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The Anti-Corruption Crusade in India

Anna Hazare and the Idea of Gandhi

by MITU SENGUPTA

For the past two weeks, the world has been captivated by the bitter confrontation between the Indian government and a short, bespectacled, seventy-four-year old man called Anna Hazare, a self-styled anti-corruption crusader.

On August 16th, Hazare’s arrest and internment in Tihar jail, South Asia’s largest complex of high security prisons, sparked candlelit marches across the country, leading a shaken government to order his release in less than twelve hours.  In a stunning turnaround, Hazare declined to leave, insisting that the government remove all conditions on his ‘fast-unto-death’ in protest of the government’s recent anti-corruption legislation, which he said was not strong enough.  Hazare walked out of Tihar a national hero on August 20th, and lodged himself within the expansive grounds of Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, surrounded by tens of thousands of supporters, national flags and a mammoth portrait of Mohandas Karamchand (‘Mahatma’) Gandhi.  He refused to eat, but drank water.

Hazare ended his twelve-day fast on the morning of Sunday, August 28th, after the Indian Parliament passed an unprecedented “sense of the house” resolution supporting his team’s three key demands.  Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of Delhi, rejoicing what they saw as a “people’s victory”; a victory befitting none other than Gandhi.

As an admirer of Gandhi’s, I have found the ceaseless comparisons of Hazare with Gandhi – propagated by the media, Hazare’s supporters and Hazare himself – troubling and inappropriate.  I am not alone in my reservations about Hazare.  He is not a popular figure within left and progressive circles in India.  His movement has been portrayed as a narrow, middle class, upper caste phenomenon that is dangerously tinged with authoritarianism and Hindu nationalism.

Yet the reference to Gandhi should not be simply dismissed as a convenient political ploy.  It speaks to what the Hazare movement wants to be, and to the transformative potential of what has transpired in the last fortnight.  But if the idea of “Gandhi” is an end as much as it is a political means, has Hazare succeeded in approaching the vision of the one and only?

The Diagnosis

It is evident from his interviews and speeches that Hazare views corruption as the result of unchecked human greed.  There is no further analysis.  Gandhi too stressed the importance of personal ethics: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” is one of his best-remembered axioms. But Gandhi’s understanding of why humans err was more profound, his diagnosis more structural.  For Gandhi, personal greed had a wider social context, and was also rooted in the unethical choices and practices of the state.  Gandhi would surely condemn India’s bitter scourge of corruption, were he alive today. Unlike Hazare, however, he would demand a more systemic answer to a more preliminary question: How did this come to pass?

The character of corruption in India has not changed over time, though its magnitude certainly has. Conventional wisdom might suggest that the corruption that afflicts India today is a vestige of the widespread corruption of the state-centred economy, which preceded the liberalizing reforms of 1991.  Yet many of the worst cases of corruption in recent years are borne out of deregulation, privatization and the fostering of public-private partnerships – the very processes that were meant to reduce the discretionary powers of public officials.  An example is the notorious “2G spectrum scam,” in which cellphone licenses were sold for a fraction of their value, resulting in the loss of a staggering $39 billion to the national exchequer.

From a Gandhian perspective, such continuity is not surprising.  Liberalization did not transform the core objectives of the state, only its methods and instruments.  India still follows what Gandhi fundamentally opposed: a master-narrative of growth-at-all-cost that is at odds with the goal of a more equitable and ecologically conscious society.  India remains wedded to a high modernist development paradigm that traps it, as it always has, in a race to “catch-up” with the West and, more recently, with China.  There are repercussions to competing in this heady game of global one-upmanship: eagerness to jump the proverbial queue any means possible, great impatience with those who choose not to participate (such as environmentalists and indigenous peoples), and intolerance of dissent and “messy politics” more generally.  The newly affluent middle classes galvanized by Hazare – the business and corporate leaders who financed his campaign – are particularly guilty of such insensitivity and readiness to engage in corruption.

