Cleaning Up India’s Culture of Sleaze

A new social movement has inspired India's traditionally apathetic middle-class to clean up their government.


Indian taxpayers received a stark reminder about the costs of official corruption last November when a report by the government’s Controller and Advocate General estimated that public coffers had been fleeced of an estimated $40 billion because of a scam carried out from within the Telecommunications Ministry. On Feb. 2, 2011, Telecommunications Minister A. Raja was arrested for his role in the tainted procedures, which doled out telecommunications licenses at a fraction of their real value.

This scandal and others have since transfixed public debate in India, leading to a popular social movement, in the Gandhian tradition, aimed at ending corruption. But whether this is a transformative movement in Indian life largely depends on the middle class’s continued engagement in the issue.

Other "scam-o-ramas" have erupted across India, fueling the drive for reform. Politicians snapped up bargain apartments intended for war widows in a high rise located on prime real estate in Mumbai; the episode brought down the state’s chief minister in November 2010. In a WikiLeaked cable from 2008, a U.S. embassy officer said he had been shown a suitcase full of cash, which an aide to one of India’s powerful politicians asserted was how the government planned to win a crucial vote of confidence. And New Delhi’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi also featured both financial scams and apparent incompetence by the organizers.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report outlining the telecom scam, which provided the basis for the minister’s arrest, suggested that India’s anti-corruption institutions were trying to respond to the problem. However, they have been hampered by scandals of their own. On March 3, the head of the Central Vigilance Commission — the official directly charged with preventing corruption — resigned because his appointment had not followed proper procedures. His resignation — a major embarrassment for the government and for India’s institutions — came as charges were brought against him in an import scandal.

The government has paid a high price for all these incidents. It was unable to get any legislative business done in the winter session of parliament. During the budget session, it was only able to pass the budget after agreeing to a parliamentary commission to investigate government improprieties.

The scandals went beyond the government. A huge trove of taped conversations involving  airline entrepreneur turned lobbyist Niira Radia were released in early 2011. Much of what they reveal is influence-peddling and juicy gossip; how much of it is illegal and how much is exaggeration is unclear. But for a country accustomed to thinking of lobbying as an un-Indian activity, it made shocking reading. Moreover, the people Radia was talking to — senior journalists and widely respected business figures like Tata chief Ratan Tata — were caught up in the corruption.

Corruption is hardly unique to India — and it is not new there. Past cases that have risen to the level of public scandal have generally involved kickbacks or sweetheart deals. What distinguishes the present situation is the confluence of several major scandals at about the same time, creating an atmosphere of sleaze that appears to permeate all aspects of public life in India.

Enter Anna Hazare, an activist from the state of Maharashtra whose title means "big brother," a term of affection and respect. The biography on his web site describes an idealistic young man who enlisted in the army and served for fifteen years. Along the way, he decided that his life’s calling would be to improve the living conditions of villagers in his home state. After leaving the army in the mid-1970s, he devoted himself to development work, with a particular focus on water management and social mobilization. In 1991, he began to move beyond village, founding Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan (BVJA), or Public Movement against Corruption. While Hazare’s goal was mobilization, it was clear that the man, rather than the institution, was the mobilizing principle. In the last decade, most of his major activities have focused on increasingly political goals, such as anti-corruption initiatives and protest against excessive perks for state legislators.  

Hazare plays a role familiar to students of Indian political and social history. In dress, diction and style, he evokes Mahatma Gandhi — but also more recent social crusaders like Jayaprakash Narayanan, who campaigned against Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency in the mid-1970s and then went on to try to hold the government that ousted her to its idealistic election promises.


Like Gandhi, Hazare has adopted the hunger strike as his signature protest vehicle. His four-day fast at Jantar Mantar, a New Delhi park featuring an other-worldly collection of 18th century sculptures designed to help astronomers with their observations, attracted hordes of people. As the Congress Party secretary general waspishly observed, the arrangements needed for the fast cost Hazare’s followers 5 million rupees, or around $112,000.

In his focus on corruption, Hazare praised at least one politician not normally associated with Gandhi’s heritage — Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, best known for egging on the 2001 anti-Muslim riots that took place in his state, but also regarded as the energetic administrator of a clean state government. Other politicians have scrambled to line up with Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign, notably including Rahul Gandhi, widely seen as the next Congress prime minister, who praised Modi — a prominent figure in the opposition Bharatia Janata Party (BJP) — for "working to improve this rotten system."

Hazare, meanwhile, has attempted to galvanize the support of young people from middle class and elite backgrounds — a group that has previously been relatively apathetic about political and social activism. He has collected statements of support from around the country and across the political spectrum, including from doctors at India’s premier medical research institution, students at the elite Indian Institutes of Science, lawyers from Tirupati in southern India, social activists from the eastern state of Orissa — the list seems endless. His Facebook page overflows with statements of support, many of them in a blend of English and Hindi.

Hazare’s movement is focused on passing a bill that establishes a Lokpal, or "guardian of the people," to eradicate corruption in high places. The government’s agreement to this basic demand led Hazare to end his hunger strike on March 19. His followers also want control over the drafting process, and appear to be succeeding in this effort as well. A drafting committee, which includes five prominent civil society figures representing Hazare’s movement and five government ministers, met for the first time on April 16. The meeting was cordial, but was promptly followed by tension both within the drafting committee and between the drafters and the opposition BJP.

It seems likely that a Lokpal bill will pass, either in the next parliamentary session or soon thereafter. The draft submitted by Hazare’s legal team would create an office with the power to investigate and prosecute all public servants, with its head selected by a committee comprised of a number of prominent elected and appointed officials — but not including any government ministers, since they are potential targets of the Lokpal‘s investigations. The fine print will undoubtedly be adjusted in the drafting process, but the scale of the movement will probably keep the main lines of the idea intact.

India’s political process normally measures the time from idea to law in years, so passage of major legislation in a few months would be an extraordinary accomplishment for Hazare’s social movement. It would also add an important institution to India’s well-developed government structures. In spite of the embarrassment caused by the improper appointment of the Central Vigilance Council head, India has a good record of allowing high-profile independent officials to do their jobs. The chief election commissioner is a particularly inspiring example of how an appointed official with prestige, backbone, and a recognized place can achieve a great deal in protecting India’s democracy.

But the real challenge comes next, in sustaining the reform drive. The Internet and Facebook have a remarkable ability to generate wide middle class support, a new phenomenon in a country where lower income groups and poor farmers have always voted in far larger percentages than their better-off and urban compatriots. But these media don’t necessarily produce intensity or staying power. This movement is miles wide. We will not know for some months how deep it is.

And so much more remains to be done. Hazare’s movement has thus far not addressed the corruption that many Indians have to deal with every day, such as petty payoffs to officials for services ranging from getting a driver’s license to paying one’s taxes, or the corporate equivalent of this same phenomenon. Nor has it tackled more insidious problems like violations of safety and building codes, which cost lives when things go wrong.

India’s political institutions and its social movements also need to guard against throwing the baby out with the bath water. Both the Indian government and Indian companies need to make decisions — and decisions involve some degree of risk. The "system" that has been exposed over the past six months allowed giant scams to flourish. India will be well rid of that. The new one, however, should take care not to paralyze decision-making.

But that thought is for the future. For now, it is a promising sign that Indians have organized to place public integrity at the center of their political demands, and are working to enshrine it in a dedicated institution.

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