India: Sound and fury

Insight into the movement led by Anna Hazare, and the underlying mechanisms which allow corruption to flourish in the Indian government.

India is a land of excessive emotion and much melodrama.  Like any Bollywood film, Indian public life is no different.  Public fury against excessive corruption in the government led to an anti-corruption movement.  The leader was Anna Hazare, a 72-year-old former soldier turned social activist who was first arrested, then released, and then began a public fast until the government gave in to his demands.  His demands were that his version of the anti-corruption bill be brought into law instead of the tepid one envisaged by the government.  The government’s concession to his demands has been viewed by supporters as a great victory in a battle against corruption while opponents have seen this as a derailment of the democratic process.

The truth as is invariably the case, especially in India, is not as clear as commentators would like to make it out to be.  The issue at heart is corruption.  That it remains a deep, debilitating, and destructive feature of Indian society is old news.  What is new is that enough Indians saw it fit to take to the streets to support Anna’s campaign against corruption. In fact, large sections of the Indian Diaspora in various parts of the US organized to support him.

Media Coverage

The Indian media has covered the entire movement with its classic hysteria.  With a constant penchant for the dramatic, it has focused on events and blow-by-blow events of what has gone on.  There is little effort to understand the context of the movement or its future implications.

The more reputable elements in the media have not done much better.  The most pretentious and disjointed analysis of Anna’s movement has come from The Economist, a publication that once opposed India’s independence and still continues to give the country well-meaning advice.  It declared that Indians were “right to be furious” about corruption but Anna would end up doing more harm than good.  The Economist urged that Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, “should stand firm against the Hazarites.”  It has boldly stated that Mr. Singh’s policies “have tended to mitigate corruption.”  Corruption in India, by all indicators, has increased dramatically.  Internal surveys within India’s various arms of the government itself, including the military, reveal a pervasive concern about the increasing levels of corruption.  Perhaps The Economist needs to get reacquainted with the old colony.

A well-written but highly emotional analysis of Anna’s movement has come from Arundhati Roy, an eloquent writer who won the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things.  She believes that Anna’s movement is draconian, and that the enactment of his anti-corruption law will lead to a top-down, giant bureaucracy.  She calls corruption “the currency of a social transaction in an egregiously unequal society.”  She seems to believe that the enactment of this bill would lead to Indian citizens forking out yet another bribe to yet another official.

The Economist views Anna’s movement as left wing and opposed to India’s liberalization process while Ms. Roy sees it as a right wing conspiracy by big business, foreign multinationals, and their compradors.  The only thing the two can agree upon is that the movement is too Hindu for their taste.  The Economist goes so far as to claim that Anna’s movement “displays a whiff of Hindu chauvinism” without adducing any evidence.  The so-called Hindu nationalist politicians have been far from supportive of Anna and it is strange to hear this allegation.  It is stranger still to read Ms. Roy’s hyperbole that Anna’s movement is part of a war to carve up India’s suzerainty in a manner similar to Afghan landlords.

The Problem

The fundamental problem of governance in India is corruption.  If one is not in the government, one is up against it.  India’s bureaucracy, a British legacy bolstered by Nehruvian socialism, is rapacious.  The institutional structure of the state and the laws that govern it hark back to the 19th century.  Despite the much vaunted liberalization of the economy in the 1990s, the state retains too much power.  Corruption occurs precisely in the areas where the state still wields arbitrary power, as seen in the 2-G Spectrum scam where the government granted frequencies reserved for space and defense at ridiculously low prices in return for massive bribes from its cronies.

Since liberalization, India has seen an exponential growth in corruption.  As stated in an earlier article, India is seeing its own version of crony capitalism and, in some ways, is like Russia without the snow.  The government has been transferring resources such as land to favored private players, and the bribes that people have to pay have outstripped the growth rates of the Indian economy.  Institutions earlier known for probity such as the military, the intelligence agencies, and the scientific community have since succumbed to the social malaise.

The Indian private sector has done well after liberalization, while many state institutions have been rotting since.  Paradoxically, liberalization has ensured that top talent no longer serves in the government.  This means that the quality of people entering the civil services, the judiciary, or the military is often sub-standard.  The talented and the hard-working throng to the private sector for higher salaries, faster promotion, and greater responsibility.  Too often people who take up government jobs do so for the comfortable lifestyle of little work, big bribes, and no accountability.

Government institutions have an incentive problem.  There is no reward for good work.  From the 1970s, professionalism in the government was replaced by patronage.  Today, loyalty and fealty to political leaders or bureaucratic bosses trumps efficiency or diligence.  In fact, officials pay a price for their honesty and are increasingly hounded out of the government.  This means that there is no incentive for anyone in the sprawling bureaucracy to do any work, unless the person has an extraordinary social conscience.

