Itna Sannata Kyon Hai? (Why This Silence?)
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 16 August 2012
Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 2012. All Rights Reserved.
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Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.
I am writing this on the day after Independence Day in India in the year 2012.
Today, something very inspiring and earth-shaking, something that could positively transform the nation DID NOT HAPPEN.
Why, you might ask. Should some such thing have happened?
Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe I liked some things that happened one year so much that I started to hope they would happen every year. Note to self – foolish Kumar, stop expecting wonderful things every year. Have you forgotten that nice Sanskrit proverb you learnt in school:
शैले शैले न माणिक्यं, मौक्तिकं न गजे गजे
जने जने न सौजन्यं, चन्दनं न वने वने
Meaning, “Every mountain doesn’t contain rubies; every elephant’s head doesn’t contain pearls (a mythical belief); every person is not a saint; and every forest doesn’t contain sandalwood.” Likewise, every Independence Day does not forebode good events.
What am I going on about? Just that this same day, last year, was one of the most dramatic days in India that I had the privilege of experiencing. It was a historic date for India, and it will remain significant in my mind, for I witnessed on that day something I had never witnessed all my years growing up in India. It was a day when tens of thousands of Indians in each major city and town spontaneously hit the streets to support an old, frail man who had decided to go on fast to protest the mind-boggling amount of corruption in India and to demand that something concrete be done to end this disease in India.
The person who affected millions of Indians by his example, and even moved lakhs of Indians to agitate, by marching on the streets, writing to newspapers, and sharing via electronic social media, is an old soldier who has fought for India on the battlefield and off it. His name is Anna Hazare.
Why were those marches special? Simply because, in the India I had seen since I was old enough to see and remember things, ordinary Indians never agitated for anything. You couldn’t afford much, but you never complained. It might take a few years to get a telephone connection (unless you had connections yourself); you had to pull strings to get a gas connection at your home; owning a car was a dream out of reach for anyone; even going on a flight was a once-in-a-lifetime event, to be discussed in great detail with anyone who cared to listen (usually with awe); but in the middle of all this scarcity, no one bothered to ever protest. The only protests I ever recall seeing were organized political protests, which anyway we all knew didn’t involve ordinary people. These are spectacles organized by political parties, using mercenaries, often for ends that the ordinary people couldn’t care less about. Few people cared then, or care today, about politically-orchestrated strikes or bandhs that bring life to a standstill and do no good for the common man or woman.
So it was a surprise for me to see people, most of whom had never gone on a protest march (including yours truly) go on candlelight vigils in support of Anna Hazare and his anti-corruption Lokpal bill.
Gone and Forgotten
As I think back on those incredible days, and I think of the reality of Anna Hazare and his organization today, when hardly anyone bothers to hear or read what they think about any issue, I have to ask: What happened? Where did those millions, who stood glued to their TV sets to look at the saint of Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Grounds last year, vanish? Why, when Anna tried to go on fast in Mumbai last December, did only about 5000 people come to see him, as opposed to lakhs who came to see him every day at Ramlila Maidan in August? Why, when Kejriwal and Anna appear today on some TV channel to talk about why they think the government is a bunch of hypocrites, do I see my friend changing the channel?
The deafening silence with regard to the same movement now reminds me of that famous scene from the Hindi movie “Sholay,” in which a young boy of a village is brutally butchered by dacoits, and the whole village gathers around to see who the dead boy is, and starts talking. Suddenly, the boy’s father, an old, blind, Muslim gentleman, played by AK Hangal, in probably the most memorable role of his life, comes across the crowd as he is walking towards his evening prayers. He cannot see his son or hear enough to know that people were talking about his son, but notices that everyone suddenly falls silent at his approach, and so inquires, “Itna sannata kyon hai?” – Meaning, “Why this silence?” We might ask the same question today as we view the body of the movement against corruption in India lying prostrate on the ground.
But I am not here to write an obituary. I don’t believe the prostrate body I see before me is dead – only that it is incapacitated. I would like to see the body rise again, rejuvenated. This article is about what it needs to do to rise again and why it was incapacitated in the first place.
I have written extensively on Anna’s movement since last August (see my archived articles from August-October 2011 here) and I had high hopes that this movement would fructify into something truly positive for the nation. I have even created and sung songs in support of the movement (see here). Alas, that has not happened, and the movement has deteriorated to insignificance. In what follows, I try to analyze why and how this decline may have happened. But first we must understand why the people rose against corruption.
The Lokpal movement by Anna had its roots in decades of institutionalized corruption in India, much of it forced on the people, to the extent that people internalized what I call the principles of corruption:
1. For any government service, there is a bribe.
2. The amount of the bribe is proportional to:
a. The benefit you will gain on getting the service, and
b. The urgency with which you need the service.
3. Any mistake you make can be remedied by a bribe.
4. There is no absolute right or wrong in the world - everything is dependent on how much money you have.
5. Merit is a crutch for the poor. If you are rich, you don’t need merit, you just need a bribe – for everything – admission to school, a job, or a promotion.
6. Money is not the only currency for bribery. Exchanging favours is equally acceptable, especially when it involves friends and relatives (nepotism).
This was a philosophy which worked as long as people were hopeless because they believed that the only avenue of prosperity was the government. The socialist policies of India since Independence had ensured that private industry was still a marginal player in determining the fates of people.
All this changed with the forced liberalization of India, which removed many of the restrictions on private industry and allowed phenomena such as the IT boom to occur in India. This brought jobs, money, and a respect for merit to flourish in India. There were several conclusions from this culture, many of them in stark opposition to the principles of corruption outlined earlier:
1. One can earn a living through merit.
2. A job is not a right – it has to be earned.
3. Rewards and promotions are decided on the basis of performance alone.
4. Poor performance can and will be punished, regardless of your social or economic status.
The contrast between the culture of entitlement and slavery enshrined in the principles of corruption and the culture of performance and freedom enshrined in the above conclusions could not be sharper.
In this context, the idea that the Indian public would continue to silently suffer the indignity of corruption in daily life while realizing that in the professional sphere, one could excel on the basis of merit alone (at least in principle), is unthinkable. The same idea of meritocracy is also at the root of the sharpening conflict on casteism – after all, caste is another non-meritocratic system – you are born into your caste, you cannot earn a higher caste regardless of your merit, just as you cannot earn a job or a promotion regardless of your merit according to the maxims of corruption. Abraham Lincoln once, in a different context, expressed this kind of conflict very succinctly: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Added to this, in 2010 and 2011, the UPA government at the centre was rocked by a number of high-profile scandals involving billions of dollars, such as the Commonwealth Games Scandal, the 2G Spectrum Scandal, and the Adarsh Housing Scam. To remind people that corruption is not limited to one party, the country also saw the Bellary Mining Scam in Karnataka, a state ruled by the opposition BJP. People were increasingly coming to the opinion that this was a country ruled by robber barons, and public opinion was extremely hostile to the political leaders.
One of the main tools that enabled the aforesaid scams to come to light was the passage of the 2005 National Right to Information Act, which was passed after a long struggle by civil society activists. This act obligates the Government to release in the public domain most documents if a request for such documentation is made (with some exceptions, such as defense, national security, etc.) This landmark legislation has probably been the most important law that has been responsible for substantially improved transparency in India. It has also brought to light much of the malfeasance that has been happening for decades in the cloistered halls of government, and many of the backdoor and under-the-table deals that are part and parcel of the current Indian government system.
