Gandhi’s Revenge

Is India's middle class finally fed up with its dysfunctional government?


In India, it’s been the year of the scam. Over the past 12 months, allegations of graft or wrongdoing have touched, among others, Parliament, the media, mining, construction, hospitals, airlines, and sports. But after bubbling for the better part of a year, India’s national debate over corruption may finally have come to a boil. The government and India’s political class more broadly face an unprecedented wave of middle-class anger at how the country is being run. If channeled toward formal politics — instead of being dissipated in activism alone — it could be the first step in giving India the kind of governance many of its citizens feel it deserves.

Led by a folksy 74-year-old acolyte of Mahatma Gandhi, the so-called Anna Hazare movement is demanding the prompt creation of a tough new anti-corruption body called the Lokpal. Should Parliament fail to pass a bill to his liking by Aug. 30, Hazare, who has been on a hunger strike since Aug. 16 that followed a shorter fast in April, has threatened to ratchet up his protest another notch. In a civil-disobedience tactic borrowed from the days of India’s independence struggle against the British, Hazare’s supporters will begin courting mass arrest to force the government’s hand.

This middle-class revolt follows a long season of scandal. Stories of padded contracts and graft — $80 toilet rolls and $19,500 treadmills, and a budget bloated many times over the original estimate — tainted October’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. In the so-called 2G telecom scam, which began to dominate headlines shortly after the games ended, auditors claim that the government lost taxpayers up to $40 billion by handing out valuable telecom spectrum licenses to favored bidders at throwaway prices. In another scandal that broke around the same time, top generals, bureaucrats, and politicians apparently colluded to snare plush apartments in Mumbai on land originally meant for war widows.

Last year’s publication of transcripts of the so-called Radia tapes — secretly recorded conversations between a powerful corporate lobbyist and prominent politicians, journalists, and industrialists — painted a picture of a country in moral free-fall, with everything from the front pages of newspapers to Supreme Court judgments apparently available for a price. Last year, Transparency International ranked India a lousy 87th out of 178 countries surveyed, nine places behind authoritarian China.

Many Indians place politics at the root of this malaise. Indeed, earlier this year Hazare captured a widespread middle-class sentiment about the masses who elect India’s leaders by pointing out that votes are often bought for as little as 100 rupees (about $2), a sari, or a bottle of liquor. Rarely, if ever, have voters punished a so-called mass leader known to have accumulated vast wealth through public office, and some politicians don’t even bother to pay lip service to the idea of public service without private gain. In Andhra Pradesh state, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, a former chief minister’s son and current member of Parliament, declared assets of about $82 million in April, nearly 4,000 times more than he had claimed seven years before, when his father took office.

India’s electoral math is loaded against the middle class, some 300 million people by the most generous estimate. In general, those who feel most upset by corruption — especially an abstract loss to the state exchequer of the sort embodied by the spectrum scam — are also those who matter least on election day. In part this is because they’re hopelessly outnumbered by the poor, and in part because, insulated by privilege from India’s dysfunctional governance, they tend not to turn out in large numbers.

Already hobbled by being a minority, the educated and professional classes are also shut out by the nature of Indian political parties. Most of them — with the exception of the Communists and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party — are family fiefdoms. A culture that equates dissent with disloyalty precludes competitive internal party elections of the sort that are commonplace in the industrialized world. With the right combination of backroom maneuvering and administrative skill, a talented lawyer, journalist, or former civil servant may yet ascend the greasy pole of power. But this demands a willingness to wade into the muck of a notoriously corrupt system and to play permanent second fiddle to a party’s chosen princeling. Unsurprisingly, the most ethical, talented, and ambitious prefer to make their mark elsewhere.

Although the anti-corruption movement’s principal demand — the passage of a bill by Parliament — could hardly be more political, this apathy explains why Hazare and his advisors, a motley group of lawyers and activists, take pains to distance themselves from India’s compromised political culture. Unlike national elections, the protests have been urban, pan-Indian (as opposed to hinging on caste, faith, or language), and highly active on Facebook and Twitter, with many supporters from the far-flung Indian diaspora.

Indeed, the anti-corruption movement is united by one overarching sentiment: a contempt for Indian politics. Bollywood actors, Hindu holy men, fasting Muslims, and assorted civil society activists are welcome on the large stage where, since leaving prison Friday, Aug. 19, Hazare has been holding his fast. But the participation of politicians, of any stripe, is strictly verboten.

However, politics alone can’t be blamed for India’s problems. The Indian middle class tends to view corruption in terms of personal vice or virtue. In advanced democracies, leaders are deemed upright as much for presiding over a clean system as for personal integrity. By contrast, until now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has risked no personal taint for the misdeeds of his colleagues.

Over the years, Indians have developed a finely honed ability to focus on supposedly saintly individuals while ignoring the muck they spring from. A culture of shame (rather than guilt) ensures that for many politicians the crime of corruption is only the crime of getting caught. Add to that a hierarchical society that discourages whistle-blowing, a convoluted bureaucracy bequeathed by four decades of socialism, and a culture that widely condones special favors for family and friends, and you see why the problem won’t vanish overnight.

Where the Hazare movement can make a difference is in bringing middle-class concerns to bear on public life. With its resources, capacity for organization, and access to the media, India’s middle class ought to punch above its weight rather than below it. But traditionally, in the richer neighborhoods in New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, and in the gated apartment complexes springing up in satellite towns such as Gurgaon, people have chosen to secede from Indian democracy rather than to fix it. Captive generators provide power. Private guards provide security. The kids study in private schools and visit private doctors. For the most part, politics has belonged to a distant world, glimpsed on television news, gossiped about at parties, and, at best, participated in only when national elections come around every five years. With a sustained push from Hazare, this could change.

For this to work, however, the movement will have to shed its discomfort with electoral politics. It will also need to broaden its thinking to include plans to preserve India’s economic competitiveness, rather than focus solely on a single point anti-corruption agenda. (Critics have pointed out that some of Hazare’s prominent supporters hold extreme anti-business views that India can hardly afford.) In short, instead of blackmailing the system from without, the middle class needs to find a way to fix it from within. For educated Indians to get the politicians they deserve, they must not only vote in larger numbers but also seek a way to enter active politics. The quixotic 2009 attempt by Meera Sanyal, an idealistic banker with the Dutch multinational ABN Amro, to run for a seat in Parliament from South Mumbai ought to serve as a symbol of inspiration rather than of derision. (Sanyal won only about 11,000 votes out of 640,000, losing badly to a well-funded politician’s son from the ruling Congress party.)

Time is on their side. With India’s economy growing upwards of 8 percent a year, the numbers of Indians with a regular job, a home loan, and a sense of professional purpose and investment in the country’s economy will continue to swell. According to McKinsey, by 2025 India’s middle class will expand roughly tenfold to 583 million people, or 41 percent of the population.

This should, at the very least, present a remarkable opportunity for India’s stagnant political class — if it doesn’t generate a new political class of its own. For India to join the developed world it needs much more than eight-lane highways and spanking-new airport terminals. It needs to drag its politics into the 21st century, along with the rest of the country. If the middle-class enthusiasm sparked by Hazare leads to an embrace rather than a rejection of electoral politics, it could usher a crucial move in this direction. If not, the scenes of protest unfolding across India will be remembered more for their passion than for their lasting impact.

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