The Corruption Carnival

27 09 2011

The Anna Hazare fronted anti-corruption movement has been successful in pushing the locus of Indian politics to the right. Will it also succeed in defeating the Congress led United Progressive Alliance in the next general elections and putting the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh backed Bharatiya Janata Party into power? That remains an open question.

What we witness in India today in the form of an anti-corruption movement is nothing short of a “corruption carnival” but one where, in the guise of a raucous celebration of democracy, there has been a concerted attempt where the world has been turned upside down at various levels.

Before we get to that, it is important to recognise that there is a strong, and growing, undercurrent of anger against the exposure of corruption in and around the Congress led United Progressive Alliance government ruling from New Delhi. In the two years since it was returned to power, exposes of massive corruption have occurred with remarkable regularity involving top political leaders and the government is seen to be evasive and reluctant in taking action against the guilty. Their complicity in corruption and lack of initiative to combat it, along with the government’s inability to curtail price rise, has slowly built up popular anger to a point where all it needed was a well timed spark to explode. This was provided by an unknown (to most urban India) man from rural Maharashtra – Anna Hazare – who claimed a pure and puritanical Gandhian legacy and promised a universal antidote to a problem which was worrying all.

However, the first thing which strikes an observer as topsy-turvy about the anti-corruption movement is that its most vocal advocates and volunteers come from precisely those social backgrounds which have benefitted most from corruption. This is the urban middle class who are the prime beneficiaries of tax evasion, bribery (as service providers and government functionaries), commissions and cuts from contracts and projects undertaken (as businessmen and traders) and of nepotism and personal influence exercised through a network of “people like us”.

The second upside-down aspect of the anti-corruption movement is that it proposes a massive increase in bureaucracy and regulation for a problem which thrives on this very thing – excessive bureaucracy and regulation. The Lok Pal institution, as proposed by the smartly branded “Team Anna”, is a gargantuan bureaucracy of hundreds, if not thousands of officers, spread out all over the country. Not only is this Lok Pal institution proposed to investigate complaints, it will also have the power to prosecute, judge its own prosecution and pass sentence on the accused. It will not only sit over the executive, including the prime minister, but will also look into complaints against members of the judiciary and parliamentarians thus being the overlord of the legislature, judiciary and executive.

Such a proposal, as will be evident, is a recipe for totalitarianism and, at best, will lead to a constitutional logjam. It does away with the numerous checks and balances which define the Constitution and subverts parliamentary institutions. Members of parliament can also be hauled up before this Lok Pal for specific speeches given and votes cast inside the house. It can investigate, stop and prosecute any policy and its implementors if it finds – in its different roles as cop, prosecutor, judge and executor – any of them to be “corrupt”. Given that corruption has not been defined – is it about theft of public money, is it about abuse of power and if so whether it is about abuse of state power alone or also power which comes out of social hierarchies and economic inequalities, is it also about nepotism and influence, and finally, does it cover the corruption of the private sector or is it only about government institutions – it is easy to see that such vast, unchecked and undefined power that will accrue to the Lok Pal will be the death of democracy, even in the limited, imperfect form it is practiced in the socialist, secular republic of India.

Those who have drafted this bill have forgotten that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. What really takes the cake is that this proposal has been drafted by a team which includes top Supreme Court lawyers. The “Jan” (People’s) Lok Pal bill should never be allowed to become the law of the land. It is a cure which, perhaps, is worse than the disease.

This brings us to the third anomalous aspect of the entire anti-corruption movement in India at present. Why has such an apparently anti-democratic idea gained such spontaneous popularity? The answer to this is somewhat complex but there is clearly mass anger against the series of corruption scandals which have rocked the present government. Not only has the amount of money involved been unprecedentedly massive, it has tarred the top levels of the government with prima facie proof of wrongdoing.

But apart from this, there have been a few other “firsts” in the unfolding of these corruption cases. For the first time the role of the private sector and corporates has come under the spotlight. Big telecom firms linked to some of the biggest corporate houses of India – Reliance, Tata, Unitech among others – have been shown to be prima facie guilty of aiding and abetting corruption. Also, for the first time the media – both television as well as print – have been shown to be infested with corrupt practices and personnel and on the pay of private, vested interests. Thus for the first time, corruption has been shown to be not the preserve of the “politician” but something which is much more widespread.

The massive agitation launched for the “Jan” Lok Pal, is, in my opinion, a counter strategy of these sections to deflect the attention which had started coming on them in the unravelling of corruption in the past one year. Anna Hazare himself is a person who gained fame for successfully mobilising his village in the dry parts of Maharashtra to undertake water conservation methods and thus turn it into a green, agriculturally sustainable place. This has been a commendable effort, but has come along with a fairly conservative social and political practice. Violations of laid down moral codes are punished by public flogging, elections are not allowed and caste and gender hierarchies are preserved and valourised, though abuses ameliorated. Hazare has been well known among water activists and environmentalists for some time and had also taken up some movements against corruption in his home state, but his launch on the national stage was sudden and appears well planned.

