In India, Fighting and Fasting Over Corruption: Choudhury

For the past few months, Anna Hazare, the septuagenarian Indian social activist, has led his country's most prominent anti-corruption movement. Last weekend, it reached a crescendo when Hazare began an indefinite fast.

Hazare was protesting the Indian government's decision to introduce a watered-down version of a bill in Parliament that would give an independent body, called the Lokpol, the power to investigate political corruption at the highest levels of government. The Lokpal Bill would assign this power to a three-member group made up of current or former senior judges.  

For several months, Hazare has led a committee of  activists and intellectuals trying to stop the government from weakening the bill.  Team Anna, as it is popularly called, has proposed its own version of the bill that would give the Lokpal radical powers, extending to both the office of the prime minister and the judiciary.  (A summary of the opposing positions can be found here.)

Hazare's version has stimulated robust debate. Some commentators think it is a much-needed antidote to corruption; others think it gives the Lokpal draconian powers.

Representatives from Team Anna and the government met in June with the intention of thrashing out their differences and preparing a single version of the bill to present to Parliament in August. But they could not reach a compromise. Earlier, in March, Hazare had called off a planned hunger strike to protest corruption.  He said he'd take up the plan again if the government tabled its version of the bill, and so he has.

On Aug. 16, the day after India's 64th anniversary of independence, Hazare addressed demonstrators in two locations in New Delhi: Tihar Jail, where he was detained by the government for three days, and the grounds of Ramlila Maidan, the scene of many memorable political demonstrations over the decades.

The capital's citizens and visitors from far and wide -- many of whom had never attended a political protest before -- flocked to Ramlila Maidan to voice their agitation. They seemed moved by various factors: political disenchantment, a need for empowerment, nationalistic fervor, hero worship or just plain curiosity. With the month of Ramzan (the Muslim fasting season known elsewhere as Ramadan) coming to an end and the Hindu festival of Janmashtami soon arriving, the demonstrators were at times united in both protest and prayer.

In both New Delhi locations, Hazare said that if his team's version of the bill did not pass by Aug. 30, he would lead protestors directly to the  homes of Members of Parliament (MPs).

On Aug. 23, the Indian Express reported Hazare as saying:

Now, 25 to 30 people are sitting on dharnas in front of MPs' residences. If the government does not pass the Bill by August 30, we have to intensify the protest. Protesters in thousands should gherao [surround] the residences of MPs then.

In an essay in the publication Tehelka, Shoma Chaudhury scathingly criticized the government's pusillanimity and disconnection from the Indian public. Chaudhury acknowledged that there were many flaws in Hazare's movement, but she argued that the government sparked the crisis:

In a curious way then, what the Hazare campaign has really shown up about this government is a condition almost unprecedented in Indian public life: a complete and debilitating loss of politics in its political leadership.

Politics in urban India has come to mean a dirty word. But in truth, the loss of politics is among the worst calamities that can befall a society. The art of politics is the ability to understand human nature; come up with big ideas; read a situation astutely; anticipate events; manage situations; steer through minefields; build bridges; take widely diverse people and views along; be game for both soothing words and firm action; play both statesman and strategist. Display leadership.

... At a time, then, when the country needed agile leaders with great heart and intuition, India seems to be landed with a reign of the tin men: no heart, just uni-dimensional cold-blooded intellect, clumsy actions, unnecessary polarities and a growing sense of crisis.

Arundhati Roy, perhaps India's best-known dissident and public intellectual, questioned the assumptions and omissions of the Hazare movement in a widely-read essay in The Hindu. Cutting and incendiary as always, Roy argued that political corruption was not a simple problem; it would require much more than a version of the Lokpal Bill to resolve it.

Further, she said that the Hazare crusade deflected attention from the country's underlying crises:

While his means may be Gandhian, Anna Hazare's demands are certainly not. Contrary to Gandhiji's ideas about the decentralisation of power, the Jan Lokpal Bill is a draconian, anti-corruption law, in which a panel of carefully chosen people will administer a giant bureaucracy, with thousands of employees, with the power to police everybody from the Prime Minister, the judiciary, members of Parliament, and all of the bureaucracy, down to the lowest government official. The Lokpal will have the powers of investigation, surveillance, and prosecution. Except for the fact that it won't have its own prisons, it will function as an independent administration, meant to counter the bloated, unaccountable, corrupt one that we already have. Two oligarchies, instead of just one.

