Since his arrest on Tuesday, no shortage of people have stepped forward with a view on Anna Hazare.

The ruling Congress party painted him as an undercover Maoist rebel trying to destabilise India. His devotees prefer to identify him as a new Mahatma Gandhi.

But those who know him best remember him as the man who breathed new life into a broken-down Indian village, devastated by years of drought and taken over by illegal local liquor brewers.

The restoration of Ralegan Siddhi, in Maharashtra state, western India – described as a “model village” by the World Bank after a series of water conservation projects regenerated the rural economy – is what gave Mr Hazare the credibility to challenge corrupt officials during his 45 years as a social activist.

At first sight, Ralegan Siddhi looks like any other Indian village. Elderly women work the fields, children run around having fun. On closer inspection, the differences are striking. There is no rubbish lying around; there are no bars; walls do not have red stains of pan (a stimulant paste that people spit out after chewing); and there are plenty of trees.

Although Mr Hazare eschewed any formal political roles in his village, he quickly rose as a local leader when he returned home in 1975 after a career as an army driver. He used his savings to build a new Hindu temple - a donation that won him popularity and helped him gain a grip on village politics, says Pattahri Ramachandra, a 63-year-old villager. “It was the first time ever that a man had done something for the entire community,” he says.

It was in the temple that Mr Hazare persuaded villagers to swear not to consume alcohol, smoke or cut trees, villagers say. The temple also served as a school to teach farmers to use irrigation.

Mr Hazare was not controversy-free. The social activist has been criticised for his hardline Hindu views. His praise for Hindu nationalist political leaders has undermined the secular nature of his progressive actions, say some leftwing activists. Haima Deshpande, a journalist for Open Magazine, says in an article entitled ‘Not your textbook saint’ that comparisons between Mr Hazare and his Gandhian political ideal are ill-conceived. “Gandhi was sincerely committed to all forms of non-violence. Hazare has not been averse to using violence for what he considers valid reason,” writes Ms Deshpande.

Some of the strong medicine that Mr Hazare dealt out in Ralegan Siddhi is legendary. In his early years of social reform, he made a name for himself for tying people who disobeyed the alcohol ban to trees. Villagers confirm the story, with a sense of pride.

“Before Anna came here this village only produced poverty and alcohol,” says Nanubai Ugale, a 61-year-old attending a protest outside the temple on Thursday. “Anna turned things around his way, but it worked.”

Mr Hazare’s unorthodox ways will raise more questions as he takes on India’s powerful government. Critics question his right to dictate the terms of new anti-corruption laws when he and his closest aides are not elected officials. Others argue that village successes give him no pedigree for the national stage, and that he has undeclared backers with deep pockets.

The government has bridled at his use of the hunger strike – a weapon used against a former colonial power – against legitimate representatives. But, as controversial as his methods may be in seeking to rid India of corruption, the model of rural development that he advocates is not in doubt.

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