April 2011 and Team Anna
And so it was, that a group of socially-conscious individuals, with almost spotless credentials (and at that time that was certainly the universal perception) got together to demand an end to the disease that had been eating away at India for decades.
Let’s take a look at these bright personages:
· The Leader, Anna Hazare, a man with impeccable credentials. He had led several successful movements in Maharashtra campaigning against corruption. The man has no family, no wealth, lives in a temple in his village, sleeps on the floor – he is beyond corruption. Hazare had achieved fame through sustained work over a period of more than 30 years – first in transforming his native village, Ralegan Siddhi, from a poor, destitute, drought-prone and alcoholism-ridden place to India’s model village – work for which he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award. He had led movements for the removal of corrupt ministers in Maharashtra, and succeeded; forced the implementation of laws preventing the transfer of honest government officials and the overstay of corrupt officers; and spearheaded the implementation of the Right to Information Act in Maharashtra, among other things. Anna carried with him an enviable record of achievement, and a spotless reputation, along with a firebrand and uncompromising idealism.
· Arvind Kejriwal, a man who was an IIT graduate and later an IAS officer, but who left the lucrative job of a government tax officer to concentrate on social work. Kejriwal was one of the prime architects of the National RTI (Right To Information) Act, the first Federal freedom of information act in India. Kejriwal had received the Magsaysay Award for public service.
· Kiran Bedi, India’s first woman IPS officer, with a brilliant track record of service in various areas, including narcotics control and prison reform, who had received a Magsaysay Award for her work in recasting prisons as places of transformation.
· Prashant and Shanti Bhushan, renowned Supreme Court lawyers. Shanti Bhushan had successfully argued such landmark cases as the case for Mr. Raj Narain against Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1975 in which she was found guilty of election fraud. This was the famous case that led to Mrs. Gandhi declaring the emergency. Mr. Shanti Bhushan is also a former Union Law Minister. More relevant to the current topic, he and his son Prashant Bhushan led an important campaign for judicial accountability and for eliminating corruption in the judicial system. Prashant Bhushan himself had been at the frontline in campaigning against corruption and malpractice through his Center for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL), successfully arguing in the Supreme Court such important cases as the Neera Yadav (UP) corruption case, the Scorpene submarine deal corruption scam, and the 2G scam.
· Justice Santosh Hegde, the then-Lokayukta (state-level ombudsman) of Karnataka. Justice Hegde was a retired Supreme Court Judge and a former Solicitor-General of India who was appointed the first Karnataka Lokayukta. He took to his new task with great dedication and landed the BS Yeddyurappa government in a lot of trouble by exposing the Bellary mining scam involving the Reddy brothers who were key players in the Karnataka state government. Justice Hegde achieved distinction and the admiration of the Indian public for serving as an exemplary Lokayukta, the sort of model official that people in India were pining for after years of exploitation.
This was clearly one of the most impressive groups of people ever assembled in India for a common goal – a national ombudsman, the Lokpal, along with state ombudsmen, the Lokayuktas, and a national organization headed by the Lokpal working closely with similar state-level organizations led by the Lokayuktas to tackle cases of corruption at all levels of Indian society. This would be an organization which could bring any Government authority in India, who erred, to book – from the prime minister to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to the lowest peon in a rural government office who had the effrontery to demand a bribe.
In its ideal form, this is a very good idea. The idea that no one is above the law, be it a Prime Minister or a Chief Justice, is a very empowering thing for a populace used to being beaten into submission by every minion of every government. The thought that this demand was made by a person like Anna Hazare, whom most thought of as a second Gandhi, gave the movement and the demand for the Lokpal bill an added lustre.
Jantar Mantar and Ramlila
The India Against Corruption (IAC) organization, led by Anna, organized two fasts: first, in April, at Jantar Mantar; and then in August, at the Ramlila grounds. The Government convinced Anna Hazare to call off his April fast with a promise to implement a Lokpal bill along with the provision for State Lokayuktas and to carefully consider all the concerns that Team Anna had regarding these rather serious matters. However, in the ensuing months, talks between Team Anna and the Union Government broke down, with Anna Hazare accusing the government of trying to dilute the bill and pass a “toothless” bill. In response to what he saw as foot-dragging by the government, and in order to protest against what he considered inaction and apathy, Anna announced that he would again go on fast on August 16, 2011.
Remembering the dramatic effect on the people of Anna’s Jantar Mantar fast in April, the Government acted precipitously and arrested Anna on the morning of August 16, 2011, to prevent him from carrying out his fast. The net result, however, was just the opposite. Anna said that he would carry out his fast in the jail itself. Aided by some very good television publicity and a video caught on a mobile phone that Kiran Bedi had sneaked in, public opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of Anna against the government’s draconian decision to jail a person whose only offense had been to threaten to go on fast.
The UPA government backtracked as fast as it could, but the damage had been done. Public opinion, which was already at a boil, was further stoked by images of police arresting Anna Hazare on the morning of the 16th, which were being played round the clock on TV channels. Before the day was over, protests erupted spontaneously all over India to demand the release of Hazare. But Anna would not consent to even being released by the police unless the Government allowed him to fast publicly at Ramlila maidan. To avoid further loss of face, the Government accepted. The subsequent parade of Anna and his supporters from Tihar Jail to Ramlila grounds in a cavalcade seemed like a victory march to most Indians (see here).
Anna continued his fast that he had begun in Tihar Jail at Ramlila maidan, demanding that the Government implement Team Anna’s Jan Lokpal Bill in its entirety. The Government tried to assert its authority, but the net effect of the high drama created by Anna’s declining health due to the continuing fast at Ramlila led to a dramatic “resolution on the sense of the house” that was passed by Parliament to appease Anna and ask him to call off the fast (see here).
This was the high point for Team Anna. And that was on August 27, 2011.
In December 2011, Anna Hazare went on fast again, at the MMRDA grounds, in Mumbai, to campaign for his Jan Lokpal bill. This time, a total of about 5000 people came to see him in 2 days. Gone were the huge crowds who had thronged Ramlila grounds, who could not change the channel to watch anything other than Anna on TV.
So what happened between the end of August and December? Where did the millions of TV viewers and the lakhs of people crowding at Ramlila to get a glimpse of the second Gandhi go?
Before we can answer that, we need to first understand why Anna and IAC succeeded in the first place:
1. Indians love a selfless leader. The idea that one must be selfless is drilled into the psyche of every Hindu through the Gita, Hinduism’s most sacred book, through Krishna’s advice to Arjuna: “You have the right only to act; you do not have the right to claim the fruit of your actions.” Anna certainly appeared to most Indians then (and probably does now, too) as a selfless leader who only wanted his principle to succeed.
2. Most people conferred the same aura to the people around Anna. Again, this is, in large part, justifiable, even if a bit unrealistic. Most Indians have paid a bribe at some point or other in their life, so they value a person who can resist paying a bribe. The ability to resist the temptation to be dishonest is almost considered superhuman, as Pavan Varma puts it in his wonderful book, “Being Indian.”
3. People were impressed by the fact that Anna was genuinely willing to die for a principle, something that most of us would never even contemplate.
4. The sight of tens of thousands of people marching in the streets scared the Government and made them lose control. (see here for more on this.)
5. The people marching were ordinary, mostly middle-class people, unlike workers of any registered party – thus this was a GENUINE PEOPLE’s MOVEMENT. All Governments are afraid of that. Ask Hosni Mubarak. See also this article for a comparison of Anna’s movement and the Arab Spring.
6. Strong efforts by the Government’s media agents to try and discredit the movement failed (see this link for an example of the media bias against the movement).
