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India’s anti-corruption movement 2011-12: hopes belied

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Hi, I have written this piece to explain, in response to a query from an IOPS friend, what went wrong with India’s anti-corruption movement of the last two years and why I have no hopes from a faction of the leadership of the movement that has decided to join the electoral fray. It has turned out rather long; so I beg your indulgence.

(The anti-corruption movement 2011-12 has been the biggest countrywide upsurge of the citizens in India since the 1970s. The movement held out hopes of broad democratic reforms amid the tightening stranglehold of the elite over decision making and resources and its ongoing war against the majority of the population. It was a stupendous success before it came crashing down.)

Jan Lokpal Andolan – a movement of the Indian citizens demanding an independent, especially empowered institution for investigating and prosecuting cases of corruption – started in early 2011 amid a string of scandals involving central and state ministers, legislators and other powerful people.

Some of these corruption scandals – 2G spectrum scam and Commonwealth Games scam, to name just two – have been unprecedented in terms of the estimates, mostly official, of the public money siphoned off.

One such estimate, made by India’s public auditor, has it that the 2G spectrum scam cost the public exchequer US$ 32.15 billion in revenue lost.

Early 2011 coincided with the time when a period of high economic growth, which started around 2004 and translated into a carnival of rising incomes and consumption for the urban, middle class Indians, had been petering out.

So the biggest beneficiaries of high growth among the working households, who probably account for no more than 250 million of India’s population of 1.21 billion, were realising that the party was finally over.

And that they’d probably been taken for a ride; they’d barely realised while the jamboree was on that they had been inveigled into paying for everything – for privately provided education, healthcare, transport, housing, savings instruments and even for using roads.

Bleak scenario

While publicly provided services, on the other hand, had fallen into neglect since the advent of neo-liberal economic ‘reforms’ in 1991, they went rapidly to seed after they were deserted by the educated and politically significant middle classes.

Thus the majority of the population, which includes the most vulnerable, the poorest and the barely educated, had since been left with hospitals, schools, transport and other public services that are plagued with cutbacks and corruption indulged in often by members of the same middle classes that stopped using them in favour of private services.     

This bleak scenario, where the urban Indians were also supposed to be learning to look over their shoulders for 'global financial crises' and 'recessions' that would take away their jobs, was heightened by what appeared to be an open loot of public resources that, by all accounts, has continued to the present day despite the anti-corruption movement.

The organisers of the Jan Lokpal Andolan, especially Arvind Kejriwal, a Delhi-based activist who is considered the main planner of the movement, underlined the fact that India had no agency outside the government-political control that could independently investigate complaints of corruption against the high and mighty, collect evidence and take the cases to the courts for trials.

Their solution: a legislative proposal for such an agency that was drafted, for the first time in India, not by bureaucrats, but by a group of citizens through a process that allowed a degree of wider public participation.

Only the corrupt will dispute the fact that India has no system worth its salt to seriously fight corruption. India’s anti-corruption apparatus doesn’t even qualify as a pretense, not only because all investigative agencies are under the thumb of the political executive, but also because the government after government have demonstrated their willingness to influence those agencies to undermine investigation into their crimes and use them as a bargaining chip in striking deals over complaints of corruption against the members of the opposition.

Further, the political class has by all accounts corrupted the Parliament itself, which is constitutionally empowered to call the government to account, striking mutually convenient deals and even buying and selling votes behind closed doors.

The judiciary too has failed the ordinary people. Justice is delayed as a rule and processes in lower courts are known to be blighted by graft. The Supreme Court and the high courts have also been facing allegations of corruption against their judges without demonstrating the honesty to come out clean in the eyes of the citizens.

The higher judiciary has shown no moral courage in the face of enormous social injustice and has very often demonstrated its own class bias by failing to take the side of the underprivileged.

War against bottom of the pyramid

In fact, corruption is just a symptom of the open class warfare being waged by the elite against the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, i.e. the majority of India’s population. The country is now a proper plutocracy, ruled by the propertied and the wealthy. Most of the members of Indian parliament are those whose assets, even going by the deflated self-declarations, are valued Rs. 10 million each at the very least; and they go up to Rs. six billion or probably more.

