India’s Rise Against Corruption A View Beyond Anna Hazare
As hundreds of thousands from 1.2 billion-strong India take to the streets in support of the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption tirade in different parts of the country, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find an end in this tangled web to descramble both the emerging message(s) and a solution to a situation that has exposed not only the government, the UPA, but also the entire political class for its political bankruptcy and sensitivity to people. Beginning with the demand of a select few masquerading as ‘civil society’, one of the most sanctimonious and indeterminate phenomena and concepts of our time, to create the office of Lokpal (ombudsman) at national level, then their coming up with a Jan Lokpal Bill (People’s Lokpal Bill?) draft that they wanted the Parliament of India to pass without any discussion or delay, to a comical show by yoga entrepreneur Ramdev, to the threat of fast and avoidable and totally ill-conceived arrest of Anna Hazare, to the surge of people in support across the country, the situation, the event and the questions it inheres, have emerged as the most eventful perplexity of our time.
While Team Anna (TA) has stuck to its firm stand, attempting to enlarge Anna to India while dictating terms to a lumbering lame duck government, the Prime Minister and his government, political parties and their political leadership have all gone missing, opening up a range of questions on Indian polity and society that have no easy answers for now. A view beyond the ‘Jan’ Lokpal Bill too is only in the realm of conjectures that are hard to surmise for now.
Is it a social movement? If at all, what is its base (some Dalit leaders are questioning the absence of the Dalits)? Why have so many people joined in with the slogan ‘I am Anna’? Are they only urban middle classes, or ‘upwardly mobile’ middle class? Who is providing food for thought and, more than that, who are the people meeting the need and thought for ‘food’ generously being distributed? How should parliamentary democracy and its norms that are being so strongly being challenged meet this new phenomenon for now and for the future of itself and that of constitutionalism in India? Have the Indian parliamentarians cutting across party lines been sanguine about the parliamentary democracy they operate, or have they become part of an avoidable crisis? Political parties and political leadership, which build a bridge between substantive and procedural democracies, have not been visible during this crisis; are we witnessing the demise of the era of party politics that the national movement built and which has been transforming since the beginning of the 1990s? Whether or not this is true, is there an alternative emerging to responding to this rising new era in Indian society and politics?
Would creation of a Lokpal be a substantive beginning in eradicating corruption, even if it does not eradicate corruption? Is corruption only a phenomenon generated by and afflicting the politico-bureaucratic system in the country, or is it a societal phenomenon emanating from society that has not unburdened itself from the mindset of privileges, which is complicating even the rise of the leadership of the underprivileged under the dark shadow of corruption? Is ‘Annagiri’ driven by a holier-than-thou select few with methods that borders arrogant coercion the answer, or is it really a substantive civil society phenomenon? Did Mahatma Gandhi ever employ such method against the British with even a fraction of arrogance that has been on display on byte-hungry electronic media?
I dare not pretend to answer all these fit-for-a-thesis questions in a short analysis here. However, I must begin by underlining Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘ends and means’ principle for both Anna and his team (we do not know who is wagging whom) and the government led by the party that draws its legacy from the Indian National Congress that was founded on December 28, 1885 in Bombay and which invented new methods of ahinsa, satyagrah and civil disobedience since Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi came to the forefront of the national movement after his return from South Africa in 1916. If eradication of corruption in a vast and complex country such as India is the aim (or ‘end’) of the ‘Team Anna’ (appears a funny coinage on the lines of ‘Team India’ for the Indian cricket team), then why do they think that the answer lies only in a Leviathan of a Lokpal, which funnily they call ‘Jan’ Lokpal, as they conceive it?
True, they have picked up a symbol from a remote village (Ralegan Siddhi) of Maharashtra, who is credited with immense social transformation in the poverty-stricken village with his single-minded and rare dedication to the cause, but aside from Gandhian khadi outfit and his undertaking fasts in compelling corrupt and sloth bureaucracy (could hardly have employed the methods he employed with his fellow villagers), his means have been far from Gandhian, neither in his village, nor in this case. Since he goes on record professing that the corrupt should be hanged and endorsing chopping off hands of criminals as advocated by Shivaji (interview in Headlines Today http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/voices/spare-us-the-gandhian-halo#.TlM62jiAz5o.facebook). Thus, despite triggering the imagination of a large cross section of society that is thronging the Ramlila maidan in Delhi and has come out in hordes in different parts of the country with slogans, placards and candles to the cause of a corruption-free India since his ill-conceived arrest and other avoidable strong arm tactics of the government, the arrogance with which Anna and his team have been operating is far from Gandhian and appears driven by quest for personal glory.
India has not seen an uprising of this kind and scale since the Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement in 1974-75. Significantly, the JP movement drew inspiration from the Nav Nirman Movement (1974) in Gujarat. Despite this movement triggered and spearheaded by students compelling resignation of the Chimanbhai Patel-led Congress government and dissolution of the Assembly, but it had no effect on arresting corruption, because the value system of even the young generation was no different from the politicians they were combating. And, Chimanbhai returned to power in 1990 with the support of the BJP!