It is important to understand that Anna rose several notches in most people’s estimation after the August 2011 event. Most Indians outside Maharashtra had not heard of Anna before April 2011; post August 2011, Anna was thought not just to be a leader of an anti-corruption movement, but a Mahatma, the Gandhi for this millennium.
Why IAC and Anna Failed
As astounding as the rise of Team was, even more astounding was its decline into obscurity and ridicule. These days, the Lokpal bill has clearly been put on the backburner by the Government. It is clear that, even if the Indian parliament passes a Lokpal bill, it will be even more “toothless” than the bill that was considered by them earlier. There are several reasons for this decline. Some are connected with specific events; some are related to flawed assumptions of the general public, which Team Anna never cared to correct as long as they benefited from those assumptions; some are related to cleverly managed smear campaigns by the Congress against Team Anna through its media agents; and some are related to carefully orchestrated foot-dragging by the Government. All of these could have been easily managed, had only Team Anna understood the essence for which people had supported it. The Government calculated, and calculated correctly, that Team Anna had risen too fast to be able to clearly articulate, even for itself, what it stood for; and so, riven by internal factionalism over its ideology which, to some, seemed to change depending on who was supporting it, the Team quickly lost steam and direction. Let us look at some of the specific causes.
The Kiran Bedi Overcharging Scam
One of the stories that damaged the credibility of Team Anna was the story that came out about Kiran Bedi, who charged business class fare for clients who hired her for speaking engagements, but flew economy class and fed the difference to her organization. Bedi justified this indiscretion on the grounds that she did not personally benefit from the overcharging, but did not seem to realize that this amounts to getting money for her organization under false pretexts and, therefore, could be considered corruption. The mistake Kiran Bedi made here was to try to justify her actions and claim that, because she had not personally benefited from this act, she had done nothing wrong. The longer she persisted in denying any wrongdoing, the worse her image and that of Team Anna became. Bedi also justified the mistake as one of very small scale when compared with the huge corruption scandals the Government was guilty of; but she missed the point that it was about the principle, not the amount.
The Prashant Bhushan Kashmir Remark
For reasons known to no one but himself, Prashant Bhushan made some comments to an interviewer that the people of Kashmir were entitled to self-determination and, should they choose to be independent or remain with Pakistan, their rights should be respected. Now, Prashant Bhushan is certainly entitled to his opinion on anything, but this caused such a severe anti-Prashant Bhushan and anti-Team Anna storm that Anna Hazare was forced to say in public that he did not stand by Bhushan’s comments. Now you had people coming out of the woodwork claiming that Team Anna was unpatriotic.
The Arvind Kejriwal IRS Affair
Arvind Kejriwal was embroiled in an administrative dispute with his former employer, the Indian Revenue Service. They claimed that Kejriwal had taken a break while on duty and never returned to work, and hence owed the Government money because he had signed a legal bond to work with them for three years or else pay them back. As in the case with Kiran Bedi, Kejriwal kept defending himself, claiming that the work he did in drafting the RTI was, in fact, work for the Indian Government, and so he did not owe them anything. Eventually, though, he realized that this fight was costing him his credibility and, right or wrong, he was losing the public relations battle, and decided to settle the issue. It was a very clever ploy by the Government to try and discredit Kejriwal and to make him seem like a legal offender; and in large part, it must be said, they succeeded in sullying Kejriwal’s image. This could have been neutralized by some clever thinking on Kejriwal's part, but he made the mistake of treating this as a fight which ought to be fought. I do not know enough of the issue to know whether Kejriwal was in the wrong; but regardless, the timing of the controversy is testament to the Government’s cleverness; and the handling of the issue is testament that Kejriwal is not as sure-footed as people may have thought he was. Whatever the reasons, the episode greatly hurt the perception of Team Anna.
The Bhushans CD and Land Controversies
Team Anna was hit by a couple of smear campaigns, aimed at their legal luminaries, the father-son duo of Shanti Bhushan and Prashant Bhushan. One was a CD that was circulated and purported to contain recorded conversations between Shanti Bhushan, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Amar Singh about how court cases could be easily settled for the appropriate level of bribes. After much investigation, an independent laboratory verified that the CD was fabricated, by using different statements made by Bhushan at different times and places and splicing them together to resemble a real conversation.
The other was a report that Shanti Bhushan had obtained land from Mayawati’s discretionary quota when she was chief minister of Uttar Pradesh at very low prices. This was seen to be a conflict of interest as Bhushan was fighting against Mayawati in a court case, and possibly as an attempt by Mayawati to buy off Shanti Bhushan. Shanti Bhushan denied the allegations, claiming that he had applied for the land under an open quota which was advertised and had not done anything to unduly influence the grant of the land, which initially was supposed to be awarded through lottery, but probably because of insufficient applicants, was awarded to everyone who applied.
The government used the controversy to spread doubt about the bonafides of the Bhushans and to claim that they, too, were corrupt and so did not have any locus standi to accuse the Government of corruption. Although nothing was proven against the Bhushans, given the backdrop of all the other smear campaigns against Team Anna, these smear campaigns also did enough damage to the Team’s spotless reputation.
Anna’s Extreme Statements
Anna Hazare never seemed to realize that his status had gone far above that of a rabble-rouser who brought issues to the fore and demanded action, such as getting ministers to resign, as he had done earlier with the Maharashtra government. People were now comparing him to the Mahatma. Now those are big shoes to fill.
As people learned more about Anna, Anna’s preferred treatment of alcoholics in his village – tying them to a tree and whipping them - made headlines. This was especially troubling for many of his supporters who came from the urban educated elite, who saw no harm in drinking alcohol. Anna’s attitude smacked of the Taliban to many. And Anna made no bones about it.
Long before Team Anna came to the fore, discussions of corruption in drawing rooms in India as well as abroad often would be punctuated by someone asserting that “all these rascals who are looting the country ought to be shot.” That’s acceptable in a private discussion, especially when one realizes that it is a statement meant to create drama and not to be taken literally. The message from that kind of discussion is that strong measures and punishments need to be implemented to deter people from being corrupt.
Fair enough. But Anna Hazare took things to another level when he stated that literally, people involved in major scams deserve the death penalty. This attitude shocked many of his educated, liberal supporters who felt that even the current “rarest of the rare” criterion adopted by the Indian judiciary to sanction capital punishment was too harsh.
It also put Team Anna in a corner when some of its own members were seen to be guilty of minor violations, such as Kiran Bedi overcharging for her travel expenses. Suddenly people were questioning whether people who weren’t perfect themselves could ask for such severe penalties against people who err.
It is another matter that (as Kiran Bedi correctly argued – but what did not absolve her of the need to acknowledge her mistake and apologizing for it) the errors of omission or commission by Team Anna members were very small affairs in a monetary sense, and certainly could not be compared to the kinds of large-scale fraud they were combating – you certainly cannot compare a few thousands or tens of thousands or rupees overcharging in a travel bill to $30 billion dollars, which was the amount of money lost by the nation in the 2G scam.
But episodes like that removed (as they rightly should have) the saintly aura around Team Anna. For Anna and his followers are not saints, but just honest people convinced of the seriousness to change a very bad situation. And yes, they can make mistakes. And when they do, it is best to come clean and admit their mistakes. As long as people believe you are mahatmas, they will believe what you say, without questioning you and without understanding the logic of why you do something. But if you accept such adoration, they will also readily drop you when they understand that you are not a saint but a human being.
