Fighting Corruption: The Pitfalls of Populism

It would be prudent to ask whether the youth would boycott the goods and services of those the government has propped up. Or will this be just another ‘Rang De Basanti’ moment where power props up those with testosterone and the impetus is all about hitting the bull’s eye?
by Farzana Versey

(April 07, Mumbai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Indian youth are out in the streets, in car and bike rallies, to support an aging activist’s fight against corruption. Anna Hazare and Anil Ambani may be on two sides of the spectrum, but even as the inquisition is going on into the 2G scam, we are witnessing a populist version of people’s activism.

Anna Hazare's fast-unto-death started on April 5 to push for the anti-graft Lok Pal Bill. He has called it the second Satyagraha, which is an erroneous usage. Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha was battling against British might, not against corruption that involves people right down to the lowest level, including some who may participate in the ‘movement’. I understand that one would like to see it as a practical solution to an idealistic idea, but whose idealism is it?

Hazare’s work through the years has been commendable, but the moment he needs a banner – in this case ‘India Against Corruption’ – the idea becomes a brand. Within three days there are already fissures among certain organisations. Besides, it is not as simple as it appears.

He says:“

We want representation from civil society in drafting the Lok Pal Bill, 50 percent from civil society and 50 percent from the government.”

This is to check on corruption in public life, so it obviously refers to those holding office. The alternative Jan Lok Pal Bill drafted by leading legal experts and personalities, including Arvind Kejriwal, former Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde and Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan calls for setting up of ombudsmen independent of government control. Those found guilty would be awarded a jail term of minimum five years and maximum of life imprisonment; the investigation would have to completed within one year.

The government has its own version of a prison term of minimum six months and maximum seven years as punishment for corruption.

Who will foot the bill for the 50 per cent lok ayuktas that come from civil society? Are not politicians also from civil society? We would need a system to proceed against those being tried.

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Corruption is more often a silent crime. There are enough scapegoats who will be made to shoulder the blame in another concept of people’s responsibility, where lok shakti means taking on the master’s problems. It is an ingrained aspect of Indian culture.

We are witnessing this farce as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), while not yet giving a clean chit to Ratan Tata and Anil Ambani, has been talking about their honesty and how candid they have been. Niira Radia has been called “evasive”.

Ratan Tata with some gumption said when asked about his letter to the Tamil Nadu chief minister praising Raja’s work in the telecom ministry, said, “We had a chemistry problem with (his predecessor Dayanidhi) Maran.” Yet, he claimed, “I didn’t manipulate the system for 2G licence allocation.” Did not Mr Tata file a petition regarding breach of privacy about the leaked tapes? The political machinery does not wish to completely alienate the corporate lobby, so it accused Radia of being anti-national and an agent of foreign intelligence agencies.

Both sides are getting trapped in quick sand and they need to prop each other up without being seen to ostensibly do so. Why did they not produce records of the Rs. 300 crore that Radia had accumulated? Of course, there is every possibility of impropriety, but for whom and for what?

If foreign agencies were involved, how did they pay her so that the authorities would know the amount? Have the finance and other departments tapped those calls from foreign agencies? What foreign agencies have interests in seeing to it that the Ambanis and Tatas get the prime deals? Which foreign agency would be interested in what portfolio Raja got? It might be important to examine how these players then can be indicted for such foreign connections as well as anti-national activities, including the governments, past and present, for accommodating them.

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How would the Lok Pal bill work in such a situation? There is a trickle-down effect where the tricking is actually going up. Many of those enthusiastic about Hazare’s rally would not have the courage to convict the beneficiaries of those in public office, which defeats the whole purpose. A politician getting kickbacks is one part of the deal – the other is the sneaking in of major players who through corruption will find space to promote their elitist products and ideas.

Hazare is for now being anointed with a Gandhian aura, but most of the Facebook fans of the movement won’t push the envelope. The fact that the mainstream media is giving it importance is precisely because it has the youth quotient. This translates into a larger audience.

Some sample quotes are rather revealing:

“I joined the cause as I feel that corruption can't be stopped till the youth takes part in such a movement. Anna Hazare has been fighting this evil for a long time, but he should be supported by people like us.”

“I realised that it is about time people like me come out and stand up to eradicate corruption. I am going to fast like Anna Hazare and I am even prepared to go to jail for the cause.”

“It is not only for activists and media to keep exposing scams.”

People like us, jail yatra, scams are the buzzwords, not to speak of our own Tahrir Square.

One also wonders what happens if the celebrity activists move out. There will be the chosen ones who will be nominated for the posts to look into corruption. It would work not too differently from an established system.

People have gathered in 400 cities to fight a demon. This is modern-day mythology. Hazare states

“I am not waiting for government, the government will have to bow to the wish of the people.”

The government bows every five years and politicians are known to ‘serve’ the junta. The fact that the Lok Pal will be like the Election Commission is no guarantee that it will be “completely immune to government’s influences”. Prosecuting ministers will not require the permission of the governor or the president. Will it ensure transparency? There won’t be “yes men” of the government, but what of other organisations? Or politicians from non-ruling parties?

Uma Bharti and Om Prakash Chautala may be booted out, but Sharad Yadav, Janata Dal (United) chief, has already offered support. He said:

“Just as Election Commission and Supreme Court are effective bodies, similarly an institution which is to fight corruption has to be equally powerful. I approve of the draft prepared by Hazareji and others. I am willing to back it in Parliament.”

That among the civil society members there could be those with personal interests who would be pushed in as concerned citizens is not an improbability. Or the lure of known names. During the appointment of the person to head the Right to Information Act panel, there was just such a scramble by celebrities to promote their concept of the appropriate person.

Despite his intentions, even Mr. Hazare mentioned the names of Justice (Retd) Santosh Hegde, lawyer Prashant Bhushan and Agnivesh who he felt “were not considered important by the government”.

It is possible that the government might intervene to make him give up his fast, but let us not begin to believe that the fight against corruption is a people’s movement yet. It had already started before the rally and there have been several exposes, public interest litigations filed. It would be prudent to ask whether the youth would boycott the goods and services of those the government has propped up. Or will this be just another ‘Rang De Basanti’ moment where power props up those with testosterone and the impetus is all about hitting the bull’s eye?

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