He started his first public “fast unto death” days after India’s cricket world cup victory and ended it just when the Indian Premier League was about to commence, thus ensuring maximum media coverage and public attention. This “movement” managed to ride the “nationalistic” high already prepared by the world cup win and used the media, particularly television to full, and professional, effect. Suddenly, out of the blue, Anna Hazare, with a demand none really knew anything about but which promised to bring the corrupt to book, had become a national figure and his anti-corruption movement had become “breaking news” on television on steroids.

This first fast was so well planned and executed that it beggars belief that it was – the timing, the place, the media coverage, the demand, the leaders, etc – all spontaneous and coincidental. There is no way that one can prove that the large corporate, the media and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have played a direct role in manufacturing this particular anti-corruption movement, other than conjecture.

However, there are some points which are fairly incontrovertible.

One, without any organisation this “movement” has reached all over the country thanks to saturation coverage by the media.

Two, by focussing only on government and politicians it has successfully diverted the glare away from corporate and media corruption which had become difficult to deny till very recently.

Three, by raising an issue which hurts the poor more than anyone else it has managed to mobilise sections of the “great unwashed”, specially in the urban areas, in its support. On the other hand, by keeping the focus on only government and politicians, by keeping the definition of corruption vague and by proposing a monstrosity of a Lok Pal, it also ensures that corporate and media corruption remain untouched, while democratic institutions — which have been the only, if imperfect, checks on these two — are weakened.

Four, by targeting the Congress led government and pushing it into a corner, it has opened up space for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its electoral front, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to come out of its political marginalisation. By bringing singular focus on the Congress led government at the Centre, it has eased the pressure on the BJP governments, so much so that disgraced former chief minister of Karnataka, the RSS’ blue eyed boy – YS Yeddyurappa – actually sat on a hunger strike in support of Anna Hazare.

This is not to say that the Congress is not corrupt, or even less so. But what Anna Hazare has so well managed is to make only the politicians and government of the Congress the exclusive focus of the anti-corruption “movement”. It is clear who the beneficiaries of this deft move are.

It is also worthwhile keeping in mind the close association of the RSS and its affiliates with the first episode of Anna Hazare’s fast, when saffron symbolism infused the entire spectacle and top RSS leaders shared the dias with him. This display of RSS proximity was quickly reduced once it became obvious that it was politically counterproductive and would expose the underlying politics of Anna sometimes-Gandhi-sometimes-Shivaji Hazare. The RSS then latched on to the hirsute Baba Ramdev to carry on a parallel agitation to Hazare’s, but Ramdev was easily checkmated by the Congress and its government. It is difficult to say how closely is the second episode of Hazare’s fast linked with the RSS, but, the consequences are clearly beneficial to them, among others.

Finally, it has also caught the left and progressive forces on a sticky wicket as they remain unsure about how and what to do. Coming after a series of self-goals and dead-ends, it has shown the left to be even more irrelevant than it actually is. (Two points which should not be mistaken; one, I refer to all parties, tendencies and intellectual/political positions on the left and two, I do not mean to suggest that the left has become irrelevant, rather that their mistakes of strategy and tactics and the direction of this particular movement make them appear largely so.) This irrelevance will not vanish if, by some herculean effort the left does manage to attach itself to the Anna movement, but would only further highlight this. At this stage, there is no option left for the left but to cut their losses. Unfortunately, the left does not know how to do this.

If one considers all these points, it becomes evident that this anti-corruption “movement” has been the first successful attempt, after 2002’s Gujarat killings, to push the locus of Indian politics to the right. The first results of this can be seen in Narendra Modi’s three day coming out party, organised recently in the form of a gala three day fast. It remains to be seen whether the organised right reaps electoral benefits from this “anti-corruption” movement or even manages to depose the UPA government before it finishes its term. Given the cold relations of the Congress with the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham and the Nationalist Congress Party, the UPA’s parliamentary position is open to attack and a strong mass movement, such as this one is building up to, can provide the required push. Even if the government does not fall mid-term, the idea is to make its re-election near impossible.

However, the anti-corruption movement has not yet managed to hurt the top political leadership of the Congress – Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, or even Pranab Mukherjee, A K Anthony and P Chidambaram. The recent attack on Chidambaram and the attempt to tar Manmohan Singh too with the corruption charge should be seen in this context. (It needs to be kept in mind that the attack on Chidambaram may also have something to do with the fact that under his charge the Ministry of Home Affairs is, for the first time, pursuing investigations into Hindtuva terror charges with a single-mindedness which is unprecedented in independent India. The political consequences of the RSS being shown to be guilty of complicity with or, worse, planning terror attacks in India are huge and may be a setback for the fascists which they may not recover from.)

