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Frenzied argument in India

A high-decibel debate lasting several weeks in India has forced an agreement on introducing a draconian anti-corruption bill. Anna Hazare’s hunger strike with round-the-clock television coverage has divided the nation. Is there a third way between apathy and messianic fanaticism?
N. Jayaram
29 August 2011

Even by the usually febrile standards of India's noisy democracy, the last few weeks have been times of heightened frenzy. Many people in what is loosely termed the ‘independent liberal left’ have despaired of having to choose between the incompetency of government and a messianic anti-corruption leader who wants to impose his will, seemingly in total disdain for the constitution, the parliament and other institutions.

Indians cutting across classes, castes and ideological leanings have taken unpredictable stands, some in support of and others opposing Anna Hazare, a former army truck driver turned social worker, who has been likened to Maximilien Robespierre, the leading figure in France’s late eighteenth century Reign of Terror. Many among the liberal-left see his anti-corruption movement as an attempt at hijacking Indian democracy, backed by Hindu nationalists. But the liberal-left too has been split, some seeing the movement as a necessary antidote to a failed parliamentary system. Those opposed to Hazare accuse his movement of being largely urban-middle-class-based, while supporters sneer at this view, and at the pejorative use of the term “middle class”. Opponents say the movement is television-driven: a slew of 24-hour channels have been on a permanent “breaking news” mode for weeks, nearly blacking out other events in India and the world. Supporters say the TV stations have followed the agenda set by their movement.

Differences exist even on the basic issue of whether corruption is as much of a problem as it is made out to be and on how to combat it: some on the left pointing to systemic inequality, unequal access to power and the enormous rent-seeking avenues opened up by economic liberalization as the sources of graft. Statistics of the breakdown of support in terms of urban and rural divides, class-, caste- or profession-wise divides and so forth are next to non-existent. And this allows for competitive hurling of epithets to accumulate.

On one issue, though, most of India, including sections of the Congress Party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is in agreement, and that is the incredible incompetence with which his government has handled the anti-graft upsurge of recent months. The government, which resisted and eventually allowed the arrest of a few of its ministers over spectacular corruption allegations, initially balked at the idea of introducing anti-graft legislation, before coming up with a watered down excuse for one. When Hazare announced an indefinite fast to force the government’s hand, its first reaction was to arrest him. After announcing his release within hours, the government sat on its hands while his media-fuelled movement quickly gathered a mammoth following. Finally on August 27, it caved in and accepted his demands to table a bill along the draconian lines he has dictated.

The Congress, like most Indian political groups, lacks inner-party democracy. It is led by Sonia Gandhi, the current head of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, with her son Rahul the heir apparent. The ailing matriarch has been silent of late and her son’s attempt at intervening in the debate came too late and appeared too harsh. All the while, the mild-mannered prime minister has dithered monumentally, letting the opposition run away with the debate. The main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist outfit that is also beset by massive corruption scandals and internal squabbles and had appeared rudderless until a few months ago, decided to cast its lot with Hazare, never mind the undermining of parliament that such a move entailed.

The Hazare crowd’s chants of “Vande Mataram” and “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” (meaning salute to and victory to Mother India) went down well with Hindu nationalists. No surprise then that a large number of Muslims and lower caste Hindus have been cold towards the Hazare team’s move to railroad its Jan Lokpal (people’s ombudsman) bill. Gail Omvedt, a US-born Indian sociologist, has this devastating critique of the proposed legislation: “The Lokpal Bill itself is very authoritarian, in putting non-elected people of high class-caste background over elected officials and government bureaucrats (but not, as people have noted, over corporations!). ‘Pal’ means ‘guardian’, and in many ways the proposal recalls Plato’s Guardians – philosopher-kings who would rule the state. Plato, of course, believed in something like a varna [caste] system – people would be said to have special ‘essences’, gold for rulers, silver for warriors, bronze and iron for workers and farmers. So apparently does Anna Hazare.”

Arundhati Roy, the noted Booker Prize-winning writer and now leftwing firebrand, spelt out what else is wrong with the proposed legislation: “At a time when the State is withdrawing from its traditional duties and Corporations and NGOs are taking over government functions (water supply, electricity, transport, telecommunication, mining, health, education); at a time when the terrifying power and reach of the corporate owned media is trying to control the public imagination, one would think that these institutions - the corporations, the media, and NGOs - would be included in the jurisdiction of a Lokpal bill. Instead, the proposed bill leaves them out completely.” Human rights activist Praful Bidwai has rightly noted that pro-corporate media groups have driven the Hazare vehicle. “It’s as if a large chunk of businessmen had decided to ditch the Congress-led … government because it’s not delivering ‘second generation’ neoliberal policies such as reckless privatisation and the dismantlement of the paltry labour protections that still exist. Many industrialists are perhaps suspicious of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s mildly left-of-centre political bent and her inaccessibility. Logically, this means they would opt for the Bharatiya Janata Party.”

Meanwhile, a few articles have appeared in recent weeks noting the 10-year-long hunger strike by Irom Sharmila (she’s is being force-fed in detention) against the misuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to suppress insurgencies in northeast India. However, her fast has received paltry TV coverage as opposed to the few days’ abstinence on the part of Hazare in New Delhi. A self-proclaimed “libertarian” and staunch supporter of rightwing economic policies, Swaminathan S. Aiyar, has said regarding the Jammu & Kashmir State Human Rights Commission’s report, that 2,730 bodies had been found in unmarked graves: “This was mass murder. Most countries would have treated this as major news, but our media barely noticed. Bored with unending tales of human rights violations in Kashmir, our media saw Anna Hazare’s fast and even [film star] Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s pregnancy as much more newsworthy.”

Many commentators across the ideological spectrum have warned that caving in to the Hazare campaign sets a bad precedent and spells danger for Indian democracy. In fact, one of the little remarked on phenomena of post-Hazare India is the near-unanimity among disparate and often quarrelling intellectuals as regards the threats posed by messianic campaigns and the need to abide by the albeit painful democratic path.

The left-liberal camp has often voiced dismay over the absence of a third way, fearing a repetition of just such a massive anti-corruption movement in the mid-1970s, which led to the Hindu nationalists’ propulsion from largely unelectable fringes into the parliamentary mainstream. But a third way does exist, that requires the pro-democratic liberals, centrists and secular elements to shed their fear of being the butt of negative labeling and rally round the available alternatives. Among the earliest initiators of anti-corruption and public accountability movements have been such independent and self-effacing activists as Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander. India’s landmark Right To Information law was the fruit of many years of indefatigable campaigning on the part of Aruna Roy and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (some of whose members are now on the Hazare bandwagon). She and her team have also elaborated an excellent alternative anti-corruption ombudsman proposal that is a more nuanced document compared to the draconian proposals of the Hazare team. Rather than giving vent to gloomy prophesies, it might be more constructive for the pro-democratic and secular forces to focus on pushing for and improving upon realistic alternatives that exist and affirm faith in India’s argumentative tradition, as eulogized by Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen.

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