Over the past several months, one got used to inconsistent statements emanating from different sources in Team Anna. Was the RSS or the BJP a good partner? Was Baba Ramdev welcome in Team Anna meetings or protests? Was Narendra Modi a good person? Should Pranab Mukherjee be investigated for corruption? Is Manmohan Singh an honest PM or not? Depending on the exact season and date, and who in Team Anna you asked the question of, you could get a different answer each time you asked any of these questions.
It was documented by several media outlets that the fast and stand0ff at Ramlila grounds in August 2011 were facilitated by strong support from cadres of the RSS. Sri Sri Ravishankar of the Art of Living also came to express his support for Anna Hazare, as did Baba Ramdev. Having marched in one IAC candlelight vigil myself, I know that followers of Sri Sri Ravishankar played a crucial role in the success of that march.
Team Anna was worried that their urban middle-class supporters (many of whom were left of the religious divide) would not approve of the team accepting support from right-wing Hindu nationalist organizations. Their worry was that they might give off the message that they were endorsing the politics of the RSS and of Hindutva in accepting support from them.
They reacted to this fear by publicly distancing themselves from the RSS – giving them the kind of treatment you give a mistress – accepting favours from them but not publicly acknowledging their presence. This even led to a public expression of displeasure by Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief.
Great leaders do not simply react to criticism; they create their own impressions and make their own statements, regardless of the effect of those statements on their own popularity. In this crucial test, Team Anna failed miserably. Team Anna’s mission was to wipe out corruption in India. To that end, they should have unapologetically and openly accepted help from anyone willing to help in this – making it clear that there was no quid pro quo.
What Anna needed to do was to openly accept that yes, in this regard, they were indeed accepting help from the RSS, but that they did not necessarily endorse the rest of the RSS platform. Anna’s failure to state this openly made him a sitting duck for the attacks of the Congress that Team Anna was just a Trojan horse for the BJP and RSS. If, by stating openly that he had accepted help from the RSS, Anna was to lose his liberal base, he should have been willing to do so.
Inability to Differentiate Between a Movement and a Party
What Anna and his followers never seemed to fully understand is that a movement like IAC is different from a political party. And, judging from recent developments, they still haven’t, for they are now talking about floating a political party after dissolving Team Anna.
A movement with a single-point agenda, such as IAC’s anti-corruption movement, is actually freer than any political party in staking out its position. IAC only cares (or should care) about removing corruption – so it doesn’t really need to worry about whether it is doing justice to Dalits, Muslims, minorities, OBCs – you name it. In fact, the smart way for Team Anna to have handled this entire mess was to say that anyone – yes, ANYONE, whether from the left or the right; whether ultra-nationalist Hindu or radical Muslim; whether a Muslim cleric or a Sadhu who appears on Aastha TV; whether upper-caste or Dalit or OBC or Brahmin; whether from the Punjab or from Tamil Nadu or the North-east or Kashmir; whether from the middle class or the upper class or the poor; and whether from a city or a village, was welcome to support them, to come on their platform and speak – so long as they only speak about eliminating corruption. They should have made it clear from the start that all they represent is a platform against corruption, and all Indians are free to join them.
They could have credibly taken this position because they were a movement, a pressure group, and not a political party. A movement can be based on a single issue; a political party cannot. A political party HAS to have a position on every major issue facing the nation: foreign policy – whether to align with the US, with Russia, or China on any issue; what to do about our nuclear capability; whether to further implement the US-India nuclear agreement; whether to allow FDI in multi-brand retail; whether to take any action against the Sri Lankan government for attacking Tamil fishermen; whether to build roads in Arunachal Pradesh to match the Chinese level of development on the border; whether to implement more or less reservation in education and jobs; how to accelerate the pace of infrastructure building in the country; what kind of economic liberalization measures needs to be undertaken in the country; how to make Indian education more effective, and to create students who not only finish school, but actually possess skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic; how to effectively realize the benefits of India’s demographic dividend; how to eliminate the corrosive effects of casteism in India and to truly raise the living conditions of the poorest of the poor; how to resolve the border conflicts with Pakistan and China; and a hundred other such crucial and pressing issues.
Team Anna neither has the experience nor the ability to deal with most of these issues. The key attribute of most of their principals, as has already been highlighted above, was an unassailable integrity. While they were great leaders in a campaign for probity in public life, it would be too much to expect them to have answers to all these questions.
Rather than recognize their limitations, Team Anna started issuing statements on each and every issue arising in India, acting like a political party rather than an anti-corruption movement. The Congress used this to their advantage, questioning them on their relationships with various individuals and parties (such as the RSS) and accusing them of duplicity.
If Team Anna had had this clarity about a movement being different from a party, they could have easily deflected any criticism about links with the RSS/BJP/whatever party. Instead, they got caught in the battle of perceptions that plagues every political party, with the result that one person would say something in order to fashion a certain public opinion; and if that led to an adverse reaction, another spokesman would state the opposite to restore calm. A leader is respected for his ability to be steadfast in all circumstances and to not be swayed by the prevailing winds. Team Anna’s cardinal fault and fatal flaw was to try to be all things to everyone. For more, see here.
Foot-Dragging Tactics by the Government
After the historic “sense of the House” resolution during the 2011 Monsoon session that led to Anna Hazare calling off his fast at Ramlila maidan, people had high expectations that the Government would introduce the Lokpal bill as the first order of business in the next session of Parliament, the winter session. But the UPA had different ideas. They wanted to use delaying tactics and wear out their adversary. So, after stating with much fanfare that the Lokpal bill was their first priority, the UPA, in its first move in the winter session introduced, not the Lokpal bill, but a bill seeking to allow Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail in the country. I think it was obvious at the time to anyone who was reasonably well-versed in Indian politics and who knew the relative strengths of different parties in the Lok Sabha that this proposal could never pass.
If passing this was the true intention, one might ask why the Government would waste time introducing a bill that had no hope of being passed. But that wasn’t the real aim. This was used as a delaying tactic, with predictable consequences. The pro-Bania party, the BJP, caused a stir in the well of parliament, by saying that such a bill would greatly threaten the viability of the corner Kirana stores that dot the Indian landscape. The Congress did not have the kind of majority in Parliament to overcome the BJP and other opposition parties and push the bill through, and even some of their allies, such as the TMC, did not support the bill. All in all, the majority of the valuable time of the Indian Parliament in the already-short winter session was lost in a worthless cause. It was worthless to everyone – except the ruling UPA party. After other business was considered, and some little work was finally done in Parliament, the UPA proceeded to introduce the Lokpal Bill in the Lok Sabha – with just 3 days left in the session – and that too, these days were obtaining by “extending” the session – a nice touch, really. You have to give it to the politicians – even when they are pulling the rug from under your feet, they do it with a veneer of benevolence.
What happened was predictable. Just discussing and arguing the issues related to the Lokpal bill took three days, and at the end of the three days, the Speaker said that the session was adjourned due to lack of any more time. The opposition also played right along, using the available time to introduce 187 amendments to the bill (many of which were duplicates) so that there simply would not be enough time to resolve the issue. The whole idea was to delay the introduction of the bill long enough for people to tire and forget about the issues; and the history of the Lokpal bill since then shows they were right in their calculations. The public has now lost its urgency in the demand for the Lokpal bill.