Compared to the past two anti-corruption movements which were successful – JP’s movement in the 1970s and VP Singh’s in the 1980s – where Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were, respectively, targeted with strong prima facie evidence of wrongdoing, there has been nothing yet on the top political or government leadership of the UPA. Combined with the fact that the various social legislations of the UPA are having some beneficial effect (much less than what they should but not negligible either) and depending on the ability of Chidambaram’s ministry in proving RSS links to terror, it appears that Anna Hazare’s movement may perhaps not succeed finally. Whether this assessment is correct or not, time and the UPA government’s incompetence and venality will tell.




5 responses

28 09 2011

Thanks Aniket.
“…who claimed a pure and puritanical Gandhian legacy a…”
The operative word is “claimed”.
Unfortunately most of Indian and global media has swallowed it whole.
What kind of Gandhian is he who calls for people to be hung on street corners? And no, he was NOT being misquoted. He’s on youtube defending the call.

29 09 2011
Mohan Rao

Liked your piece Aniket. Wish you had also written that Mr. Anna Hazare supports the implementation of a coercive family planning programme – that of course has enormous appeal to the middle classes. He also forbids any non-vegetarian food in his village – and gets away with it. And movies.Hindu Khomeini? But Khomeini was viscerally anti-imperialist that Mr. Anna Hazare is not.

1 10 2011
Sankar Ray

I am neither with Anna Hazare nor with his critics although I share with them some of their views. But I don’t understand why the nefarious role of the IAS community – the greatest threat to the democratic polity after the corporates. Overwhelming majority of IAS officers who were punished were not by the disciplinary apex for IAS but probe by the income-tax authorities, enforcement department etc. I can give scores of examples of how iAS biggies were protected. Take B K Goswami as the former Tea Board chairman. He came back from a foreign trip and submitted a bill for expenses incurred. The financial adviser and chief accounts officer belonging to the IA &AS pointed out that a part of those expenses was not permissible. The next day Goswami locked the chamber of FA & CAO and got him transferred. I wrote it in Himal Southasian, but corporate reporters who used to cover tea never reported this. In West Bengal, during Left Front regime how corrupt and unprincipled IAS biggies established a bonhomie with the ministers – not CPI(M) alone. Some of you may disagree with me, this caused the erosion of CPI(M) which even ceased to be a social democratic party as a result.

7 10 2011
A Rose Cellar


Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) supremo Mohan Bhagwat has admitted that the RSS had actively participated in the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption agitation earlier this year.
Addressing swayamsevaks during the customary Vijayadashami function in Nagpur on Thursday, he said, “We actively participate in such agitations which are in the interest of the nation and the people in particular. It was credible people who led the movement and the frustrating conditions exploded into massive support for the recent success of this agitation.”

He also ridiculed those who objected to the chanting of Vande Mataram and Bharatmata Ki Jai at the agitation in Delhi. “Rejecting symbols of patriotism such as Vande Mataram and Bharatmata Ki Jai to gain cheap popularity can never be tolerated in any national movement,” he said.

On the outcome of the Hazare-led agitation, the RSS chief said, “The government had to cave in to popular pressure but total success is still not in sight. We will have to bring fundamental changes in the very system that breeds corruption.”

Bhagwat said the return of black money from foreign banks, effective legislation against corruption and its implementation without any outside influence, and bringing the prime minister and other top government functionaries within the ambit of the anti-graft law have become issues which give vent to the feelings of the people.
Bhagwat also lashed out at the Congress-led UPA government for the proposed bill to check communal violence, dubbing it as anti-constitutional and anti-democracy.

22 12 2011
A Rose Cellar

a comment on the food security bill and jean dreze:

jean, i have followed your writings for many years. you have to understand one thing—the indian state is anti-poor and anti-environment. that is why, all policies for the poor, for example, do not have a very clear-cut aim i.e., to eradicate hunger and poverty. in other words, the state’s priorities are not distorted; there are no priorities. everything is ad hoc; nothing works properly and sytematically. the rich and privileged are living in disneyland—they think poverty is not going to affect them; it will. urban guerrilla warfare is next on the cards…
income inequality in the last 20 years has increased—there is enough data on this. now, to expect that there will be no violence is to live in cloud cuckooland. i must state quite categorically that i am against maoist violence because that cannot eradicate poverty and hunger. moreover, murderous intervention in polity is to be opposed on many other grounds. i am simply explaining the political economy of violence in tribal areas—where only the poor get killed. people who are opposing this bill understand nothing about india; more importantly, they lack ethical consciousness, which recognizes others’ entitlement and empowerment as simultaneous processes that are inseparable from the existence of those who oppose egalitarian measures.

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