One might ask how serious Hazare’s core-supporters are about fighting corruption when their primary instinct is to ignore or quash protest, especially when it bubbles up around the dream of “catching up.”  A recent example will illustrate my point.  Earlier this month, the state auditor released its final report on the 2010 Commonwealth Games.  The 744-page document revealed that the games, held in Delhi last year, were not only unjustifiably expensive (with a price-tag of $4.1 billion), but also massively corrupt (some $1.6 billion are said to have gone missing).  Yet to some, the auditor’s review was not surprising.  In the years leading up to the games, hundreds of human rights advocates, student groups and independent activists had expressed fears about the event’s flawed planning and impending delivery.  Slumdwellers were being evicted.  Environmental norms were being violated.  There were many signs of fraud.  Hazare’s middle class supporters heeded none of these signals, though they later expressed shock and outrage at the auditor’s report.  Rather, as the games drew closer, the event was eagerly celebrated as one that would affirm India’s “world class” status. Critics were dismissed, even condemned, as unpatriotic killjoys.

This is not to say that middle class Indians, estimated to be 300 million strong, have no material basis for their complaints, or that they do not recognize that corruption is rampant in both the public and private sectors of the economy.  School principals will ask for a “donation” before they admit your child. Passport officials will direct you to fee-charging “agents” in return for clearing your file. If you’d like a copy of your birth certificate, you’ll have to give baksheesh (tips). If you’d like a company to award you a contract for changing the light bulbs in its office, you’d better be prepared to offer a “cut” to a lower administrator, or he’ll make sure his boss never hears of your bid. The middle class, by no means, is an insignificant victim of corruption.

Its suffering cannot compare, however, to the miseries endured by the poor: the loss of income and livelihood, when government officials and private developers conspire to cheat farmers of their land; the hunger, when subsidized food, meant for the poor, is siphoned off and sold on the open market; the missed opportunities when teachers, employed by government schools, take up private tuition instead of delivering their classes.

Hazare and supporters have been silent on a range of recent developments – such as illegal mining and the land acquisition process for SEZs (special economic zones) – in which corruption hurts poor farmers, fisherfolk, and indigenous communities rather than only well-heeled city-dwellers.  Reckless and rapacious economic transformations have proceeded unchecked, even as Hazare has prayed, fasted, and stressed the importance of vegetarianism and teetotaling.  Gandhi would surely have been critical of such unwillingness to connect personal ideals of moral living with a broader vision of social and environmental justice.  While Gandhi certainly curried favour with wealthy business elites – a strategy that earned him enduring opprobrium from India’s Communist left – his primary base of support was always the rural poor, in whose service he advocated a smaller-scale and more ecologically conscious road to “development” than the one India ultimately adopted.  Hazare, in contrast, has yet to formulate a position that challenges the neoliberal objectives and ill-founded nationalism of his financiers and middle class, upper caste following.

I am not arguing that every protestor should be armed with an erudite analysis of national and global problems. Gandhi would have resisted such banal elitism.  Yet it is the responsibility of Hazare and his advisors, who now have an enviable upper hand over the government, to develop a platform that addresses not only the symptoms of corruption, but also its root causes.  Only then can they reasonably evoke Gandhi’s name.

 

The Prescription 

If Hazare’s diagnosis of the problem of corruption is un-Gandhian, so is his prescription of a Leviathan-like Lokpal, which is based on the concept of ‘Ombudsman’ in Western democracies. While Gandhi would probably not worry about the monitoring of elected representatives by a ‘Lokpal’, he would surely raise questions, if not oppose, the creation of another colossal and centralized institution of the state, over which ordinary citizens appear to have little control.  The nine-member Lokpal bench proposed by Hazare’s Jan Lokpal bill will comprise former judges, former bureaucrats and other “persons of eminence in public life,” thus ceding enormous powers to “experts’ cut off from the grassroots.