Unwillingness to Collaborate
One of the biggest problems that Team Anna faced in its struggle for the Jan Lokpal Bill is that the bill itself did not have universal acceptance, even among civil society activists. It was one thing for Congress spokespersons such as Renuka Chaudhuri or Rashid Alvi to criticize the Jan Lokpal bill as over-reaching – you could dismiss that as establishment people trying to run the bill down – but when criticism of the bill comes from highly respected people like Jayprakash Narayan of Hyderabad, of the Lok Satta party, or from Aruna Roy of the National Advisory Council, one of the key people who implemented the RTI, along with Kejriwal, then it becomes a serious matter.
What was Team Anna’s response to this criticism? They did give people like Roy and Narayan lip service, saying that they welcomed a debate at Ramlila grounds any time (as though that was likely to ever happen – Ramlila grounds during Anna’s fast was the kind of “home court” that any opposition would be scared of entering – they’d probably be booed down if they said anything in opposition to Team Anna’s position). But in fact, they completely ignored the criticisms of Roy and Narayan, confident that they would not need to heed them because of the large crowds marching in their support during the heady 10 days following August 16, 2011.
But crowds do not march in the thousands every day, and once the euphoria died down, the fact that there were sharp and genuine differences between key members of the civil society became very apparent. The Government played up the differences and claimed that there was no unanimity in the responses of civil society in the approach to be taken to corruption and the Lokpal bill.
There were genuine concerns on the part of other civil society activists as well as many among the Indian intelligentsia, who believed that creating the Lokpal might be a colossal and expensive blunder. One of the commonly-expressed fears about the Lokpal bill was that it would become a law unto itself –and a commonly-asked question by opponents of the Lokpal became “how can you guarantee that the Lokpal himself or his officers will not themselves become corrupt?” These are real questions, which need answering, and Team Anna, to their credit, had tried to answer some of them.
But the questions persisted, and the response to them cannot be to ignore them, as Team Anna seemed to think was enough. For, while there was a large middle-class support base for Team Anna during the Ramlila protest, there were also many highly-educated people who believed, with some basis, that Team Anna had a “my way or the highway” attitude and were unwilling to listen to reason. And Team Anna did not seem very interested in doing enough to dispel this notion.
Fasting Too Frequently
Swaminathan Aiyar, whose columns I am a big fan of, wrote an article in September 2011 warning Anna Hazare against the danger of fasting repeatedly. Aiyar pointed to the failure of repeated fasting by Fateh Singh on the issue of the Punjabi Suba in the 50s and 60s.
I am myself not a big fan of fasts – blackmailing someone and forcing their hand by threatening to die is not the ideal in a democracy. I say it is “not ideal,” but I reiterate my position, as I have said in my earlier blog post, that Anna’s fasts were neither undemocratic, nor were they unconstitutional. The country has faced much worse blackmailing protests that have been violent, and that have succeeded in forcing the government’s hand, and if people do not find those objectionable in the interests of the constitution or of democracy, as they seem not to have, they should not object to Anna’s protests. See here for a more detailed discussion on this. But if there are better alternatives, a fast is not to be preferred.
Once in a blue moon, this can be a good tactic to bring attention to an issue. The Ramlila maidan fast in August 2011 was a time when this was an excellent tactic. But the fast can also be a very dangerous weapon. Unless you genuinely believe that, unless the existing policies are changed, life is not worth living, you should fast only if you are 100% certain that people will do something to save your life. Else, your fate will be that of Swami Nigamananda, who died in January 2011 after fasting for 73 days to protest illegal mining and stone crushing near the Ganga in Haridwar. In Nigamananda’s mind, perhaps it was better to die than live with the deteriorating conditions of the Ganga. Is Anna or Kejriwal convinced that it is better to die rather than continue living in an India without the Jan Lokpal?
Or, if you cannot count on people’s support to save your life, you can use the excuse used by Anna Hazare during his abortive fast in Mumbai in December 2011, which he called off after 2 days of no response, citing a fever/infection and doctors’ orders as the reason for calling off the fast. Alternatively, you do what Kejriwal did just now, when there was very little response to his fast asking for chargesheets and action against 15 Union cabinet ministers and the passage of the Lokpal bill – he gave up, saying that he did not think the Government would bend. Oh, and that they would now form a political alternative.
Regardless of whether you adopt the Anna route (doctors’ orders) or the Kejriwal route (pointless effort), the result is the same – loss of face. If a fast is mounted for achieving an objective, and fails to achieve the objective, it is a failure. Period. Anna failed in December 2011, and Kejriwal failed in August 2012, however they might try to cover it up.
I, for one, and I am sure I am joined by millions of other Indians, am happy they failed in their fasts. I hope they will give up this method of protest. Don’t get me wrong – I am glad Anna did what he did in August 2011, because it truly galvanized the country and brought attention to this vital issue. But bringing attention to an issue is all a fast should be used for (if it ever is used for anything). It cannot be used to force a decision. Real change against a reluctant system can only be achieved by people power, by people marching on the streets to demand their right. And people should not require a man getting close to death repeatedly to march on the streets. Once should be enough. Once Anna had achieved his purpose of waking up the people, he really should have stopped the fasts. Intelligent people can think of better ways to make policies happen than to behave as spoilt children. I believe the country needs Anna, Kejriwal, Bhushan, and the other members of Team Anna to make a strong and positive contribution to society, and that will not be achieved by them getting ill or dying.
The timing of the fasts also had become a joke. Anna began his fast in Mumbai in December 2011 one day BEFORE Parliament sat down to discuss the Lokpal bill. I, and everyone I spoke to, could not understand why Anna was protesting before Parliament had even taken a decision on the clauses to be adopted in the bill. The whole thing seemed unnecessary to most people, which is why no one turned up for the event. Had he done this after, say, Parliament had passed a watered-down version of the Lokpal bill, people could have been able to relate to the fast. But the December fast seemed totally meaningless.
Power Comes from the People
One thing that Anna and his followers forgot was that the reason for their success was not just people making speeches at Jantar Mantar or Ramlila Maidan – that was simply the trigger – but the tens of thousands of Indians who were, surprisingly and for the first time in their lives, taking time out to march in rallies in support of the septuagenarian activist. The Government could have ignored the speeches and the crowds at Ramlila maidan – and, in fact, that is exactly what they proceeded to do with Baba Ramdev when he tried to fast at Ramlila a month before Anna fasted at Ramlila maidan. They could do that because Ramdev’s agitation was confined to Ramlila maidan; with Anna, the agitation was nationwide, with people marching everywhere in support of Anna.
The fatal mistake of Team Anna was to forget the people who were behind them. Anna and his supporters were not important in themselves; they were important because they represented (or seemed to represent) the aspirations, hopes, and frustrations of an entire population. The entire country was (and still is) seething with anger and frustration at the large-scale loot of the country by the Government. Anna came at the right time with a fresh proposal to do something about it.
While most people did not understand all the details about the Jan Lokpal bill that Team Anna was proposing, what they were convinced about was that this team was a set of honest people who genuinely cared about doing the right thing. When your base is devoted to you, but not knowledgeable about the issues, you are in dangerous territory. All it takes is for someone to create doubts amongst your following as to your devotion and dedication and the whole support structure can come crashing down.
This, in effect, is what happened. Doubts were planted in the minds of people regarding the character of Team Anna members and their motivations, and over a period of time, more and more people started saying things like, “Anna, I think he’s honest, but I am not sure about the people around him. I think they just want to get political power.” The suspicions may not hold water, but that doesn’t matter.
