Why India's problems are too broad for even a Jasmine Revolution to root out.
India was never meant to have a Jasmine Revolution.
India was never meant to have a Jasmine Revolution.
The country faces many of the same problems that triggered a rash of anti-government protests across the Middle East: corruption, staggering unemployment, and shoddy governance. But unlike its Arab counterparts, India is ruled not by a dictator, but by a democratically-elected government that can be voted out of power every five years.
And yet, what India witnessed earlier this month looked very much like a revolution. On April 5, in New Delhi’s baking summer heat, a frail-looking but tenacious septuagenarian began a hunger strike that riveted the Indian political class, with repercussions all the way up to the highest levels of the government. Anna Hazare, a firebrand 72-year-old activist, sat in a square in Delhi for five days demanding that the government enact the Lokpal bill, a sweeping anti-corruption legislation that successive Indian administrations have stubbornly refused to pass in Parliament for the last 40 years.
Hazare’s apparent success in bringing about change — the government has agreed to make some reforms — has been cheered by middle-class Indians. But the victory may be short-lived. India’s corruption problem goes beyond a few bad apples in Parliament. It’s a deeply engrained cultural neurosis that exists on every level of society, and to end it, India’s going to need a lot more than its version of a Jasmine Revolution.
Hazare’s strike was instantly resonant among a broad population of Indians, with observers calling him a new Gandhi. Thousands joined his hunger strike. Others performed street plays against corruption and sang patriotic hymns. Jantar Mantar, the dusty venue of the strike, was dubbed India’s Tahrir Square by the local press. Protesters waved flags and wielded placards embossed with slogans like "Tunisia, Egypt, and now India." Across the country, thousands poured into the streets and held protest rallies in support of Hazare, who described the movement as India’s "second freedom struggle." For a time, the hunger strike was even trending ahead of the Indian Premier League on Indian Twitter feeds, a rarity in this cricket-mad country.
After five days, the government relented to the mounting pressure, setting up a panel to redraft the Lokpal legislation in consultation with civil society groups and federal ministers. The announcement prompted jubilant celebrations across the country. Hazare broke his fast, proudly asserting afterwards that if it had continued for three more days, the government would have been toppled.
He could well be right. The unrest Hazare provoked was broader and more intense than almost anything seen in post-independence India. His movement’s mass appeal reflects the prevailing zeitgeist of modern India, a country in the midst of a torrid economic boom but where widespread corruption is corroding the foundations of governance and damaging public trust in institutions.
In recent months, a series of corruption scandals have erupted in rapid succession — from alleged embezzlement of public funds in the organization of last year’s Commonwealth Games to allegations of graft in the sale of mobile-phone airwaves. And the government hasn’t exactly impressed anyone in its willingness to confront the problem.
Manmohan Singh, India’s only prime minister in the past five decades to be sworn in for a second term after a full five-year tenure, is regarded widely as a man of integrity and high morality. Those are qualities seen as rare virtues in a politician, and observers have labeled him a non-politician in India’s highest political office. But even his proponents accuse him of being ineffectual in battling corruption.
The Lokpal bill now looks likely to be passed in some in the coming months, as Hazare has threatened to agitate again if it isn’t passed by Aug. 15. Based on a model adopted from some Scandinavian countries, the legislation seeks to appoint an independent ombudsman to scrutinize complaints against erring public servants, including the prime minister and members of parliament. He would be vested with broad powers to investigate and prosecute the cases of corruption he runs up against.
But this bill, however well-intentioned, is no cure for the disease of corruption; it is a palliative measure at best. Some states have already passed legislation to appoint a federal-level ombudsman, called a lokayukta, but these bills have not significantly curbed corruption. The southern state of Karnataka set up a lokayukta in the year 2000, and granted him extraordinary powers to combat corruption. But despite his best efforts, instances of political corruption and illegal mining that cost the state exchequer billions of rupees continue unabated under his watch.
Under Lokpal, the ombudsman at the national level would have no power to interfere with government policies — like the issuing of government licenses for mining or telecom airwaves, areas notoriously prone to corruption. Navigating India’s stagnant bureaucracy and opaque power structures to carry out investigations will be another challenge. And despite assurances of checks and balances, there is no guarantee that the ombudsman himself will stay above the law — and the temptations to stray will be many and powerful.
