India’s biggest-ever graft.

Former telecoms minister Andimuthu Raja, top corporate executives and senior Congress party officials are in jail awaiting trial.

Indians have routinely voted out governments and in that sense the anti-graft movement is different from those sweeping the Middle East.

The next election is due in 2014 and an opinion poll last week by India Today showed that if elections were held today, Congress would just about lose out to the main opposition party.