Needless to say, there is a cushy equation between the politically powerful and the capitalists as is evident in the public policies that subserve Big Business and the granting of lucrative public procurement contracts and licences for exploiting natural resources to the cronies.

The neo-liberal state has also been using its ‘eminent domain’ under the archaic Land Acquisition Act, 1894, to transfer land from farmers to the capitalists at prices that impoverish the former and stupendously enrich the latter.

And public services and assets are being turned into means of private profit through ‘public-private partnerships’. The PPP concessions not only exclude all those who cannot afford to pay, but also constitute an assault on constitutional rights of the citizens and government’s accountability to the public.

Massive turnouts

Led by Anna Hazare, an elderly activist who first earned fame for leading the socio-economic rejuvenation of his village in western Indian state of Maharashtra, Jan Lokpal Andolan was successful in drawing the chastened, alarmed and increasingly miserable middle classes out of their homes and into the streets.

It is this politically significant constituency which then attracted the attention of the national TV channels which, in turn, helped to turn the protests into a massive nationwide affair.

Though the anti-corruption movement remained anchored in large cities and overly dependent on the corporate-controlled mass media, it also drew support from the under-classes in the rural areas and smaller urban areas.

Jan Lokpal Andolan has also been described as the first that reached the scale of a countrywide citizens’ movement since the huge rallies against Indira Gandhi government led by J.P. Narayana in the 1970s. For the youth and all those under 40, the movement provided their first experience of a nationwide grassroots movement.

In its makeup and core demand, the movement appeared to be a landmark in citizen awakening and held out the promise of wider democratic reforms in the way the country had been governed by the elite who inherited from the British a colonial mindset, not to mention the colonial laws and conventions. Leaders of several social movements, such as Medha Patkar of Narmada Bachao Andolan, either supported the anti-corruption movement or saw it as a fillip to their own democratic causes.

At its peak, the movement was successful in extracting a promise from the Parliament that an “independent” anti-corruption agency at the centre as well as separate such agencies at the states would be established. The promise, however, has remained a promise.

The entire political class, across the ideological spectrum, came together to express its horror over the audacity of “a few self-appointed champions of morality” to challenge the “sovereignty” of the Parliament.

“Laws are made in Parliament. Not on the streets,” was the refrain of the politicians who showed their true ‘democratic’ colours by pouring scorn on the people who sent them to the legislatures as their representatives.

United colours of corruption

The cynical attitude of the political parties became increasingly explicable when the leaders of movement highlighted the cases of corruption of the members of Parliament that have been stuck at various stages of investigation or trial without being taken to their logical conclusion.

It was pointed out, especially, that about a dozen members of the central council of ministers, including the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee who has since become the President of India, face serious allegations of corruption based on credible evidence surfacing in the public domain.

“These cases will never see the light of the day. How can they when the investigative agencies are controlled by the people who are to be investigated?” said leaders of the movement.

With no credible answer to this question, the government tried to brazen it out, ignoring the last round of the agitation in July-August this year which, however, also exposed the weaknesses of the leaders of the movement.

What happened in July-August was nothing short of a fraudulent end to a very successful citizens’ movement just when it was badly needed to be sustained for a long haul for achieving not just the objective of enacting an independent anti-corruption agency, but also for broader set of governance reforms.

People duped, betrayed

Into the eighth or ninth day of the agitation in New Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, the main strategist of the movement, revealed his own electoral ambitions by staging a coup of sorts. It was announced, clearly under Kejriwal’s influence, that the movement would not gain anything by continuing the protests and needed to give people a “political alternative”.

The pretext was a letter received from “23 eminent citizens” who having expressed concern over the health of fasting protesters urged Anna Hazare, the leader of the movement, to discontinue the agitation and prepare “to give the country a political alternative”.

The gathering present at the protest site as well as supporters elsewhere were asked to send text messages – ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for the “political alternative” – a farce staged in a crude attempt to mask the decision that had already been taken under Kejriwal’s influence.

Hopes belied

After giving a new meaning to “politics” and defining what “politics” should ideally mean, Jan Lokpal Andolan subverted its own great success under the weaknesses and narrow political ambitions of its leaders.