Despite apparent differences, however, the government and Hazare have the same technocratic approach to reducing corruption, centred on correcting individual behaviour alone.  The immediate reason for Hazare’s hunger strike and the events of the past two weeks was a bitter dispute between the government and “Team Anna” (Hazare and his advisors) over which version of the Lokpal Bill the parliament should accept.  This savage face-off notwithstanding, the government’s bill differs from Hazare’s not in terms of basic design, but in terms of questions such as who can be investigated by the Lokpal (Hazare wants the Prime Minister, the government does not), who will select the nine-member bench (Hazare wants more “civil society” people, the government wants more government people), the sorts of investigatory powers the Lokpal will enjoy (Hazare wants wire-taps, the government does not), and whether ‘whistleblowers’ will be protected by law (Hazare wants a guarantee that they will, the government does not).

While the government’s bill calls for a weaker Lokpal than Hazare’s bill, both imagine the Lokpal as a policing institution.  An anti-corruption route more in keeping with Gandhian principles is that of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI).  The NCPRI’s approach more genuinely empowers ordinary citizens by recognizing that they are entitled to a transparent and accountable government. Under the Right to Information Act, passed by the Indian parliament in 2005 in response to pressure from the NCPRI, any citizen can ask to review the government’s records and documents.  The NCPRI has also created space for the voicing of grassroots concerns, through locally-grounded mechanisms such as Jan Sunwais (public hearings).

Given the enormity of the problem, establishing a Lokpal is probably a good, practical idea.  The government, opposition parties and broad swathes of civil society, including NCPRI, appear to agree on this point, though again, they differ on the powers, terms and composition of such an office (lower caste parties, for one, want to ensure that their communities are sufficiently represented on the Lokpal bench).  Nonetheless, the Lokpal, on its own – however weak or strong, representative or unrepresentative – is unlikely to make more than a minor dent in corruption.  At the institutional level alone, it needs to be embedded within a larger framework of changes, including campaign finance reform and new mechanisms for judicial accountability.

 

The Movement

Hazare’s comparisons with Gandhi are not entirely without substance.  His willingness to sacrifice himself for a cause is both a Gandhian principle and strategy.  Given the history of India’s anti-colonial movement, the government’s labelling of Hazare’s fast-unto-death as “illegal suicide” seems dishonest and offensive. The government’s justification of Hazare’s arrest in the interest of “law and order” and its description of Hazare’s supporters as “armchair fascists, overground Maoists and closet anarchists” are nothing short of reactionary. So is the government’s attempt to portray Hazare as personally corrupt.  Even those with a rudimentary understanding of Indian history will know that these were precisely the sorts of arguments employed by the British to counter Gandhi.

The government’s argument that Hazare is a threat to parliamentary democracy is also disingenuous. Hazare is not calling for regime change, nor is he disputing the parliament’s authority to make laws. Furthermore, even if Hazare’s ideas were truly revolutionary (which they are not), the concept of parliamentary supremacy is not absolute.  What about popular sovereignty, the political principle that the legitimacy of the state is created by the will or consent of its people, who are ultimately the source of all political power? According to this ideal, distrust of government is healthy, and it is the duty of citizens to monitor their elected representatives.  Many important changes would have not occurred were lawmakers simply left to their own devices to enact just laws.  People such as Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony and the Reverend Martin Luther King had to dispute and disobey existing laws in order to pave the way for better ones.  Perhaps Hazare, too, will be remembered for forcing open doors when no-one else would – for jolting India into starting a truly countrywide discussion on corruption, of a scale that small, locally-rooted civil society groups could not possibly hope to initiate.

But despite his high-voltage personality and ability to inspire – which are reminiscent of Gandhi – Hazare has limitations that Gandhi did not.  Unlike Gandhi, Hazare is not a deep thinker.  Nor is he an educated man.  More worrying, he seems to lack the Mahatma’s sense of compassion, good judgment, and ability to act (and negotiate) without the assistance of a throng of advisers, some of who, such as the severe, former warden of Tihar prisons, Kiran Bedi, are as far removed from Gandhian philosophy as one could possibly be. Hazare doesn’t seem to mind, moreover, where he gets his money. The Ford Foundation, known for tying development assistance programs (foreign aid) to American strategic interests and trade policy goals, is said to have contributed some $400,000 to Hazare’s campaign through one of his aides, Manish Sisodia.