Where did Team Anna fail? What could they have done to prevent this? What they needed was to connect closely with their constituency in the immediate aftermath of the August 2011 victory. They needed to go to every city, town, and village, hold town hall meetings, explain to the people what really they were trying to do, why they were proposing the measures and bills they were proposing, and get deep-felt, genuine buy-in from the people. If they had done that, they would have had a population that was not only devoted to them, but one that understood what they were doing and why. And that kind of support is not easily shaken by rumours and exposes of minor offenses.
Team Anna should have taken a page from Mahatma Gandhi’s book, since Anna says he was inspired by Gandhiji. Gandhiji knew where his strength came from, and so he spent years touring the Indian countryside, talking to people along the length and breadth of the nation, addressing rallies everywhere, so that people understood why he was doing what he was doing. It is far easier to believe a rumour that Kiran Bedi is a crook when you have never had a personal interaction with her. But if you had heard a passionate speech by her in your local town hall, had a chance to ask her questions about what she did and why, and received convincing answers, you might more easily dismiss the charges against her as something done in a temporary lapse of judgment rather than think of her as a crook.
They should have come on TV channels to discuss their Jan Lokpal bill, in panel discussions with other civil society members such as Aruna Roy and Jayprakash Narayan and other luminaries, such as supreme court justices, to state and defend their points of view regarding the clauses in the bill – and, crucially, to change something if it is clear to everyone that it might be untenable or wrong. Whether Team Anna possessed enough flexibility at the time to engage in such an exercise is a matter of conjecture. On the one hand, Kejriwal and Bhushan have appeared on TV to state that they are open to suggestions/modifications, and that their version of the Jan Lokpal was the 22nd or some such version. On the other hand, at other times they have appeared completely inflexible.
Instead of doing any of this, Team Anna just sat in Delhi or Ralegan Siddhi or wherever, and started issuing statements on what ought to be done, and expected unquestioning faith in their actions. Predictably, their support, slowly but surely, vanished.
They relied on parties other than the ruling UPA to help them out, only to realize that the opposition parties also did their level best to bury the Lokpal bill. To some extent, they had themselves to blame for this as well. Team Anna made so much noise about how this was a “Jokepal” bill that the opposition did not hesitate to say that they, too, would not support a toothless bill, and buried the bill in the legislature by asking for 187 amendments, which was virtually impossible to implement. The truth is that neither the ruling UPA nor the opposition parties want this pesky Lokpal that can inhibit their free functioning and their ability to loot the country.
Today, when I talk to people about Team Anna, most people do not have faith in the team, but most say that they regard Anna Hazare as an honest and selfless person. The entire experience of Team Anna in the last year is an object lesson to anyone on how to gain incredible political capital in a short period of time, as well as how to squander it in the most irresponsible and dramatic manner.
Confusion Regarding the Aims of the Lokpal Bill
Corruption in India has existed in large measure ever since independence in 1947; much of the reason for the corruption was what was known as the “License Raj” – the fact that to do anything in the socialist India of Nehru’s imagining, one needed at least two dozen permits. The state had such complete control of business that if you wanted to do anything, you were at the mercy of the government official.
In the scarcity that was the India in the first 50 years of independent India, everything was hard to get, and you needed to bribe people for everything. This multilevel corruption framework meant that Indians encountered corruption in two different ways. Ordinary Indians, who just went to work and got paid for their efforts, had to pay bribes for simple things like getting a gas connection, a driver’s license, a telephone connection, and even to get the Income Tax Officer to accept their tax return. Businessmen had to go through an additional set of corruption hurdles, related to getting government tenders, permits to start businesses, etc.
The mega-corruption scams of 2010 that sparked public outrage were related to the second of these corruption gateways, that of big business and politicians in high places. Understandably, in order to draw on this wellspring of anger, Team Anna demanded that all MLAs and MPs, even including the PM and his cabinet ministers, fall under the ambit of the all-powerful Lokpal. For a long time, the airwaves were dominated by debates on whether the PM should be under the Lokpal or not.
But in all this, forgotten was the fact that more than 90% of the corruption in India (not in total money terms but in terms of how many people are directly affected) happens at the small-scale level, where peons and lower-level officers in Government offices demand bribes for the smallest of tasks. I, for one, would say that if one had to choose only one to eliminate at one time, the elimination of small-scale corruption would be more important to the common man.
All or Nothing
The reason one has to look at whether one kind of corruption should be tackled first in preference to another is because in life as well as politics, you rarely win your wars in one battle. It was becoming clear in Team Anna’s discussions with the Government that the Government would not agree to every demand of Anna.
An intelligent adversary, in circumstances such as these, would take stock and state certain things which were non-negotiable and agree to softening his stand on the remaining issues. Leaving with a partial victory is better than leaving with nothing, which is what Team Anna finally did. Look at what they ended up doing with the Lokpal bill. They declaimed the final Government version as a “Jokepal bill,” ridiculed it as a pro-corruption bill, and refused to support it. And now they have nothing.
Is it so bad that it is better to not have it? I am not so sure. Let me suggest an alternative. Suppose Team Anna, after realizing the Government would not agree to all its demands, realized it had to aim lower. Suppose they had said, “okay, we don’t want the Lokpal right now. Give us only one thing right now – an independent Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).” Do you think it would have been a failure? I don’t think so. If the Government had agreed to that, I think it would have been a victory for everyone. Anyone who sees how the CBI functions today can clearly see how it is an instrument of the Government that the Government uses to harass its political opponents.
For example, all the corruption scams of Rajasekhar Reddy of AP were okay in the eyes of the CBI as long as he was alive and as long as his son Jagan Reddy was expected to toe the Congress line. Once Jagan Reddy overstepped his limits and stood in open opposition to the Congress, the CBI suddenly descended on him and he is now in jail. All the alleged irregularities of Jagan Reddy happened when his father was CM, in partnership with him. Did the definition of illegality change with Rajasekhar Reddy’s death? Or take the even more recent event of the CBI chargesheet in the Commonwealth Games on the corruption in the Queen’s Baton relay event. Kalmadi was arrested for irregularities in that very case, but the CBI chargesheet doesn’t include Kalmadi in the list of the accused, though his subordinates have been charged.
If you have an independent CAG (and the CAG has been doing a great job of uncovering scams in the Government – first the Commonwealth Games Scam, then the 2G Spectrum Scam, and yesterday the CoalGate Scam), coupled with an independent CBI, probably you can greatly cut down on corruption in high places.
Similarly, if Team Anna were to agree that the PM should be out of the ambit of the Lokpal, but in return, the Government should agree that the lower bureaucracy should be under the ambit of the Lokpal, the people would again have won something and obtained some relief from their daily suffering.
To make deals like that requires flexibility, an ability to negotiate and a willingness to achieve success in stages – an ability to be resilient and be in the fray for the long run, not just for one season. Corruption has been rampant in India for more than 50 years, and you want everything to go away in 6 months? There need to be several pitched battles fought before the vested interests will loosen their grip on the levers of power. Gandhiji did not beat the British in just one campaign.
Where Do We Go From Here?
If the latest events are any indication, we have no choice but to continue the war on corruption – and try to win it, battle by battle. Just now the news that there have been huge irregularities in the allocation of Coal Blocks to various companies by the Government has emerged, which reminds us that whatever else we do, we cannot continue to adopt an attitude of चलता है (“It’s okay.”) Things are far too serious, and the disease of corruption is causing way too much damage to this country, for us to take such a casual attitude.
Team Anna succeeded last year in galvanizing an apathetic Indian public to march on the streets. Their goal was a new institution, the Lokpal, to stem the flow of corruption. The movement has taken a huge hit in the last year, but probably this is a lesson in growing up as a movement. They need to dig in their heels for a long war.
