Activists Take On Corrupt Politicians in India

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Posing Problems: A follower of Baba Ramdev stands at the guru’s “fast unto death” anti-corruption rally in the heart of Delhi. After police cleared the area using tear gas, they dismantled the temporary yoga camp and bundled Ramdev off to his ashram. Adnan Abidi / Reuters-Landov

Back in the 1950s, the British scholar W. H. Morris-Jones identified three idioms of Indian politics. These were the modern, the traditional, and the saintly. Thus, he wrote, “the modern language of politics is the language of the Indian Constitution and the Courts; of parliamentary debate; of the higher administration … ” On the other hand, the traditional idiom was local and sectarian. It “knows little or nothing of the problems of anything as big as India.” Here, “caste (or subcaste or ‘community’) is the core of traditional politics.” Finally, there was the saintly idiom, illustrated at the time Morris-Jones was writing, by the land-donation movement of Acharya Vinoba Bhave, “the ‘Saint on the March,’ who toured India on foot preaching the path of self-sacrifice and love and polity without power.”

To understand Indian politics today, Morris-Jones’s framework is still valuable, so long as we add a fourth idiom that has become increasingly common in recent years. This may be termed the instrumental, a euphemism for political behavior that advances the personal financial interests of an individual, his family, his caste, and his party.

For the first decade of independence, Indian politics was dominated by associates of Mahatma Gandhi who shared his integrity if not his courage. In the 1960s, the first signs of corruption entered the system. The economy was then strictly regulated. Entrepreneurs needed licenses to open or expand businesses, for which some politicians now expected bribes.

When the license-permit-quota raj was dismantled in the 1990s, it was expected that corruption would diminish. In fact, it has increased spectacularly. The state still retains control over land and natural resources and over infrastructure projects. With the surge in the Indian economy, control of these resources is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, encouraging sweetheart deals between politicians and entrepreneurs. The proceeds from these deals are then distributed among the elected members of the legislature and to favored bureaucrats. According to a recent study by the Association for Democratic Reforms, as many as 300 out of the 540 members of Parliament are millionaires. The majority were born in modest middle-class homes; their wealth ballooned after they entered politics.

In the past year, India has been racked by a series of corruption scandals. A housing complex in Mumbai meant for war veterans had its units allocated to politicians and bureaucrats and their cronies. Politicians associated with the ruling Congress Party skimmed off large sums of money from funds allocated to the Commonwealth Games, held in New Delhi in late 2010. Politicians of the major opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), were involved in a mining scandal in the state of Karnataka, where millions of tons of iron ore were shipped to China untaxed and in violation of labor and environmental standards. Then, in the biggest scam of all, a minister of the Union Government was found to have massively undersold licenses to mobile-telephone companies, thus giving them cheap, privileged access to airwaves.

These scandals were brought to light by the media and by the odd honest senior official still left in government. (The telecom scandal, which resulted in a loss to the exchequer of an estimated $55 billion, was first documented by the comptroller and accountant general of India.) They prompted a massive public outrage, in response to which, in April this year, a social activist named Anna Hazare decided to go on a fast in Delhi.

 

india-corruption-OV02-hsmall Ramdev speaks to his supporters Anindito Mukherjee / Landov

Born in a peasant home in rural Maharashtra, Hazare had been a driver in the Indian Army before taking early retirement and returning to his village, Ralegan Siddhi. In a decade of hard, selfless work he made it a model “green” village, whose systems of forestation and watershed conservation were widely admired and, not always with success, imitated.

Hazare had previously campaigned against corruption in Maharashtra, but with his fast in New Delhi he became nationally known. Lawyers and human-rights activists clustered around him. Film stars showed up to give their support. His protest, conducted in the heart of Delhi, was followed 24/7 by the electronic media. In cities and towns across India, marches and candlelight vigils were held to show solidarity with Hazare. The mostly young people who participated in these marches had not previously heard of the miracle worker of Ralegan Siddhi; now, however, he had become the symbol and leader of a countrywide fight against corruption.

To be sure, Hazare was no Gandhi. He had a pronounced authoritarian streak; in his village, he had young men tied to a pole and flogged for consuming alcohol. His views on politics and society were muddled. What he had going for him was his simplicity, which shone in contrast to the corruption around him. With no bank balance and no property to speak of, he brought the saintly idiom into confrontation with the modern, the traditional, and, not least, the instrumental.

Chastised by the media, harangued and taunted by the political opposition, the government was now in danger of losing the support of the middle class. So it urged Hazare to call off his fast, promising in return a state–civil society committee to tackle corruption. The veteran agreed, whereupon five ministers and five of Hazare’s men (three lawyers among them) began work on a bill to create an ombudsman, called the Lokpal, who would have the powers to punish corrupt officials and politicians. Meanwhile, to further placate public opinion, the chairman of the Commonwealth Games organizing committee and the minister who had allocated those telecom licenses were both booked, denied bail, and put in prison.

