The Fight Against Corruption In India Continues

Anna Hazare

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The government of India announced this week that it “agreed in principle” to the anti-corruption plan put forward by Anna Hazare, a modern-day civil disobedience campaigner in the mode of Mahatma Gandhi.Hazare’s twelve-day fast gripped the imagination of everyone in India who follows politics and was the culmination of weeks of demonstrations against corruption and graft at the highest levels of government. Government spokespeople and MPs pointed to many serious flaws in the Hazare plan, and flawed it very much is.

Nevertheless, the politics of the hunger fast left the government no choice and it accepted the “Team Anna” program in exchange for Mr. Hazare’s agreement to call off his fast. A statement from Parliament reads:

The House agrees in principle on the following issues for a strong and effective Lokpal [a powerful new anti-corruption body]. (A) Citizens’ charter. (B) Lower bureaucracy to be brought under Lokpal through an appropriate mechanism. (C) Establishment of Lokayuktas in state, and further resolves to transmit the proceedings to the department related standing committee for its perusal while formulating its recommendations on the Lokpal.

The enthusiasm over the announcement is widespread. As one Indian journalist wrote in the WSJ: “Thank you Team Anna. Thank you for uniting and inspiring a nation…Thank you for showing the power of democracy…Thank you for showing us that this is possible.”

Others echo this sentiment, not excluding Mr. Hazare. “It was victory for Anna Hazare and a triumph for people’s power at Delhi’s historic Ramlila Maidan,” Hazare said. “This is a victory of the people.”

But what happens if you look under the hood at Mr. Hazare and the program he advocates? Two articles in the Economist do just that:

Mr Hazare and his followers could end up doing more harm than good. The man is no saint, and his movement displays a whiff of Hindu chauvinism. The activists’ slogan—”Anna is India, India is Anna”—is absurd. Their campaign is tinged with nostalgia for a golden age before economic liberalisation when government was, in their view, clean and decent.

This is a dangerous misdiagnosis. Corruption was rife even before liberalisation: the Bofors scandal in the 1980s brought down the government. The economic liberalisation of the past 20 years—in particular, the dismantling of the “licence Raj”—has vastly reduced the scope for corruption, not increased it. Mr Hazare’s proposed cure is equally mistaken. India already has anti-corruption bureaucrats, who have failed to solve the problem. Creating another huge bureaucracy, which a Lokpal would be, is not the answer…

Mostly sceptics bristle at Mr Hazare’s methods….Hunger strikes, a form of blackmail, might have been justified against the British, but not against elected leaders.

Frankly, hunger strikes don’t bother me. A highly visible and completely peaceful act of civic protest, a hunger strike can be both a dignified and effective way of making a powerful point. At a certain point, when faced with something as intractable as corruption in India, the normal political process fails. Something drastic, popular and urgent is necessary. The cult surrounding Anna “Elder Brother” Hazare, while troublesome and potentially dangerous, is the natural culmination of widespread anger against ingrained corruption: when one man stands up against powerful selfishness in government, people are going to admire him. Yet the uncritical mass adulation of a single human being with his fair share of flaws is not, in itself, the sign of an emerging mature civic consciousness. That adulation is probably also not good for Mr. Hazare’s political judgment and emotional balance.

The nature of the oversight bodies Hazare supports is also a concern. As the Economist says, another huge bureaucracy is not the answer. Giving it enormous power could just exacerbate current problems with corruption. Taking power from those who pay bribes and giving it to those who extort them is almost never a recipe for reducing corruption.

The Economist wants to blame all this on the Gandhi dynasty that has directly or indirectly ruled India for most of the time since independence.

All this requires the commitment of a strong leader. As the loyal retainer to Congress’s family dynasty, Mr Singh lacks real power. But the dynasty’s matriarch, Sonia Gandhi, is unwell, while her son, Rahul, has run away from the Hazare controversy—hardly reassuring, since he is the presumed next prime minister. Given such a vacuum, it is no wonder the public does not trust political parties to clean up the system and prefers to join Mr Hazare’s crusade. The Gandhis’ hold over India is doing the country no good. If Indians want to clean up government, they need to get rid of dynastic politics.

I would put that another way. India’s problem is that its mores and culture remain feudal and clientelist from top to bottom. There are some pockets of modernity, but they float uneasily in a feudal sea. The enduring power of the Gandhi dynasty is more the symptom of wider problems than the leading cause of India’s governance crisis. And by providing the country with a unifying focus (and by being civilian and committed to civilian rule) the Nehru-Gandhi family has done much to create a modern civilian nationalism in India — an achievement buttressed by their support for economic reform in recent years.

Modern capitalism and feudalism inevitably clash; ultimately successful capitalism demands more transparency and meritocracy than traditional family oriented hierarchical societies can comfortably live with.  This is what India is trying to deal with today, and it isn’t easy.

India’s addiction to feudalism is more than a manifestation of “backwardness”.  It is also about how resources are parceled out legitimately in a society composed of so many different subgroups divided by language, culture, geography, caste and religion.  Networks of clientelism and patronage may be necessary to India’s ability to work at all — but modernizing those networks and limiting their drag on the country’s efficiency is necessary for India to flourish.

India’s Gordian knot of corruption can’t, unfortunately, be hacked through with one swift blow of Hazare’s sword; it will have to be patiently unpicked.  The need is urgent, but the work must be careful and slow.

India is going through a process of social and economic change every bit as wrenching and disruptive as the Industrial Revolution was in Europe 150 years ago.  Nobody knows how best to steer the country through this, and it is very unlikely that India will sail through it in elegance and style.

The fight against corruption in India is a fight for a total social transformation. It is a good fight, and Via Meadia wishes India every success from the bottom of our heart, but Mr. Hazare’s victory in Delhi this week is not even the end of the beginning.

This post originally appeared on The American Interest.