Whether it works or not depends on how we view corruption. Is corruption just a matter of legality, of financial irregularity and bribery, or is it the currency of a social transaction in an egregiously unequal society, in which power continues to be concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller minority? Imagine, for example, a city of shopping malls, on whose streets hawking has been banned. A hawker pays the local beat cop and the man from the municipality a small bribe to break the law and sell her wares to those who cannot afford the prices in the malls. Is that such a terrible thing? In future will she have to pay the Lokpal representative too? Does the solution to the problems faced by ordinary people lie in addressing the structural inequality, or in creating yet another power structure that people will have to defer to?

... This awful crisis has been forged out of the utter failure of India's representative democracy, in which the legislatures are made up of criminals and millionaire politicians who have ceased to represent its people. In which not a single democratic institution is accessible to ordinary people.

In the Indian Express, political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta took a measured approach. He wrote:

The [Hazare] movement should learn from its own success so far. The significance of actors in a democracy is always complex. Often movements achieve good despite themselves; and often they produce more destruction despite noble intentions. The Hazare movement has done both. The aims of the movement embodied in the Lokpal bill are ridiculous. But it has to be acknowledged that it galvanised a consciousness on the issue of corruption.

Social pressure is important. The movement should also recognise that various other institutions of the state, from the opposition to independent bodies, have, albeit imperfectly, swung into action. The game is beginning to change. But it should not destroy its own historical achievement by being unreasonable on the methods of protest, or the choice of institutions it supports.

We need a fine balance, not an insolent civil society or a tyrannical state.

An attempt to supply this sort of "fine balance" came from the respected social activist Aruna Roy, who helped to create the recent piece of legislation, "The Right to Information Act of 2005," which was designed to make the Indian government more transparent.  On behalf of her organization, the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), Roy released a public letter that countered Hazare and recommended that more time be allowed to debate the bill. The letter said:

The Lokpal discussion has had an interesting trajectory. It began as the stated logical end of a large middle class mobilization on corruption. The stated end of that campaign was the demand for the setting up of a Joint Drafting Committee for a Lokpal bill. In common usage and understanding of corruption, the term casually refers to a range of corrupt practices. The political/governance spectrum is indeed more culpable than others. For it is mandated to maintain integrity in public life, to keep the country on keel with constitutional and other guarantees. This includes preventing the arbitrary use of power and corrupt practices. The Lokpal was too simplistically ordained by the campaign as a solution to all varieties of corrupt practices in our lives.

However the assurance that all solutions to the entire gamut of corrupt practices could be worked out through a strong Lokpal has left us with a great sense of disquiet. Not only because it does not address the arbitrary use of power. But because it is an unrealistic promise to rising expectations that it is an alleviation of all ills through one bill. It is also a question of the contents of the Jan Lokpal draft itself.

Roy revealed that the NCPRI was working on its own version of a Lokpal bill, one that sought a more restricted -- and therefore refined -- role for the proposed Lokpal that would make it the people's worker, not its savior.

One of the ironies of the crisis is that it has pitted two men of similar age, character and reputation against each other: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Anna Hazare. One stands for the establishment and the other stands against it, but as one commentator said, they are both "Spartans."

On Aug. 23, the Prime Minister finally wrote to Hazare asking him to end his fast. He also appointed Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to mediate with the Hazare team and called for an all-party meeting to discuss the Lokpal bill.

One could optimistically argue that the long-term effects of this face-off are probably for the greater good. It has not only helped millions of people who ordinarily feel divorced from politics understand just how complex democratic law-making is, but it has also stoked their appetite for political debate and involvement.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express reported:

A stone’s throw from the action at Ramlila Maidan, the maternity ward of Lok Nayak Hospital is "supporting" Anna Hazare in a unique way. At least four couples have named their newborns after Hazare in the last one week.

 (Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.