The hopes of a “political alternative” which could have been achieved by putting public pressure on a thoroughly corrupt system to reform itself were thus shattered.

It would be fair to say that it was the failure of the entire movement – the leadership as well as the public who supported it. That’s because the ordinary supporters tolerated a leadership that baulked at democratizing the decision making of the movement which then became vulnerable to the whims and fancies of a few.

Having betrayed the trust of the people, Arvind Kejriwal has since been staging his own private protests and demonstrations in order to get a few seats in the central and states legislatures.

The people, however, are smart enough to see through the charade.

Since public support has vanished, Kejriwal’s press conferences exposing the instances of corruption against the high and mighty, whom he joined in the electoral fray, have amounted to nothing more than some lively coverage in the media with no hopes of any reform.

Meanwhile, India is sliding back down the abyss of corruption, a vicious class warfare and is more firmly in the grip of the wealthy elite that has been destroying whatever is left of our democratic institutions.

Discussion 6 Comments

  • Lambert Meertens 22nd Nov 2012

    Thanks. A question that comes to mind: is all lost now, or could something be done to pick up the pieces? A strong IOPS India might have helped to give continuity to the anti-corruption movement and prevent this hijacking, but right now we are still in the building-up phase.

    Fighting corruption is not mentioned in our programmatic documents, but I'm sure all IOPS members will agree that this is important. (It is mentioned in a text I wrote in the months before I learned about IOPS from a friend in India: http://www.iopsociety.org/download/file/ToDoOur_Movement_26-07-2012_03-30.pdf.) This issue is important in India and resonates among the people.Perhaps – I don't know – IOPS activists in India can use this theme without appropriating it) to get some leverage.

  • Dave Jones 23rd Nov 2012

    It is a classic story, reminiscent of the Democrats and mainstream unions co-opting the Madison Wisconsin USA struggle into an electoral reform "campaign". Or the way our single payer healthcare struggle was de-railed. And on and on and on.

  • Pontus Proteus 5th Jan 2013

    Thankyou very much for this. The British media's portrayal of India is often bleary-eyed, a kind of perverse post-colonial pride at what "we've helped create". Poverty is always examined as something natural and pre-existing that's being slowly eradicated by India's process of westernisation. Thanks again.

  • Chinmay Kulkarni 25th Jan 2013

    well i still support Kejriwal.i don't think they really had plans to enter politics.but given the circumstances,it was necessary.i'm optimistic about his party.i'm also happy that Hazare n others have abstained from joining politics and will continue anti corruption movement through agitations.but the problem is serious.fasting doesn't work anymore.so we are short of methods of agitation.politicians are too secure in their castles.it's hard to make them pass a legislation which will curb corruption as they are the beneficiaries of corruption.system can't work against itself.i'm still unable to understand why media was so keen for this movement to become successful in the beginning and why it suddenly found movement undemocratic.apparently media changed it's opinion because of Hazare's anti-alcohol stand.i do think Indian people demanded that anti-corruption crusaders should be perfect.and this is where people made huge mistake.because by rejecting Hazare,they were unknowingly choosing corruption.i do have hopes from Kejriwal.i don't think movement is over.eventually political leaders will have bend down over this issue.Victor Hugo has rightly said 'There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come'.time for an idea of corruption free India (atleast at the bottom level) has come.now we must see which leader is foresighted to understand this.

  • kapil bajaj 25th Jan 2013

    1. Thanks for your comments, Chinmay. Good to see that you are an optimist.

    2. As I've suggested in this article, the problem seems to be much bigger than corruption -- about a population of over a billion, i.e. over one seventh of the entire humanity, having no voice in decision making and concentration of power in the hands of a small elite.

    3. With economic growth engine, greed and resource depletion, this problem is increasingly about who will have a right to live and who should simply be left to die.

    • Chinmay Kulkarni 28th Jan 2013

      well surely the problem is much bigger.irony was those who suffered from corruption the most were unaware of the movement taking place.
      i don't think they are leaving someone to just die.rather they are making it sure that everyone should just live in whatever condition they are supposed to live!