Indian elites’ rude awakening

Anti-corruption movement reflects rising middle class’s dissatisfaction with messy democracy as usual.

A string of bribery scandals have contributed to the perception of increasing corruption in India [Reuters]

Every five years, India wins fulsome praise from Western governments and pundits alike for the mere act of holding general elections. The sheer scale of the exercise in a vast and diverse country with a billion-plus population understandably elicits admiration from around the world.

However, as the ongoing movement against corruption demonstrates, Indians are far from content with just exercising the right to re-elect or throw out a government. They may find it humbling to be described as citizens of the world’s largest democracy, yet they are also increasingly conscious of the inadequacies of their political system.

Indeed, over the last several decades, and especially the last few years, the urban middle classes – who now comprise a fourth of the Indian population – have come to view their political representatives and bureaucrats as unable or unwilling to deliver clean, transparent and efficient administration in step with economic development.

In the words of Vinay Sitapati, a doctoral student at Princeton University, “the new corporate middle class has little patience with the politics of dignity and identity that are … central to Indian politics. For them, the state is about providing services for which they pay with their tax money.”

All the lofty talk about the majesty of institutions and the supremacy of parliament fails to impress middle-class Indians. “

Whether this dissatisfaction with electoral politics is shared uniformly across religious, caste and social boundaries, is open to debate. But if the findings of numerous opinion polls are any guide, large segments of the urban Indian population have lost faith in the institutions of governance.

The recent string of bribery scandals – notably, the 2G phone-licences auction, the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the Taj Corridor and Adarsh Housing Society – have undoubtedly contributed to the perception about increasing corruption in India.

But even the 2010 Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International, the respected global watchdog, had given the country an integrity score of just 3.3 on a scale of 0 to 10, placing it in the same dubious league as Albania, Liberia and Jamaica.

‘Zero legitimacy’

By most accounts, all the lofty talk about the majesty of institutions and the supremacy of parliament fails to impress middle-class Indians. Representative democracy and social justice too have little meaning when they regard the state as a rent-seeking behemoth incapable of preventing repeated terrorist attacks, modernising urban infrastructure, or providing efficient public services.

A recent State of the Nation survey conducted by CSDS, a Delhi-based think-tank, found 66 per cent of urban India believed the federal government is corrupt, compared to 58 per cent of rural India.

Furthermore, as many as 71 per cent of all those with college or higher education were aware of corruption, as opposed to just 49 per cent of the illiterate.

Hazare’s team made history by getting parliament to
agree to its demands for an anti-corruption bill  [AFP]

As Ashis Nandy, a leading Indian social scientist who heads the CSDS, noted in a recent essay: “It is true … that while the legitimacy of the democratic system is high in India, the legitimacy of the politicians is almost zero. In virtually every serious opinion poll conducted during the last 15-odd years, the politicians, along with the police and the bureaucracy, are ranked near the bottom.”

The limited success achieved by last month’s non-violent protests in support of the hunger-striking social activist Anna Hazare has kindled hopes that elected representatives and the executive will from now on be, just maybe, a little more responsive to middle-class sentiments and expectations.

Parliament was forced to adopt a non-binding resolution to take into consideration Hazare’s demands – to create a series of powerful ombudsmen, or Lokpals, able to penalise officials for corruption, and to write a “citizen’s charter,” setting out what services government agencies are required to provide.

But the optimism is tempered by a deep-seated belief that the blight of corruption is too complex and deeply entrenched to be eliminated by any legislative legerdemain.

While Hazare was on a 12-day hunger strike at New Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, it was obvious that the attention he attracted was a reflection of the national sense of disgust over the mind-boggling fraud figures rather than a sweeping endorsement of a specific piece of legislation, namely the Jan Lokpal bill.

Sanjeev Aga, a Mumbai-based commentator, summed up the attitude of a broadly sympathetic public best when he told the Indian Express newspaper: “To me the details of the Jan Lokpal draft matter less. Someone had to stand up, someone has! In civilisational terms, this is an inflexion point of far greater long-term import. India will not be the same again.”

Mixed reactions

Those supportive of the anti-corruption movement say it has its heart in the right place even if its methods are controversial and its economic concepts somewhat woolly. More vitally, they consider Hazare and his core team to be paragons of sincerity and probity, qualities they do not normally associate with politicians.

On the other hand, critics of Hazare’s movement on both the left and the right have attacked the Jan Lokpal bill as impractical and ineffective.

“It presumes that a multitude of Lokpals/Lokayuktas (ombudsmen) will cover about 14 million federal and state government employees,” JS Bandukwala, a civil liberties activist in India’s Gujarat state, wrote in a critique. “Assuming a modest figure of one complaint per 100 employees, we may have around 140,000 employees investigated every year.”

The anti-corruption movement is seen as a reflection of public disgust over recent government scandals [AFP]

And in a recent blog entry, Sadanand Dhume, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Wall Street Journal columnist, wrote: “Only in India can you try and fight a problem created by an unwieldy bureaucracy by proposing a fresh layer of unwieldy bureaucracy.”