But the real problem with the Lokpal bill, and with the Hazare movement’s entire approach to rooting out Indian corruption, is that they’re both based on a false assumption. Hazare touts the legislation as the ticket to a "corruption-free India" to his many supporters. The Lokpal bill, while a step forward in that direction, feeds into a totally unrealistic hope that ferreting out crooked politicians alone will bring about a cataclysmic change in India.
Indeed, that argument proved wrong as political campaigning began for federal elections in five Indian states. In Tamil Nadu, one of those states in southern India, the campaign turned into a high-octane contest over which political party could offer better freebies for its voters. Among the gifts promised for a successful election were electronics, food grains, and gold jewelry.
In raids of private houses and private vehicles hired by campaign workers across the state, election officials discovered cash worth millions of rupees, hundreds of liters of alcohol, and thousands of wristwatches, saris, and shawls meant to be distributed to voters. You’d expect the masses — outraged by rampant government corruption — to reject this kind of electoral bribe. Instead, many of them bickered about the quality and quantity of the handouts received — paid for out of taxpayer’s money.
This is not an isolated event by any means. A 2008 study by New Delhi’s Center for Media Studies revealed that one-fifth of all voters in the last decade accepted cash handouts between 100 and 1,000 rupees in exchange for votes.
It could be argued that majority recipients of these handouts belong largely to economically weak sections of Indian society. But such tacit approval of private corruption is common across India’s social classes. If you live in this country, at one point or another you will bump into a tobacco-chewing man on a train or a bus who will nonchalantly admit to paying a bribe of 500,000 rupees to a recruitment officer for a job in the police force that pays 2,500 rupees per month. Such government jobs, though low paying, are in great demand. More than the paltry salary, it’s the "upar ki kamai" — Hindi for bribes sought on the job — that offers a lifetime source of recurring income. The bribe paid to get the job will eventually be recovered from the bribes earned on the job.
A similar ethos reigns at the very top. A series of tapped phone conversations between Niira Radia, an influential Indian corporate lobbyist representing some of India’s largest companies, and a gamut of well-known industrialists, politicians, and journalists was leaked to the Indian press last year, provoking weeks of escalating scandal and leading to a number of arrests. The tapes exposed just how government functionaries are for sale (a transport minister "can make his 15 percent"), and how journalists can be dictated headlines by powerful lobby groups. They also eventually revealed how politicians endowed with arbitrary powers to issue permits and clearances to business projects greedily skim the cream off lucrative deals. But beyond the crony capitalism, the tapes exposed how business houses, operating in a crowded Indian market, shamelessly engage in corruption to skirt bureaucracy, circumvent rules, and overcome regulatory roadblocks.
In recent years, some of India’s brightest minds have come up with unconventional, and often groundbreaking, ways to end this culture of corruption. Kaushik Basu, India’s chief economic advisor and a former Cornell University professor, recently suggested that paying bribes should be made legal — while collecting them will remain illegal, a radical move meant to encourage bribe-payers to report their act once it’s done.
Other ideas rely on technology. Intel recently developed a handheld electronic swipe device for banking that could bring about revolutionary changes in financial transactions in rural India. This will eliminate the role of middlemen — notorious for siphoning off cash payments reserved for social schemes for the poor — and enable the government to channel payments directly into bank accounts. A similar electronic cash transfer scheme in Brazil many years ago not just curbed corruption, but also saved billions of dollars of subsidies and helped lift millions out of poverty.
There are simpler measures people can take as well. T.R. Raghunandan, a former civil servant who spearheads ipaidabribe.com, a new web initiative against bribe culture where citizens post their personal experiences in dealing with corrupt officials, recently told me that the best way to break the cycle of bribe-paying is to combat ignorance. If Indians don’t know their rights, they’re more likely to accept that bribes are simply the only way to get things that are rightfully theirs. The more information that’s out there, not merely about what bribes are being paid, but also about how to resist, the more able Indians will be to withstand improper requests.
But none of these projects are likely to work unless Indians challenge their attitude to private corruption. The Lokpal bill, if it works, might take down a few corrupt politicians. But the battle to slay corruption begins at home.
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