Hazare’s detractors say that he has a soldier’s view of corruption, not that of the spiritual leader he claims to be.  He is notorious for advocating the death penalty in the worst cases of corruption, public flogging for ‘un-Godly’ vices such as alcoholism, and even forced vasectomies to curb population growth.  He has openly praised Narendra Modi, the current Chief Minister of Gujarat, who is reviled in progressive circles for his neoliberal views on economic policy, hawkish approach to national security, and controversial role in the Gujarat riots of 2002 (he is said to have abetted the killing of Muslims).

In the past two weeks, Hazare’s advisers managed to keep his tyrannical proclivities and tendency to say stupid things in check.  They played to his strengths, arguing that he better represents the “common man” than refined dynastic leaders such as Rahul Gandhi, of the ruling Congress party, and even the upper middle class heroes of India’s freedom struggle.  In the longer term, however, “Team Anna” will have to do a lot more if Hazare is to become fully palatable to the left-liberal intelligentsia and other civil society groups, whose support the movement will need in order to endure beyond these tense days of brinkmanship.  One way that “Team Anna” can genuinely succeed in emulating Gandhi is by building a multi-faceted and inclusive alliance against corruption – and even then, not only individual acts of corruption by unethical public servants, but also processes, such as unregulated mining by private companies, that have precipitated some of the most injurious forms of corruption.

There are some hopeful signs that such a transformation is underway.  Within a week of his fast, Hazare had broadened his demands beyond corruption to issues such as farmers’ rights to land, the rights of labourers to humane conditions of work and even nuclear non-proliferation.  He acquired important allies, such as social activist Medha Patkar, who is known for her guiding role in the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a social movement opposed to the construction of an environmentally destructive mega-dam on the Narmada River.  More recently, Patkar has emerged as a key organizer of the National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM), a broad alliance of social movements that resists anti-poor programs and policies of the state through the use of Gandhian means. Patkar’s steadfast support may help improve Hazare’s image, which is still of a man who surrounds himself with cops, swamis (holy men), and Bollywood actors.

Hazare also received an important albeit qualified measure of support from Aruna Roy, who is a prominent leader of the NCPRI (discussed above). While Roy refused to condone Hazare’s fast-unto-death, which she saw as an arm-twisting tactic that “derides” democratic institutions, she endorsed his demand for a strong Lokpal, and was equally critical of the government’s version of the Lokpal bill.  Roy’s version of the bill – envisioned as a sort of  “third way” – has a great deal in common with Hazare’s, other than the suggestion that the Lokpal comprise several separate institutions rather than one, looming monolith (Team Anna has not explicitly rejected this suggestion).  Indeed, Roy provided a crucial show of support to Team Anna in its final hours of negotiations with the government by backing Hazare’s three key demands, “sticking points” that were prolonging the stand-off.  Hazare broke his fast when the government agreed, in principle, to incorporate these demands into the Lokpal bill, whichever variation the parliament ultimately adopts (the demands are procedural in nature, and relate to the scope of the Lokpal and the accountability of the institution).

Hazare’s movement, in another important development, appears to have expanded beyond the urban middle class and Hindu upper caste.  Major civil society actors, including Patkar’s NAPM, pledged support to Hazare, as did hundreds of students’ groups, farmers’ groups, senior citizens’ societies, sex workers’ unions, taxi drivers’ unions and small vendors’ associations. An example of the latter are Mumbai’s dabbawallas, who went on strike for the first time in 120 years on August 19th to protest Hazare’s arrest. (Dabbawallas are a unique service industry in Mumbai and other large metropolises: they deliver boxed lunches –dabbas– to office workers in the inner city).  Political parties and civil society groups representing the interests of religious minorities and lower castes have been more wary, however, of extending support to Hazare.  They have argued that, despite many avowals to the contrary, Hazare’s movement remains mainly Hindu and upper caste, and also that his attempts to “blackmail” the parliament set a poor precedent for minorities.  “What if tomorrow there is a crowd that agitates in a similar way against reservations (affirmative action)?” worried Dr. Udit Raj, a major Dalit leader, in a television interview. (Dalit, which means “suppressed,” is a self-designation for people traditionally known as “untouchable”).  During Hazare’s fast, however, many Dalit and Muslim organizations rallied in support of Hazare, thus breaking ranks with community leaders such as Dr. Raj and the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, who advised his congregation to stay away.