The lack of the effective rule of law is another increasingly worrying phenomenon.  India’s legal system is notoriously convoluted, and its court system atrociously slow.  Over thirty million cases are pending.  This means that it is better to settle things informally or approach parallel systems set up by insurgents or organized crime for resolving disputes.  The quality of judges in lower courts is dire, and too many of them are too timid to decide anything.  Some others decide cases on the basis of an auction.  The litigant who bids the most wins.  The police have no autonomy and are used as the handmaiden of the political ruling class.  They are severely underfunded to the extent that there is often not enough money allotted for the patrolling they are required to do.  They are often compelled to resort to extortion just to carry out their prescribed duties.  The fact that the legal machinery has to resort to extralegal means to do its job is absurd.  It results in order but no law.  Lack of law in turn creates a society where anything goes.  It is therefore unsurprising that so many of India’s political leaders have criminal backgrounds.

The Problem with the Solution

The key people in the Anna movement are honorable individuals.  Anna himself is a man who is intensely idealistic; Kiran Bedi set new standards in the Indian police; Prashant Bhushan is a noted lawyer; and Arvind Kejriwal left the government to campaign for the Right to Information Act and has long campaigned against corruption.  In the murky world of Indian politics, they have been subjected to orchestrated character assassination in which The Economist has knowingly or unknowingly played a part.

Corruption has reached such proportions that there was bound to be some popular explosion, especially at a time of food inflation.  The scale and scope of the scandals has shocked the normally passive Indian citizen.  Professionals who have hitherto avoided the hurly burly of protests have finally summoned the motivation to show up in strength.  The government has been clearly shaken.  It first released Anna after arresting him and then accepted his version of the anti-corruption bill.  Indian political leaders and, especially those from the Congress party, which has largely monopolized power since 1947, are known for their arrogance.  That they have felt vulnerable is a good thing. 

Some aspects of Anna’s bill are praiseworthy.  Indian institutions need autonomy from a corrupt and criminal political class that subverts the rule of law.  Autonomous institutions like an independent judiciary, an independent electoral commission, and an independent central bank tend to be more professional in any democracy.  The fact that members of the new anti-corruption body will be chosen by a large pool of people, including the ruling party and the opposition, as well as members of the judiciary, is a step forward.  Nevertheless, the creation of yet another institution does not address the fundamental challenge of the Indian state: how does it create a new state structure that creates incentives for professionalism, honesty and competence?

India has seen the creation of an anti-corruption body before.  Setting up the Central Vigilance Commission in 1964 led to no results.  Despite well meaning officials heading the body, it failed to achieve its stated purpose.  Once the movement loses momentum, the new anti-corruption body could be weakened and systematically subverted by crafty lawyer politicians.  Corrupt and incompetent officials could be appointed to the new body, which could turn into yet another sinecure for a lifetime of political loyalty.  There is the ever-present danger that the new body itself could succumb to corruption.

The hope is that the Anna movement might spark a change in consciousness and lead to better governance.  Citizens might start demanding more from their elected leaders who do not deliver on their promises.  The risk is that the Anna movement is far too amorphous and chaotic to lead to anything substantial.  In the 1970s, Indira Gandhi declared a national emergency and threw all opponents in jail.  It led to all opposition parties, from the communists to the hated Hindu right wing, coming together to oppose her.  Everyone was clear about what they were opposing but no one knew what exactly they were fighting for.  In the Anna movement, there has been a similar lack of clarity of purpose.  People agree that they would like an end to corruption but they do not really know how to do so.  They have thrown in their lot with the Anna movement in the hope that the corrupt will finally be brought to justice and the powerful will not be able to get away scot free.  Few know what the new law actually is and fewer actually care.  They assume that the new law will be the panacea that leads to good governance.

The movement also marks a failure of Indian democracy.  Many accuse ‘Team Anna’ of derailing and hijacking the democratic process but the fact of the matter is that India’s democracy is broken.  The craven arrest and capitulation over the demands of the Anna movement shows that the government lacks any semblance of authority.  A large section of Indian citizens have no faith in politicians.  The opposition has spectacularly failed and there is no leadership either on the left or the right, with geriatric leaders preventing the emergence of fresh talent.  In the tumult of popular dissatisfaction, an amorphous group of dynamic individuals has forced the parliament to draft yet another law in a country with the longest constitution in the world.

India does not so much need new laws but the repeal and reform of existing ones.  It does need new institutions, but these have to replace existing ones.  Courts need to function and institutions need both professionalism and independence.  Its bureaucracy has to shrink, its red tape has to be cut and its institutional structure needs to be rationalized.  The colonial edifice with its socialist excrescences needs to be torn down to create a leaner state based on transparency, efficiency, and accountability.

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