Anna Hazare: Mahatma-ization by Social Media in India

Anna Hazare (standing in vehicle, far right with white cap) leads marchers to the Janta Mantar in New Delhi earlier this year.

by Swati Singh

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube bring Indian citizens to the streets in anti-corruption protests.

All on a single day: 18 million page impressions; 200,000 active users; 28,000 new likes on the news feed; 35,000 comments. These numbers are not for a Facebook page of another consumer cool. These numbers are for the India Against Corruption Facebook page launched on August 16, 2011 in support of Anna Hazare’s fast unto death campaign against corruption.

74-year-old Hazare, a respected Indian social reformer demanded that the government set up an anti-graft ombudsman, or “Lokpal” to oversee and hold accountable all levels of government, bureaucracy and the courts including the Indian Supreme Court. Hazare demanded that the Jan Lokpal bill be drafted by representatives from the public and government and be presented in India’s Parliament by Aug. 30, 2011.

Transparency International, a non-governmental organization, ranks countries based on perceptions of corruption in public offices. In 2010, India was ranked the 87th least corrupt country on a list of 178 countries. India, which has historically struggled with corruption, has gradually slipped in the rankings from its position of the 66th least corrupt country in 1998. India over the last few years has been hit by scams in the case of Commonwealth Games, 2G mobile licenses, Adarsh Housing and Swiss bank tax evasion. International coverage of these scandals has only exposed the apathy of the general public and the deep rooted corruption in the public systems.

So when Hazare decided to revolt against corruption, the government prematurely underestimated him and his support. A corrupt judicial and bureaucratic machinery has been the status quo and the common man would rather find his way around the problem than challenge it.

So the government made its first mistake when Hazare announced his pledge to fast unto death on August 16 at the Jantar Mantar grounds in New Delhi. The Indian police arrested Hazare and sent him to Tihar Jail. Hazare refused to pay bail and decided to start his campaign from the jail. The second mistake the government made was to not take Team Anna’s campaign seriously. The government never expected the social media support to spillover on the streets.

The jury is still out on whether Hazare has abused the constitutional right of individual freedom and liberty to arm-twist the government. But what is definitely true is that social media were successful in bringing Indian citizens to the streets in protest and taking the campaign to the global stage.

Behind the scenes, Team Anna, which originally comprised a few media members, anchors, TV producers and engineering students, crafted a grassroots campaign targeting the new media friendly youth. Amateur videos on YouTube helped the people to keep track of Hazare’s movement in jail and outside whether fasting at the Ramlila grounds or meditating at Rajghat. The now famous India Against Corruption page was created on Facebook and received 200,000 “likes” and hundreds of comments on the posts on the launch day itself. The Facebook profile page of Anna Hazare received more than 100,000 “likes.” Anna hash tags were created to promote dialogue.  Some of the top tweets and phrases for the fortnight starting August 16 were #Anna Hazare, #corruption, and #Jantar Mantar.

The viral campaign snowballed into a citizen campaign. Innovative websites such as  I Paid a Bribe were launched by citizens to report bribes anonymously and direct the voice of the public to the government. More than 30,000 people reported cases of bribes involving the police and the bureaucracy.

The youth, who were the primary target of the campaign, came out in support and reached the fasting ground, organized candlelight vigils and courted arrests on the streets. At every step, social media kept them engaged and informed of the locations across the country, where the next demonstration or campaign was scheduled.  Team Anna had now expanded to include thousands of supporters on the streets who distributed stickers, posters and other merchandise to spread awareness of the movement. Street theatre was another innovative method employed to spread the anti-corruption message.

Social media had started the fire.  Traditional media such as print and TV fanned the flames by covering the issue around the clock. Text messaging and telephone campaigns were launched later to consolidate support and public opinion. High profile personalities from industry, politics and the movies expressed their support to Hazare through Facebook, Twitter and sometimes their physical presence on the fasting grounds.

Public anger had reached its peak. Pressure mounted on the seemingly indifferent government to agree to the demands of Hazare who had continued his fast on release from Tihar jail. On August 27, 2011, Hazare ended his 12-day fast with the government agreeing to his demands of setting up a Lokpal to counter corruption.

For many Indians, this was their chance to revolt and bring about social change. In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi launched the non-violence movement, which unified India. The British were ousted. Today the enemy exists within. However what has not changed are the values, morals and bloodless nature of the revolution. To add to this, Hazare’s frail build, reminiscent of Gandhi, has been leveraged by media to recreate an image of the pre-independence struggle. The media campaign has struck a chord in the heart of every Indian, reminding them it’s their right to take their country back. One more time.

(The photo is by vm2827 of New Delhi, India via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.  To see one of the videos from the successful social media campaign, please check below.)

About throughmyprism

Graduate student at American University
This entry was posted in Corruption, Facebook, India, Social Media, Transparency International, Twitter, YouTube and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Anna Hazare: Mahatma-ization by Social Media in India

  1. thejohnjeff says:

    Swati,

    The mention of Indian media’s comparison of Anna Hazare to Mahatma Gandhi reminded me of an NPR article I read about the use of images of deceased leaders to promote a political or social cause. This one in particular the recent presidential election in Argentina. http://www.npr.org/2011/10/22/141610465/voting-for-the-dead-in-argentina

  2. Swati says:

    Hi Jeff,

    You make an interesting observation. In the case of Anna Hazare, the physical likeness and the nature of the revolution more so than use of images or photographs led to the comparison with Mahatma Gandhi. However, just like politicians in Argentina , Indian politicians and parties at times like to identify themselves with leaders of the stature of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru and their ideologies. Perhaps just to evoke loyalty from a nostalgic public!

  3. gseger says:

    Swati,
    This is a very interesting piece. I lived in Kenya for 2 1/2 years and I saw corruption on a daily basis, in fact Kenya rank 154 least corrupt on the list. It also has a very small Internet penetration rate; I think it is becoming increasing obvious how the Internet is being used as a tool for political and social dissent. Perhaps greater access to the Internet will create greater transparency in corrupt governments.

  4. Thank you for your comment. Yes, India still suffers from low internet penetration and broadband speed. With the right infrastructure, social media and other internet tools would gain ground in creating dialogue and change in countries such as ours.

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