As I picked my way through the jam-packed Ramlila grounds on Wednesday, August 24th – some 20,000 people had shown up – I was struck by the crowd’s diversity, at least in terms of class and generation, of which there are visible signs.  Fashionable, Blackberry-wielding youth wearing jeans and sunglasses mingled with grey-haired farmers in traditional Indian garb and bare feet. An atmosphere of calm prevailed despite much loud sloganeering and noticeably lax security (I’ve had more trouble getting into Delhi’s malls). My companions and I spoke to students, who despaired about having to pay bribes for driving licenses and passports.  We spoke to farmers, who lamented that their friends and relatives were languishing in jail because they had dared to oppose the government’s land acquisition policies. They complained about corruption.  They complained about injustice.

I am aware that many readers will question my portrayal, if not understanding, of what I saw on the Ramlila grounds. Some will be infuriated. The Hazare issue is a divisive one within left and progressive circles, an admittedly ineffective, catch-all phrase that I like to use to describe people who support left parties and politics; left-leaning academics, policymakers and journalists, or even more broadly, people who oppose Hindu nationalism, neoliberalism and belligerent positions on defence and policy.  In the past week alone, I have engaged in angry debates with friends, family and colleagues who roughly fit this description.

The stock anti-Hazare position among Indian progressives is that the movement is a front for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a despicable, right-wing, ultra-nationalist paramilitary organization that caters to middle and lower middle class Hindu males.  Some add an American imperialism angle. When I point to evidence that a wide spectrum of organizations and people have participated in pro-Hazare demonstrations, I am greeted with cynicism.  I am sent emails that “prove” that the RSS and/or American government have propped up Hazare.  I am informed that I am “romanticizing” the movement, and that the presence of Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis (indigenous communities) at Ramlila and other sites of protest was “orchestrated” by Team Anna.  Or I am told, more simply, that many Indians are not aware of the issues because they “lack literacy and education,” and will “join anything” that’s whipped into a spectacle by the predatory media (this argument, unsurprisingly, is a favourite of the police and military right-wing, who might have bulldozed Hazare out of Ramlila, if given the chance).

I do not doubt that the RSS, a cadre-based outfit, has played an organizational role in Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. Nonetheless, attributing twelve days of nationwide, mass protests to manipulation and “false consciousness” is both ludicrous and dangerous. It denies the depth and extent of genuine grievance. The people I spoke with – a small, unscientifically selected sample, to be sure – related their complaints with clarity, specificity and passion. You cannot convince me that they were dupes, or RSS henchmen, or pawns of the U.S. State Department.  By all indications, the Anna Hazare “phenomenon,” as it is often derisively called, has grown well beyond the rigid “one man” show it was just a few months ago.  Perhaps the need of the hour is to figure out how the space created by Hazare’s anti-graft movement – which started as a shallow campaign against the state by India’s middle class and upper castes – can be used to further more radical goals (on this subject, see a thoughtful article by Saroj Giri in Sanhati).

Anna Hazare may have ended his fast, but his larger role in Indian politics is still an unfinished story.  He may never be Gandhi, but the next little while will reveal whether his team of advisers and the mass movement he has inspired can live up to the Gandhian ideals of empathy, inclusiveness and systemic change.  In the face of this tremendous possibility, of which the Indian left and progressives must take note, Hazare’s more immediate demand – the passage of his model of the Lokpal bill – is of secondary importance.

Mitu Sengupta is Associate Professor of Politics, Ryerson University, Toronto, and Director for the Centre for Development and Human Rights (CDHR), New Delhi.  She may be reached via msengupta@gmail.com. An earlier version of this article appeared in Dissent Magazine.