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India’s Anti-Corruption Movement Finds a New Leader

April 13, 2011

By Rajendra Abhyankar

With corruption scandals clouding India’s government and dominating headlines over the last year, 71-year-old Gandhian and well-known activist Anna Hazare’s five-day fast-unto-death last week was destined to happen. Hazare’s fast articulated the building angst in India against serial corruption scams in government and public life. Insisting on a strong, unimpeachable, and independent anti-corruption authority, Hazare showed up the government’s weak effort to get the toothless anti-corruption Lok Pal bill passed. It put the government in the spotlight in the face of tremendous backlash against pervasive corruption in India which has become daily fodder for the media. As the Times of India noted on April 11, “corruption is not an accidental by-product of the system because of the venality of a few but a defining element on which the edifice rests.”

Over the past year, aside from a fleeting reprieve during the World Cup celebrations, Indians have been fed a diet of serial corruption in virtually every sector of the government, with huge alleged losses suffered by the state exchequer. The government’s dismal execution of the Commonwealth Games, which also implicated important officials in corruption scandals, was symptomatic of the lack of oversight and even nepotism of India’s government leaders. Next came the “2G scam” where the minister and his cronies were suspected of having made ill-gotten gains in the allocation of 2G telecom licenses. Even the Army, hitherto believed to be pristine, was recently implicated when high-ranking officers’ attempts to sell off army lands were exposed. Most disturbing were allegations of large-scale corruption in the government’s flagship project for the rural poor – the national employment guarantee scheme. Popular ire was tinged with cynicism and skepticism over whether the government would act, and a certainty that those implicated would get away. Meanwhile, the country’s growing status as an emerging economic power took a beating internationally.

These sentiments were further ignited recently around Parliament’s consideration of a draft Lok Pal, or ombudsman, bill that has been heavily criticized by civil society. Civil society organizations had rejected the government’s draft proposal on grounds that it perpetuated the existing system that rewards corruption. The government’s proposal also excluded government servants from its purview and had only an advisory role. The issue of corruption is a quixotic pursuit at the best of times. Hazare’s fast was initially seen in this vein until it became clear that he meant what he said. Hazare’s fast was the occasion to present a counter to the Lok Pal bill – the Jan Lok Pal bill – prepared by civil society activists seeking an independent body to investigate corruption cases. The civil society proposal calls for an independent people’s ombudsman with overarching powers to investigate, charge, and prosecute corruption anywhere in government, all the way to the prime minister’s office. Suddenly, the anti-corruption movement in the country had found an agenda, and a leader.

The government’s predicament with Hazare’s fast was only resolved when, after four days, it agreed to set up a 10-member committee – half of whose members, including Anna Hazare, come from civil society. Anna Hazare broke his fast last Saturday on the fifth day, far exceeding the government’s script for its denouement. The committee is charged with developing one single bill on the basis of the two opposing drafts for consideration in parliament’s next session in July.

Since 1968, seven attempts in Parliament, the last in 2008, to pass an anti-corruption act in India have failed. Setting up of this dedicated Committee – the first to include civil society representatives – is only a first step. The agreed draft has to go through the country’s legislative process. Thereafter, its implementation and enforcement will present further challenges in a country as vast and diverse as India.

Hazare’s “victory” generated a palpable feeling among people here that a success had been made against an uncaring government. There is widespread feeling that this most recent public outcry could change the way politics is done in India. With State Assembly elections ongoing in four states, the government had very little choice but to give in to Hazare and the demands of civil society. Whether this remarkable event, using Mahatma Gandhi’s method of fast-unto-death against a legally constituted and democratically elected government, has set a new political benchmark, it has certainly set off a rigorous debate over fundamental issues that could have a long-term effect on India’s democracy.

Public opinion remains divided on whether Hazare’s act constituted blackmail and has set an unhealthy precedent for the governance of the country. We now wonder whether the government’s giving in to the demand of the protesters has weakened its overall authority. It is also debatable whether arbitrarily chosen representatives of civil society should be treated on the same level as elected representatives. Furthermore, many wonder whether Hazare’s urban-based movement has any relevance to the country’s rural poor. Apprehension has been raised that imposition of civil society’s will in this manner does not auger well for the country’s larger interest. While much will depend on whether the final outcome leads to a truly independent, over-arching anti-corruption authority, there is no doubt that the debate on its merits will go on.

Meanwhile, Anna Hazare is riding the momentum of his fast. He has called for all members of the new committee to declare their assets, a move most agree is aimed at the five ministers who are members (rather than the other five from civil society). To help rebuild the government’s credentials, Finance Minister Mukherji announced on Monday that India will ratify the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, six years after signing in 2005. It seems that a nascent struggle to cleanse the government has begun – though its future course is uncertain. At the very least, it may just end up improving India’s ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Index. It is also certain that, contrary to the apathy surrounding the plethora of government-appointed committees, this committee’s work will be closely followed by Indian public opinion.

Rajendra Abhyankar is The Asia Foundation’s advisor in India. He can be reached at [email protected].


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