The JP movement too focused on corruption in Bihar, resulting in the resignation of the Abdul Ghafoor-led government in Bihar. It is difficult to surmise whether emergency and eventual collapse of the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government had taken place but for the Allahabad High Court judgment unseating her from Rae Bareli, but the eventual result shook the foundations of the Congress system before its eventual collapse in the 1990s. Notably, not only the capture of the alternative space in Indian politics by the non-Congress politics proved eternally ephemeral, JP’s generals in the long run became conduits and active players in corruption game rather than a source of its elimination. Not only those of us who have witnessed the churning of the JP’s movement and horrors of the emergency, but also the informed youngsters who have read about it, would know that popular support to these movements was spontaneous and it focused on systemic corruption, in each case against a Congress government, which is the case now too. The Assam movement in the 1980s too, among other things raised the issue of corruption, threw up a youth alternative also, but soon enough corruption charges flew thick and fast. Rajiv Gandhi’s close political ally V.P. Singh raised a banner of revolt in 1988 over corruption in high places and defeated him, rather than win, the ninth general election in 1989, but had to fall back on the same ex-JP lieutenants, who did not take him beyond eleven months. Rather than pushing cynicism, I am adding a word of caution; for despite the flag waving in the times of electronic media, which was absent those days, the root of corruption in society is deeper than we are prepared to accept. And, this must be tackled along side systemic corruption.
The image of corruption in the past couple of years, since the UPA-II’s convincing victory in the fifteenth general election, is in terms of large scams of hundreds and thousands of crores in which prominent politicians of the ruling coalitions have been involved 2G and the CWG being the latest ones. Obviously, most of it are carry-overs since 2004. No wonder, a clean image Prime Minister, an asset to start with, has become a lame duck liability, unable to face up to the challenge either administratively or politically. The journey of corruption in India since 1950s and 1960s to scam, an American gambling slang of 1960s indicating large scale swindling of money, is significant. Obviously, though Chanakya’s take on corruption that the king’s ministers and officials taste it anyway as fish in water makes it modern sense a phenomenon of politics and administration. But Montesquieu reflection that ‘the corruption of each government begins almost always with the corruption of its principles…’ is extendable in the social arena too, though the government takes the lead. Thus, both institutionally and in terms of movement, it needs to be extended to society as well.
Obviously, any version of the office of ombudsman we take, societal base too has to be tackled, which really is a concern that could be tackled with social movement. At the moment there is contestation, which in general indicates vibrant nature of Indian democracy, between two versions of the Lokpal Bill, with several other versions coming up as negotiating points. The government version, which came up as a response to the first stage of the movement, charged as a weak bill even by the opposition, excludes Prime Minister, the Judiciary and the lower bureaucracy from the ambit of the Lokpal. The method of selection, scope of the office as well as removal of an incompetent/corrupt incumbent from the office are also points of contestations. The government has indeed offered a limited role for the office of the Lokpal. The design could have been based on a wider consultation within the Parliament, as such issues should be conventionally kept in multi-partisan realm by any government both for effectiveness and avoiding finger-pointing. The Jan Lokpal I find it a funny coinage because both Jan and Lok mean people Bill errs on the side of enthusiasm and virtuosity, i.e., everything is wrong with the political system and the people who run it, hence create an ultra sanctimonious institution, above even the constitution. There is acute problem with this formulation. At the top of it, this draft created by even a smaller group of persons is being forced down the country’s throat by the team of fasting Anna. Though theoretically the government is at least elected, there is no democratic process in the creation of this draft by TA, a surge of people in support notwithstanding. I would also like to assert that anyone seeking to create a new institution, must respect institutions; and TA does not inspire that confidence.
But why are so many people pouring out and sustaining the TA’s campaign. First, the government has been just stupid and short-sighted, tendencies that do not end and have further caused a crisis of confidence. Second, there are strong feelings amongst the people both against the systemic corruption and avoidable strong arm tactics of the government. The exposures in the past couple of years and smug reactions of the government and the Congress party may have just created the lava that erupted at Anna’s arrest. Third, the popular lack of confidence extends to the entire political class. Finally, I would rather not hazard a guess on concealed support.
The Indian system still provides a way out. Both the parties must climb down from their adamant positions. The government should respect the people’s sentiments and TA should respect constitutional government. Let both, as well as other alternative versions, be given to a non-partisan committee of experts with a mandate to seek views from across the country. A smaller committee of jurists should then draft a Bill. This Bill could then be presented to a joint session of Parliament specially convened for this purpose soon enough, to be opened with a Presidential message. A Bill thus created with the widest possible consultation and put through a democratic process could then become the law the country is yearning for with political and parliamentary unanimity.
By Ajay K Mehra