Courtesy Reuters

India's Corruption Problem

Anna Hazare and India's Democracy

Late August is not customarily a time when India's aggrieved and long-suffering citizens gather in New Delhi's public parks to express their disenchantment with the government in office. The near incessant monsoon rains, the fetid humidity, and the enervating heat combine to dampen any desire to participate in mass protests. Yet the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is now bracing for a 15-day protest, including a fast, in the heart of the nation's capital.

At the center of this outpouring of popular sentiment are certain features of an anticorruption bill currently under discussion in the Indian parliament. The protesters and their principal leader, Kisan Baburao Hazare, an ascetic former army officer popularly known as Anna ("elder brother" in Hindi) Hazare, insist that the government's version of the bill is toothless. More specifically, they argue that any legislation must include both the office of the prime minister and the judiciary in its purview. As it is written now, the bill limits itself to civil servants and politicians and places a seven-year limit on investigations.

However, the government and its supporters -- including Nandan Nilkani, a well-regarded entrepreneur who is now head of the government's technology committee -- are equally adamant that they will not change the bill. According to them, the proposed legislation makes a good-faith effort. Moreover, they argue that Hazare and the protesters are resorting to tactics bordering on blackmail and undermining the supremacy of India's parliament, the country's elected deliberative body.

The merits of these particular questions aside, Hazare has caught the attention of Indians across the country by seizing upon well-worn Gandhian tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience and threats of fasts. He has, quite deftly, referred to his campaign as a quest for India's "second revolution," thereby invoking memories of the country's freedom from the yoke of British colonial rule.

Until recently, Hazare was a relatively obscure social activist known mostly in his native state of Maharashtra, where he ran a model village and sought to reform recalcitrant youngsters with rather harsh, authoritarian methods. However, once he brought his agitation to New Delhi in June and then negotiations between him and key government representatives broke down in August, the government chose to incarcerate him in the city's notorious Tihar jail -- where a host of prominent politicians and senior bureaucrats were awaiting trial for corruption-related offenses -- an abrupt, nationwide movement erupted. In a country with widespread reverence for the aged, the sight of a 74-year-old man being hauled off to jail to serve time with a number of scandal-ridden politicians was too much to countenance. The government's singularly ham-handed tactic backfired in the worst imaginable fashion: widespread public protests ensued.

Further increasing his public appeal, Hazare refused to move out of the prison even after the government offered to set him free. Instead, he made his own release conditional on the government's willingness to allow him to hold a public fast on the grounds of a park in New Delhi to demonstrate the public's growing anger. Despite its reservations, the government worked out a compromise and granted him leave to hold the fast on August 18.

Corruption is hardly a new element in Indian politics. Graft has long wracked India's public life and society, running the gamut from small-scale bribes to the police in exchange for dispensing with traffic tickets to massive payoffs to politicians and political parties to acquire complex weapons systems. The country's citizens have frequently complained about this malaise but have rarely, if ever, resorted to organized public protest to register their frustration and anger about this pervasive phenomenon. On the whole, they have stoically accepted its existence as part of India's social and political landscape.

The explanation for the sudden surge in public anger over and impatience with corruption is twofold. At one level, India's fitful embrace of market-oriented policies beginning in the early 1990s has ended some forms of mid-level corruption. For example, the eclipse of what the noted Indian economist Raj Krishna sardonically called the "license-permit-quota raj" -- the labyrinthine set of regulations of industrial licensing, permit requirements, and production quotas -- has actually reduced opportunities for bureaucratic graft and corruption. Businessmen and industrialists no longer have to bribe bureaucrats at state and national levels to obtain most such clearances.

That said, corruption has moved into other spheres. Three recent cases are illustrative. The first involved the offering of 2G spectrum rights to a number of unexceptional mobile-phone firms at undervalued prices. According to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, the scandal cost the exchequer $39 billion. The second involved the sale of some prime, government-owned land in Mumbai to high-ranking retired military officers, even though the land was ostensibly intended for the widows of officers who had lost their lives in the fourth Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1999. The third episode dealt with the 19th Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi last October. Once again, another CAG report has confirmed fears and allegations of widespread fraud, mismanagement, and the blatant padding of contracts. A number of high officials have been indicted and are now in custody.

The economic costs of all three of these episodes to the Indian taxpayer are patently obvious. And an increasingly competitive and feisty press could not resist the temptation to highlight these malfeasances, well aware of the existing wellsprings of public frustration. To compound matters, a plethora of cutthroat television networks, in their endless quest for viewers and ratings, started a steady drumbeat on talk shows and news programs and produced some hard-hitting investigative reports.

With the sheer sums involved and the relentless coverage of these issues, public anger mounted. Not surprisingly, the principal opposition party in parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), bereft of new and alternative ideas to garner electoral support, seized upon these corruption scandals in parliamentary debates. In an effort to portray the ruling Congress Party and its allies as little more than the enablers of crony capitalism, it sought to align its rhetoric to the public mood. Whether the efforts will help win back electoral support to the party, which had championed the cause of Hindu chauvinism as its ideological platform, remains an open question. It is not as if its stint in office, from 1998 to 2004, was wholly untainted by political corruption.

However, the BJP's support for Hazare is playing right into the hands of the UPA. Senior members of the Congress Party lost no time in suggesting that Hazare's closest associates are in league with the BJP and that he is being duped. This tactic, however, may not be especially successful, given the very diverse set of acolytes Hazare has managed to galvanize. For example, among his closest associates is a noted former policewoman, Kiran Bedi, who is known for her intelligence and professionalism. In a country where senior police officials are treated with an amalgam of fear and loathing, she is an individual who, long after leaving office, still commands widespread respect.

Quite apart from the grievances Hazare represents and the individuals who have joined his protest movement, the public anger that has welled up and burst forth might actually be grounded in something more than mere frustration with high-level corruption. It could signify a more profound, long-standing set of frustrations: the callousness of senior public servants, the unresponsiveness of petty bureaucrats, the arbitrary and high-handed behavior of politicians, and the rapaciousness and insensitivity of India's new rich.

It is impossible to predict how Hazare's planned protests in New Delhi's Ramlila grounds will play out. Perhaps the rain, heat, and humidity of monsoon season will dissipate the ardor of his followers as the days wear on and the government finds ways to stave off the opposition in parliament. Or the government's argument -- promoted by Singh, the otherwise respected prime minister -- that Hazare's tactics are suborning democratic procedures and norms could find traction with a host of public intellectuals and even the populace at large. But it is equally possible that the multiplicity of pent-up grievances will continue to drive Hazare's followers, who will finally see an opportunity to bring the powerful and mighty to heel. The electoral costs to Singh could be significant if the agitation continues to be a nationwide issue.

Given the volatility of Indian politics, any of these scenarios is possible. What is apparent, however, is that Hazare has managed to ignite and stoke some primeval misgivings among significant segments of India's electorate. It is hard to envisage how the current government will be able to fend off the tide of public outrage that has come to the fore without making some tangible concessions, such as extending the scope of the present bill. Merely passing some token legislation with anodyne and limited provisions is highly unlikely to assuage the powerful sentiments that this movement has unleashed.

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