Whether the Lokpal will actually happen is now not at all certain. What characteristics a Lokpal will have, even if it is constituted, is also very unclear. But Team Anna needs to embrace the thought that the Lokpal is but one piece of the puzzle. There are several other pieces that need to be fixed if corruption is to be greatly reduced.
The Judicial System
The Indian judicial system is greatly overloaded because many judges’ jobs remain vacant. This has been acknowledged by the Indian Supreme Court itself. It has also been reported that, at the rate the Delhi High Court is disposing of cases, it has a 466 year backlog.
The reason for this large number of vacancies is the system of appointing judges, which is based on the “collegium system,” according to which a panel or “collegium” of judges appoint judges from the lower courts to join them. The system is clearly not working, and the appointment of new judges is very slow. One of the speculated reasons is the low salary offered to judges. If delivering justice is a priority, the Government needs to do more to address this problem.
The result of this immense backlog of cases is that the wheels of justice move very slowly in India. As a result, even if someone is caught stealing, it might take years or even decades to convict him and send him to jail. A prime example of the slowness of the justice system in India was furnished by the 1993 Mumbai blasts case, in which the penalty phase is still running, almost 20 years since the event. And if this is the story in such a high-profile case where, one would imagine, the pressure to deliver justice is extremely high, one can imagine how slow the wheels move when one is “simply” dealing with the theft of a few crores or even a few hundreds of crores of rupees.
So, before one goes on and on about how one can come up with better laws to punish those who are corrupt, one needs to first fix the justice system, in which even criminals who commit mass murder are not sentenced after 20 years. Without this, one can construct the most elaborate laws and they will achieve nothing.
In chemical engineering, one is confronted with the theory of multiple reactions in series, in which one learns that the rate of the overall process is determined by the rate of the slowest reaction. In similar fashion, if one thinks of legislation as a process, law enforcement as the next process in the series, deliverance of the justice as the third step in the process, and conviction (punishment) as the result of this three-step process, the rate of conviction is determined by the slowest step, which is the judicial process. Without fixing this, everything else is irrelevant.
One must also question why corruption at the higher levels occurs the way it does. People often ask what a person would do with hundreds of thousands of crores of money – you cannot even remember how many zeroes that amount of money means. One cannot fully experience even a fraction of that money in one’s lifetime.
I got the answer to this question a long time ago from a friend who was close to many politicians in Andhra Pradesh. He told me, “Do you think they use this money for personal enjoyment? Maybe a little, maybe they will spend some of it on luxuries, but the amount of money they accumulate is way more than they can ever spend.” So what do they use it for, I asked him. And he told me, “They use it to buy the next election.” That’s the only endeavour that needs such sums of money ... buying voters through alcohol and money to vote for their party.
This is the reason why most politicians are very wealthy people in India – you need to have personal wealth on a large scale to succeed in politics. This, in turn, also engenders connections with the underworld. Many politicians today have risen up the ranks from being petty thieves to running criminal empires to becoming politicians. To know more about this, read this.
So, to get to the root of large-scale corruption, electoral reform is crucial. The electoral field is poisoned by big money, and limits have to be set on how much parties can spend on elections – to prevent the large-scale purchase of votes. This is not an easy task. The United States has been grappling with campaign finance reform for decades now and still has not found a reasonable solution to it. In India, the abuses occurring under the current rules and the current enforcement of the current rules are shocking. Perhaps a nationwide movement to enact proper electoral reform should be at the forefront of the effort to fight corruption in India.
The Attitude of the Indian Middle Class
One of the things that annoyed some intellectuals about the anti-corruption protest marches of August 2011 is that some of the very people who were marching in the protests were those who, in their own lives, were quite corrupt indeed, and often responsible for corrupting others.
Many middle-class Indians are, even today, quite happy to indulge in corruption when it suits them. For instance, someone may have a son who is studying in 12th standard, the stage just before professional education, and doesn’t obtain enough marks in his 12th or engineering entrance exams to go to a good college. What does the parent do? They are quite eager and willing to bribe colleges to ensure that their child doesn’t lose out in the race in life. (How important joining engineering college really is can be the subject of another blog post, which I will not get into here; for now, we will assume that it really is important to life.)
Another way of getting admission to colleges is to find out if a relative works in that college. If so, the relative can put in a good word for you and you get in, even though you don't deserve it. Of course, at a later stage you repay the person in some way. This kind of corruption in India is quite common.
But even that is a bit important compared to some of the more petty things Indians are willing to bribe for. You want a license to drive a car and what do you do? Go learn the rules of the road and go to driving school? Oh no. You pay Rs. 100 to the officer and he hands you your license.
So you have your driving license now. You run through a red light and the traffic cop stops you. You have committed an offense; you are liable to pay a penalty. The way the system in India works, the cop takes your license, you go to the traffic police station on any day in the next two weeks, pay the fine, and get back your license. What do you do? You offer the cop a 100 rupee note and ask him not to take away your license. Recently I was stopped for inadvertently running a red light. The cop took my license, and I asked him where I should pay the fine and get my license back. I went there a few days later, paid the penalty and got my license back. When I told my office colleagues the story, none of them knew the location of the traffic police office that I had gone to – no one had ever gone there. They had all paid bribes when caught in a similar situation.
Cheating the taxman is another common offense many Indian middle class people are guilty of. You buy some services from someone – say, he helped you get an airline ticket. You ask him for his fees, and he says, Rs. 200. You ask him if he would give you a receipt, then he says, well then I’ll have to add service tax. Is that okay? Service tax is 12.36%, which he charges you, and which he then pays onward to the government. He SHOULD, legally, charge you service tax – the government requires him to. But since you want to save some money, you make him (and yourself) commit a crime by not paying tax on a transaction. Of course, he benefits from the deal because now the fees are not accounted for in his income and he does not have to pay income tax to the government. Most Indians have few qualms about corruption of this kind. But when you add up all the small amounts that people cheat the government of in this way, the total can be quite large.
This is the reason that many intellectuals get annoyed seeing middle class Indians agitate about corruption. It’s like the pot calling the kettle black. The annoyance is justified. But the problem with these commonplace occurrences is more than the lack of consistency implicit in them. The bigger problem is that these practices help ingrain the practice of corruption even more in society; when one is used to bribery as a way of life, it is harder to expect a person to avoid partaking of it at higher levels.
All the laws of the world will be of little help if the thinking of the people does not change. There cannot be one set of morals for the rest of the world and another for one’s own family and oneself. There are, indeed, several situations in India where the people are left with no option but to bribe the official – else they refuse to do their duty – and while one cannot blame people for yielding to a compulsory bribe, there are many cases in which people can and do not resist and, indeed, actively proffer a bribe to make life easier for themselves.
Who Will Change Things?
Now that Arvind Kejriwal is talking about forming a political party, things are much tougher for him. Anna Hazare, in his blog post, supported Kejriwal’s move, but said that he would be part of no political party. Without Anna’s halo around, it will be indeed tough going for the new party. Others, such as Santosh Hegde, have also distanced themselves from the party. Kejriwal and co. will need friends to succeed, and perhaps they can make a start by mending fences with people they have taken pains to antagonize, such as the other civil society leaders.
The Lokpal that Kejriwal and co. want now may or may not happen. For it to happen, they really need to gain consensus by talking with other activists on the best way to do things. They may need to modify their proposed Jan Lokpal bill, if necessary, to accommodate concerns of civil liberties activists who worry that such a powerful Lokpal might himself be another source of corruption. It is possible to build in checks and balances to prevent the Lokpal from becoming an unchallenged supercop while still maintaining his independence, but these are questions that need to be carefully debated and agreed upon in a united way.
