On corruption, ombudsmen, and theatrics

Team Anna’s anti-corruption drive is more likely to reinforce an anti-Congress sentiment among the people of India than an anti-corruption stance

The anti-corruption drive that took India by storm over the last few months has calmed down a little. That said, it would be wrong to assume that we have seen the last of it. Team Anna did not get what they were demanding – the passing of the Jan Lokpal bill by August 15, 2011. Now would be a good time to take stock of what has happened so far.  

The movement kicked off with Anna fasting unto death in Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in April 2011. The aim stated by Anna was very simple – he intended to fast until the Jan Lokpal bill became an act. This, with time, gained substantial media coverage. Anna also began receiving support from other people such as social activist Medha Patkar, former IPS officer Kiran Bedi etc. Since that moment, I have witnessed this movement capture the interest of Indians across all age groups. Anna is emerging as a supposed ‘youth icon’, according to one newspaper.  

Support for Anna grew steadily. For instance, protests were initiated in different cities across India. Similarly, the ‘India Against Corruption’ group on Facebook saw a swift rise in numbers. Since Anna’s arrest this social media activism increased. He asserted that his arrest can’t be a reason for the movement to stop and encouraged people to continue protesting. Anna himself described the movement as ‘the second freedom struggle.’ 

The government after arresting Anna must have been aware that it had a job on its hands to convince people that this was the right thing to do. The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh stated that Anna’s path was entirely misconceived. However, most would agree that this was not entirely justified. Since India is a democratic country anyone has the right to protest any cause under the sun. Moreover, the government should have been mindful of his popularity among the people. It does not take genius to figure out that arresting someone with that kind of appeal will only augment their popularity. Anna’s refusal to leave jail after he was released led a close friend of mine to comment, ‘he’s shown better political instincts than the whole of the UPA put together.’

Now let’s come to the main issues. First, we should assess the problematic of corruption. I suppose we can all agree that one side alone can’t be corrupt. So the question I am putting to everyone is this: why is it that the government alone has to assume the responsibility for being corrupt? Aren’t we, as citizens, equally responsible for corruption? However, everyone associated with the movement, Anna Hazare included, seems to be hell-bent on treating the government as a monolithic entity capable of surviving separately from the people it seeks to govern, and thereby the sole embodiment of corruption. Contrary to this popular notion/sentiment, no government can survive as a separate entity and so can’t be corrupt by itself. I won’t dispute that there have been far too many scams in India recently (the 2G Spectrum, CWG etc. to name a couple). But how are these scams different from a simple roadside bribe that we pay to a traffic police officer, if we jump the signal; or to secure a quicker response from government offices? In essence, I am trying to point out the similarity in the processes and not the magnitude or the levels at which corruption might occur. I am also not assuming a moral high ground on the subject of corruption but pointing out that we are all involved in this mess, whether we like it or not. 

Second, let’s look at this so called ‘second freedom struggle.’ At the outset, the question I would ask is freedom from what? Whether these ‘wannabe free’ spirited souls wish to gain freedom from corruption or simply the government that some of them may have chosen? Of course, the idea of a second freedom struggle is metaphorical rather than literal. Nevertheless, such metaphors are delusory. This is dangerous because we are almost placing a government, democratically elected by us, on a par with an oppressive regime. The way I see it, since Anna’s arrest this whole thing seems to have become a circus of enormous proportions. And ironically enough, the main issue that triggered this movement seems to have become a peripheral concern. 

The situation now comes across more as a standoff between Anna and his supporters and the Congress party (or Congress-led government, to be exact). And, when it came to theatrics, Anna didn’t disappoint. Earlier this month, he issued an appeal to the people that they should not vote for the Congress in the Hisar Lok Sabha by-election. Clearly, Anna Hazare knows how to read the people’s pulse. So, possibly, appeals of this kind will do his popularity some good, even if it might be for a short term. But more importantly, calls of this kind will reinforce an anti-Congress sentiment among the people rather than anti-corruption. 

Assuming that the Jan Lokpal bill does get passed at some point in the future, let’s ask ourselves some important questions. Should we really believe that this bill will solve the problem of corruption in the country, in totality? I suppose no one believes this can be the case. However, most people are likely to argue that it is an important first step. And yes, perhaps, at some level this will be an important achievement. However, I would argue that we are bypassing some other, arguably, more important problems which need more discussion in the public domain. 

One problem that comes to mind is the functioning of the bureaucracy. This is I suppose one of the main reasons for corruption, if we really want to hold the government to account. Meaning, the governmental hierarchies, and its procedures facilitate the process of corruption. However, there seems to be not enough debate on these things, either in the media or among the public, as a result of the course chosen by the movement led by Anna Hazare. I often hear so many people complaining that bureaucrats don’t do their work as they should. Shouldn’t we tackle this first rather than worrying about investigating corruption charges against government officials? A good way forward, and probably most people will agree to this, is greater accountability of the bureaucrats and overhauling of the job security offered by government jobs. Also, the procedures involved in the bureaucratic setup need to be changed, and made  far more streamlined than they are at present. We seem to be ignoring all the existing anti-corruption laws that are in force, and agencies that enforce them in India at present. The anti-corruption laws and agencies should be reviewed and strengthened further, as per requirement. For instance, the CBI could get more autonomy in general. This might be beneficial for investigating other law and order issues besides corruption.

The most important thing about corruption, and fighting it, is to think about whether we look at these as processes or as endpoints. I personally think that both of them are processes. As citizens we need to take more responsibility for our own involvement in these processes of corruption - the most foolproof way of countering it.  

About the author

Aditya Sakorkar is a researcher in International Relations. His main interests are identity politics, psychological aspects of terrorism, security issues, and IR theory. He also holds a Master's in history and diploma in journalism