Many of Hazare’s critics insist that the solution to corruption does not lie in legislation that creates an unaccountable army of inspectors with enormous powers but in “draining the swamp” – that is, the sources of corruption.

To its credit, the federal government has already launched an ambitious project to create a nationwide identity database under the leadership of Nandan Nilekani, an entrepreneurial icon and founder of the software company, Infosys.

Workers of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) are creating what will be the world’s largest biometric database.

The objective of the UIDAI is to reduce the disparity impairing India’s growth story by digitally tying every citizen to the prosperity boat, atlhough the project’s success is by no means assured.

By allowing electronic transmission and verification of many social services, the identity system is expected to make it difficult for government officials to siphon off benefits.

In a recent TV interview, Nilekani urged Hazare’s movement to look at the corruption issue in “a much more strategic and holistic manner and not by just passing some one law”.

“You have to go back and look at the systems … you have to fundamentally analyse and improve the systems themselves and make them much more streamlined, reduce interfaces, reduce discretion, make more technology interfaces,” he said.

Anti-bribery law

Another respected member of India’s corporate fraternity, Deepak Parekh, has championed the adoption of anti-bribery legislation along British lines.

Appearing in a recent episode of the Walk the Talk programme on India’s NDTV channel, he said: “If this [act] is enacted and implemented, it will reduce corruption in our country because of the fear of going behind bars for 10 years. This should be introduced in India so even in a passport office, the man knows the risks, the consequences. If he is caught, he is in deep trouble.”

Earlier this year, Parekh was among a group of eminent Indian industry figures who wrote an open letter addressed to national leaders decrying “the widespread governance deficit almost in every sphere of national activity covering government, business and institutions”.

Some scholars who were initially sceptical of the Hazare team’s motives now say the movement, if anything, has highlighted the importance of direct democracy and civil society.

Some civil-society activists are wary of the Hazare movement’s seeming faith in a single “super institution” [Lokpal] that doesn’t have a proper system of checks and balances and is not accountable to the people.

Instead, they back the creation of adequately empowered multiple institutions to deal with governance issues at different levels – high levels, the middle- and lower-level bureaucracy, judicial corruption and public grievances.

As a complementary step, “existing institutions and laws must be strengthened to enable them to tackle corruption, and to protect those who blow the whistle on corruption”, according to Aruna Roy, a veteran rights activist and a member of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information.

As Indians debate the issue of corruption and how to minimise it it, they are relieved that all the dire warnings about imminent danger to democracy and Arab Spring-like chaos have proved to be overblown.

Politicians, along with the police and bureaucracy, rank near the bottom in most public-opinion surveys [EPA]

Some scholars who were initially sceptical of the Hazare team’s motives now say the movement, if anything, has highlighted the importance of direct democracy and civil society.

The organisers have earned praise for their non-violent methods, their deft media management and use of social networking tools, and their readiness to accept parliament’s assurances in good faith.

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an Indian political scientist, observed: “The fact that there was a platform where thousands could peacefully coalesce around the symbolism of Anna Hazare is not a mean achievement. These signal new forms of mobilisation in future: the combination of the media, urban India, middle-class support is a potent force.”

Indeed, the urban middle class, which is the social base of the Hazare movement, has won accolades for its renewed participation in the country’s civic life. Charges of social exclusivism and illiberalism levelled by leftwing academics and media mavens failed to take into account the deeper reasons that have prompted the middle class to put their faith in movement politics in their quest for cleaner governance.

“Because the logic of Indian politics is so village-heavy, the urban middle class has been gradually withdrawing from the electoral sphere,” Ashutosh Varshney, a Brown University professor and expert on Indian politics, explained in a recent oped in the Indian Express. “It recognises the media and civil society as its own spaces, the voting arena as somewhat alien.”

‘Site of extraction’

Pointing out that over two-thirds, perhaps as much as three-fourths, of India’s GDP is now generated in cities where less than a third of the country lives, Varshney says that for “politicians, the city has primarily become a site of extraction, and the countryside predominantly a site of legitimacy and power”.

Nevertheless, scholars like Varshney and Dhume believe the anti-corruption campaign should convert itself into something like the United States’ Tea Party movement to have a deeper, long-term impact on policy.

With a majority of Indians predicted to reside in cities within the next two decades, they say, the increasingly urban and affluent middle class should now return to electoral politics instead of inveighing against political parties and elections.

They also caution that the task of improving governance cannot be outsourced to civil society, just as one piece of legislation [the Lokpal bill] cannot put an end to the country’s culture of bribery.

“Now the newly awakened need to go a step further and start voting, running for office, and backing candidates who embody their values,” Dhume says. “With economic growth and urbanisation, the size and influence of this potential constituency will only grow.”

Whether the anti-corruption movement is ready to become a part of the messy political system it so disdains remains to be seen.

But politicians and government officials who think smear campaigns and delaying tactics will defuse India’s grassroots outrage, had better read the handwriting on the wall.

Source : Al Jazeera


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