As the Lokpal Committee began its work, another “saint” named Baba Ramdev threatened another fast against corruption. His main aim, he said, was to compel the government to bring back the billions of dollars illegally stashed away by Indians in Swiss banks. Like Hazare, Ramdev was born in a peasant home (Ramdev’s was in the northern state of Haryana). As a young boy he became interested in the practice of yoga, at which he quickly became proficient. Moving to the holy town of Hardwar, on the banks of the Ganges, he taught yoga techniques and sold herbal medicines. A fine speaker in Hindi, with an earthy turn of phrase, he acquired a large following and, since 2003, a television channel to propagate his views.

Like many modern evangelists—Christian, Hindu, Islamic, American, Yemeni, Indian—Ramdev tends to exaggerate his influence. He claims to have some 20 million devotees, who would vote for any party according to his dictates. The numbers may be disputed, but it was clear that his flock was far larger than Hazare’s. Noting this, the government bent backward—and downward—to please him, at one stage even sending four cabinet ministers to meet him as he got off his private plane at Delhi Airport.

Weeks previously, Ramdev had booked a large open ground in the heart of Delhi for a yoga camp. The camp began June 4; on that morning the guru began what he said would be a fast unto death against corruption. His followers listened intently to his harangues against the ruling Congress Party, as did millions catching the action on television. That night, the police moved in and dismantled the camp and bundled Ramdev off to his ashram in Hardwar.

In light of its recent deference toward the guru, the government’s action was profoundly stupid, a panic reaction provoked perhaps by the media’s coverage of the fast. The move was condemned across the political spectrum. Although Ramdev was known to be a particular favorite of the Hindu right, the communist parties also chastised the Congress for its abuse of state power.

The government’s conduct was bizarre and indefensible, but Ramdev is not—the word is inescapable—a saint, either. He has none of Anna Hazare’s simplicity and austerity. The trusts he controls own thousands of hectares of prime property, bought at well-below-market price from state governments controlled by the BJP. He has interests in food parks, medicine factories, and television channels; these valued at around $250 million. Among his recent acquisitions is an island off the coast of Scotland.

Hazare’s social views are strange, but Ramdev’s are positively reactionary. He wants the death penalty to be imposed for corruption-related offenses and English to be abolished as a medium of higher education. He wants what he calls the “foreign” system of parliaments and courts to be replaced by “indigenous” alternatives based on Hindu scripture. He is ambivalent about women’s rights and detests gays. Some of these views align him with the BJP and its affiliate, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, a group that stands for the construction of a Hindu theocratic state in India.

In Morris-Jones’s terms, Hazare operates in what is recognizably a saintly idiom. Ramdev’s is a more curious cocktail; claiming to be a saint, he partakes of both the traditional and the instrumental idiom of politics. However, the rise to prominence of these two men is very clearly a consequence of the failure of Indian politicians to deliver either efficiency or equity. That is to say, the support that Hazare and Ramdev have recently received is a consequence not so much of their own virtues as of the vices of the government they seek to oppose.

When a Congress-led alliance comfortably won the general elections in 2009, there were expectations that the honest and intelligent prime minister, Manmohan Singh, would stem corruption and bring about the reform of the police, the bureaucracy, and the judiciary. However, Singh has been a profound disappointment. Perhaps because he is old and ailing, or because he is reticent and diffident by nature, he has let things drift. The most outrageously corrupt of the Congress’s coalition partners is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a regional party that asked for, and obtained, control of the lucrative telecom ministry. Singh has failed to stem the DMK’s excesses; worse, even after its ministers were exposed, he led his Congress Party into an alliance with it in an important state election.

Hunger fasts and religious discourses may direct attention to corruption, but they cannot put an end to it. For that, one requires patience and courage—the former to promote accountability in administration, the latter to prosecute the guilty, even if they be of one’s own party. At present, however, the prospects of institutional reform are bleak. The incompetence of the Congress Party is compounded by the sheer venality of the main opposition party. For most of the past year, the BJP has boycotted Parliament, rendering invalid the drafting of new legislation on a host of important matters concerning India’s economic and political future. Now it seeks to ride piggyback on Ramdev, stoking the fires in the street when it should rather be offering constructive criticism inside the channels of debate provided for by the Indian Constitution.

In recent years, there has been much foolish talk about India’s emergence as a global power. Propelled by self-interested businessmen and self-important editors, the superpower aspiration seeks to mask the deep fault lines in Indian society through the flaunting of high growth rates. Even before the recent rash of corruption scandals, more sober observers were skeptical of such claims. The insurgencies in Kashmir and the northeast, a rising Maoist rebellion in central India, the collapse of the public-health system, massive environmental degradations—these facts all stood as cautionary qualifiers to the rise of the middle class and the numberof dollar billionaires. India is not a rising global power or superpower. It is rather what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once described it to be—a “functioning anarchy.”

Guha’s most recent book is Makers of Modern India (Harvard). He lives in Bangalore.

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