One problem for Kejriwal and co. is that a “party against corruption” is an insufficient description for a political party. As I have already mentioned, a party needs to take position on a variety of issues that affect the country. How will the party of Kejriwal and co. deal with differences amongst their supporters on various issues? Will there be infighting between supporters of the Hindu Right and those in favour of a pro-Muslim policy? Or between supporters and opponents of reservation? The fact is that there can be as many flavours of an “anti-corruption party” as there are political parties – a “non-corrupt Congress,” “non-corrupt BJP,” “non-corrupt BSP” – and so on. In fact, ideally, we should not even have to use the “non-corrupt” prefix in front of these party names – the “non-corrupt” adjective should be implicit and accepted. But it is the shame of modern politics in India that the word “politics” itself has become such a dirty word that “corrupt” is taken to be an implied adjective. So each viewpoint or set of viewpoints that has led to a political party today can also be the basis for a corresponding “non-corrupt” party. To be viable as a political party, Kejriwal and co. will have to adopt a platform on all issues of significance to the nation – a manifesto – and then face the inevitable fall-off in membership as people who do not agree with specific viewpoints leave the party.
This problem points to a fundamental weakness in our political system. In an ideal democratic system, each constituency would elect a representative who correctly represents his/her constituency’s views in parliament and votes exactly based on what his/her constituency wants. The problem with political parties is that when a person joins a political party, he has to compromise on his constituency’s views with the views of the political party platform. So, in the current multi-party system, viewpoints of individual representatives get compromised due to the need to associate representatives with parties.
It would be more in tune with the spirit of democracy to have a parliament full of independent representatives, each of whom faithfully represents the views of the people who elected him/her. One would then ask how a prime minister and a cabinet might be elected to take decisions on the country. For this, a separation of powers of the executive and the legislature, along the lines of the presidential system in the US, might be best. Note that I am only talking about the election of the president in this regard; the composition of the US Congress and Senate, in the context of my concern for democracy, is even worse than the Indian parliament. At least India has multiple parties; the US has only two! So you have an independent presidential election to elect an upright person who is widely admired – say, a person like APJ Abdul Kalam, who will be the executive and will incorporate in his cabinet eminent, upright and competent people who will undertake policies for the betterment of the country; and the legislature of independents will act as a check on the executive.
But all the above suggestions involve changing the existing framework of the country, which is very difficult, to say the least. One way of having a more democratic system, even within the current framework, was suggested to me by one of my correspondents, Mr. BH Acharya, who proposed to me the concept of a “party of independents.” According to this concept, the party would only have a platform for rooting out corruption, but its members could have any ideology. There would be no party whip in parliament, except on anti-corruption measures. Perhaps Kejriwal and co. can adopt this model and still be viable as a party. But fundamentally, they need to correct the mistakes of the past.
A year ago, Anna Hazare and his band of followers created history in India, by awakening an Indian populace that had been sleeping for more than 60 years after the country gained independence.
In the struggle for independence, Gandhiji mobilized the common man to help evict the British from India. Once independence was achieved, the common man withdrew and became complacent, leaving the field open to whoever wanted to step in, and once the leaders of the independence movement gradually vanished and died, they were replaced by parasites and leeches, which are bleeding the country dry for their own greed. They have also perpetuated a system (the License Raj) that has destroyed the moral fiber of the country, where people feel there is no alternative to corruption if one wishes to survive in the country.
This must change. It can only change if the common man takes an active role in the politics of the nation and is vigilant about how the resources of his country are used or misused. To say that politics is only the business of politicians, i.e., those who have chosen to make a career out of politics, is a fundamental flaw in the thinking of most Indians. Understanding politics and political processes is the job of every citizen. If you are too lazy to know how you are being governed and what your representatives are doing in your name, you really shouldn’t complain that they are fleecing you. One of the common complaints by middle-class people during the period of confusion following the success of August 2011 was that “Team Anna is becoming too political.” Heck, when you are talking about changing laws, you ARE political. Stop treating politics as a dirty word; start working to transform it into a respectable word, in whatever way you can.
IAC tried to make a start in changing the political system with the Jan Lokpal bill. Whatever your views on the merits of the Jan Lokpal, you cannot argue with their intentions. But they encountered a number of challenges which they did not know how to handle, and they did not understand how to be flexible enough to accommodate diverse viewpoints. They were also easily distracted by the manoeuvres of the highly experienced politicians in the government. Though the Government was initially taken aback by the intensity of the popular agitation, they quickly recovered and, with the help of an effective media campaign, aided by the inexperience of IAC, were able to neutralize the movement fairly quickly.
IAC and the other participants in the struggle against corruption must realize that this is a war which will involve a series of battles. Anna won the first battle at Jantar Mantar and the second at Ramlila. But thereafter the politicians have been fighting a war of attrition, almost like a series of hit-and-run attacks which, coupled with their opponents’ inability to score partial victories and to achieve mutual consensus with other civil society activists, has helped the politicians overcome them.
IAC must not lose sight of the larger goal that India needs. This war is not just about the Jan Lokpal bill. It is a war to eradicate corruption from India. If that needs a Jan Lokpal, great, but if it can be achieved without a Jan Lokpal, so be it. To do that requires collaboration on a bigger and better scale than has so far been seen. It also requires a more active participation by the Indian people. It is, after all, the active participation of the people which resulted in the massive protests of August 2011. Corruption can only be eliminated if India truly becomes a participatory democracy – not for 10 days or a month, but forever.
Many people are tending to write off IAC and the organization formerly known as Team Anna. I am not so sure. Anyone who can awaken the masses of India in the manner they did last August cannot be taken lightly. That kind of achievement required both dedication and a remarkable organizational ability. If they are willing to change the way they think and do things, and if they are willing to be more flexible, I am sure this dedicated bunch of people can transform India. But to do that, they need to remember that ending corruption is the goal and anything, including even the Jan Lokpal bill, is negotiable. And they need to accept that perhaps they cannot achieve this goal alone.
In his wonderful biography of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, titled “Lincoln, the Unknown,” Dale Carnegie recounts an event in Lincoln’s life. It was the summer of 1858, and Lincoln had just lost the race for the US senate seat from Illinois to Stephen Douglas. As he was walking back from the telegraph office after getting the news on all the election results, he slipped on the muddy path which had become slippery due to the rain. He quickly recovered his balance, and noted, “It’s a slip. Not a fall.”
The rest I quote directly from Carnegie’s book, for it is truly inspirational.
“Shortly after that he read an editorial about himself in an Illinois paper. It said,
‘Hon. Abe Lincoln is undoubtedly the most unfortunate politician that has ever attempted to rise in Illinois. In everything he undertakes, politically, he seems doomed to failure. He has been prostrated enough in his political schemes to have crushed the life out of any ordinary man.’”
Two years later, he was President.
So, supporters of the movement against corruption need not grieve, and politicians need not rejoice, that things right now appear to be somewhat bleak for the anti-corruption movement. If like-minded people who want a better India unite and think flexibly about the approach to combat corruption, this low phase can be used as a catalyst to build a stronger movement and obtain a lasting victory.
I would like to thank my wife, Sandhya, for her help in proof-reading this article as well as for suggestions regarding additions to, omissions from, and improvements to this article. I would also like to thank my readers, whose constant feedback and appreciation give me the encouragement and enthusiasm to continue writing.