Anna’s Military Might

India’s favourite agitationist looks for a new source of support
New Battleplan
Soldiering On: Anna Hazare with former Army Chief VK Singh during his August 2012 agitation in Delhi

If Anna Hazare based the first round of his anti-corruption agitation mostly on youth support, for his second round he is trying to secure the backing of retired military men, some of whom are even expected to lead his Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan. Though he has again issued an appeal to the youth of India to join his movement, he has instructed his aides—who are busy drawing up lists of volunteers—not to leave out any ex-servicemen.

“Of the thousands of application letters being sorted out to finalise our list of new core committee members and volunteers, over 900 belong to ex-servicemen,” discloses an aide who is engaged in this work, speaking anonymously over the phone from Ralegan Siddhi (Hazare has instructed his aides not to interact with the media). This aide says that in the first phase of selection, he and a couple of colleagues have been asked to separate all applications from ex-servicemen. “Most of these retired men are likely to be inducted in one capacity or another in the new Anna brigade,” he says.

Hazare himself was once with the Indian Army. Both this fact and the visibility of former Army Chief VK Singh’s support for him may have had a role in inspiring large numbers of former defence personnel to join his movement. General (retd) Singh, however, is unlikely to work exclusively under Hazare, even though the latter has expressed a desire to have the former on board.

Singh appears to have political ambitions of his own. He has shown signs of this ever since he first appeared on Hazare’s public dais a few months ago. Merely weeks later, he was seen hobnobbing with Baba Ramdev. And once Hazare and Kejriwal split, he wasted no time in organising a hush-hush meeting between Anna and the yoga guru. This meeting, which took place in the wee hours of 19 September at a house in Delhi’s Golf Links area, was seen as Singh’s attempt to unite the two anti-corruption agitationists on a single platform. A few weeks ago, the former general told mediapersons that it would be his endeavour to send “545 good people” to the Lok Sabha for corruption-free governance.

Regardless of the former Army Chief’s realism—or lack thereof—in ensuring that outcome, his ties with Hazare have already started yielding results. Ex-soldiers are indeed flocking to join the street battle against corruption.

This, however, is not the first time that Hazare has initiated a drive to recruit volunteers. He has run such programmes at least twice in the past, but both ended in frustration for activists who were drawn by their ideals to Ralegan Siddhi’s famous crusader. The first occasion was in 1992, when he appealed to Maharashtra’s youth to join his task of building model villages. A group of 30 was trained in Ralegan and asked to go work in villages. The state government intervened soon after, and started funding an NGO run by Hazare under its Adarsh Gram Yojana. State money also went to volunteers in the form of monthly stipends. In subsequent years, such training was imparted to two more batches of about 40 to 50 volunteers each.

In the second half of the 1990s, as Hazare’s work—particularly on water conservation—started being talked about in the state, he once again appealed to youngsters, particularly graduates and post-graduates, to join him in transforming villages. This time, nearly 200 activists joined him. Some of them even quit their jobs to work with Anna. They too were given training at Ralegan Siddhi and paid monthly stipends of Rs 3,000 each.

Then, in 1997, over 100 trained youngsters filed a case in a labour court of Pune against the Hazare-controlled Hind Swaraj Trust, alleging that they had been dropped from the project’s payroll without any reason. They lost the case as they did not have enough documents. From the court, though, the agitated volunteers went straight to the office of the Hind Swaraj Trust (where Hazare used to stay during his Pune visits) to gherao him. But Hazare heard of it and fled just minutes before they reached the office.

The most striking thing about Hazare’s recruitment drive this time round is that those who flocked to him in the 1990s have gone almost entirely missing. Neither are these youngsters present at his rallies, nor are they applying to the Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan. Which leaves Hazare with a bunch of men—and it is mostly men—who have never worked with him before.