People’s visceral antipathy

The everyday experience of the average citizen is that he faces the “pay up the bribe or wait forever/face-the-music” situations at every turn. In this milieu of an exasperated and beaten citizenry, it is surprising that an Anna Hazare has taken so long to emerge. In any event, the common man’s visceral antipathy towards the petty government officials conflated with the mega-scandals engineered by those in the highest echelons of government he hears about, is powering the Jan Lokpal Movement. Aiming to end the entrenched system of  extortion, commission-mongering, and plunder of public monies, and the nexus between rent-seeking politicians and armies of facilitator officials, it has drawn the masses – and not just the middle class – who have cottoned on to Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption cause, at a minimum, to vent their anger, frustration, and disgust.

The Jan Lokpal Movement has gained traction, it must be noted, despite considerable criticism by, among others, certain Dalit intellectuals who have damned it as an upper caste phenomenon, presumably because they believe Dalits neither face corruption nor suffer its impact, and the two Roys — Arundhati, the “Cadillac Communist” who, true to her mischievous tendencies, has sniffed out a conspiracy involving the RSS and the corporates she claims is propelling this Movement, and the other, Aruna, whose alternative draft Bill is proving a god send for a beleaguered Manmohan Singh government, which is clutching at straws to save face and deny Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal Bill a free run in Parliament.

If the Dalit critics and Arundhati are too outré to merit serious attention, the third, Establishment, view represented by Aruna Roy and seconded by eminent lawyers and newspaper editors, is offering a contest. Anna Hazare’s demand that his draft bypass “parliamentary due process” and be sent directly to Parliament for debate amounts, this view maintains, to making laws on the street.  But parliamentary convention does not bar side-stepping the Standing Committee of Parliament in extraordinary circumstances. The problem for the government is that the size of the crowds rallying round the Anna banner, as a measure of the public support for the Jan Lokpal Bill, is only increasing and, worse, fasting is telling on Anna Hazare’s health. In this context, the government responded not with conciliatory measures but brinksmanship. While agreeing to have the Standing Committee of Parliament consider the Jan Lokpal draft, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made it clear he wouldn’t fast-track its passage through to parliamentary discussion around the August 30 deadline announced by Anna Hazare. Clearly, the government hoped that Team Anna’s resolve to stay put will erode for fear of Anna’s health status plummeting before insurmountable public pressure compels the government and Parliament to acquiesce in a stronger Lokpal Bill than the Congress party would prefer. This is a dangerous political game Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his advisers have embarked upon. His government will pay dearly for it should things go wrong, as they well might.

It is apparent the Establishment, for obvious reasons, is loath to accept a powerful Lokpal institution, notwithstanding the quite astounding economic benefits that could accrue to the country from a corruption free system. According to a detailed calculation by Ashish Puntambekar, Project Designer of the (private sector venture) Indian Education Megaproject, the windfall to the country from a transparent investment regime will triple Foreign Direct Investment to $ 75 billion by 2016 and “catalyze” $1.7 trillion in infrastructure funding. This, in turn, will have an investment multiplier effect on the Indian economy of $5.1 trillion by 2025, resulting in a three-fold increase in the  national Gross Domestic Product to $4.5 trillion within 15 years. One would have imagined that an economist Prime Minister trumpeting the need for 9% growth and fully aware of the stupendous economic gains from it, would lead the charge on obtaining an unsparing and comprehensively cleansing-capable Lokpal Bill. Instead, Manmohan Singh seems determined to de-fang Hazare’s draft by insisting it run the gauntlet of the Standing Committee, where it will be subjected to the tender ministrations of its members, among them paragons of incorruptibility such as Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh.

That the nominated Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, more a party apparatchik than economist,  wants a weak and pliable Lokpal and will do whatever is necessary to get one, points to the extraordinarily huge stake in terms of pelf and patronage the Congress party in particular and the political class in general have relied on to consolidate their hold on power.  Whence its own weak Bill crafted by Kapil Sibal and P Chidambaram based on the principle that bureaucrats are answerable only to the government. Thus, the lower bureaucracy that the people most come in contact with on a daily basis, for example, is out of its ambit. Other designed weaknesses in this Bill ensure that for the Bribe-takers Inc at local, state and central government levels, it is business-as-usual.

An altogether different principle is the foundational premise for the Right to Public Service Act 2011 promulgated by the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar – a piece of legislation based on a similar law earlier implemented by the Bharatiya Janata party government in Madhya Pradesh. These innovative anti-corruption laws expressly make government servants accountable to the people and hold them responsible for non-delivery or delayed delivery of designated government services, a principle encompassed in Team Anna demand for a people’s charter from each central government Ministry. Is it just coincidence that the main opposition National Democratic Alliance governments in both these states have alighted on such novel schemes to curb corruption even as Congress party governments at the centre and in various states seem bereft of bright ideas?

Whatever the immediate prospects of Hazare’s Jan Lokpal Bill, the fact is the Indian people have reached the limits of tolerance for corruption, and a genuinely independent and powerful Lokpal exclusively controlling the Central Vigilance Commission and the graft investigation cell of the Central Bureau of Investigation, cannot long be postponed. But there’s one aspect of Anna Hazare’s agenda that’s troubling.  Buoyed by the unexpectedly large and sustained  country-wide public  support for his campaign, he has talked of extending his fight against corruption to also reforming the agricultural and tribal land acquisition norms he claims exclusively benefit industrialists, and righting the educational system he avers is short-changing children, etc. While corruption is a universal affliction prompting mass activism, the other issues have limited general appeal and, if conjoined to his successful anti-corruption actions, may end up running the former into the ground and blunting the latter.

[Published in ‘The New Indian Express’, Aug 26, 2011, at http://expressbuzz/op-ed/opinion/people’s-visceral-antipathy/307600.html


About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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