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India’s democracy is struggling with itself. Many are convinced widespread corruption is the major menace to the country’s growth, progress and political system. The political class and some key economic and social thinkers believe the counter-reaction to it to be the real threat. They fear loosing benefice and power to a young civil movement, which represented millions in 2011 with its push for an uncompromising new anti-corruption legislation.
1. Epidemic Graft
Daily bureaucratic and police corruption in India is a phenomenon of epidemic proportions. Multiple permissions, stamps and reviews are mandatory for the most basic administrative tasks, and systemic graft is thereby facilitated. Often, business-related hurdles can only be overcome swiftly enough by bribing one or a few of the millions of underpaid officials employed by an inflated bureaucracy. Corruption can be witnessed from all angles. Recently, a fireman during a company emergency training complained that people are only familiar with the police emergency telephone number (100), because it equals the rupee amount one hands over discretely to police officers to be let off when caught for drunk driving. On the other side, many policemen had to bribe their way into their government employment to start with.
In addition, two colossal embezzlement scandals rocked the country in 2010/2011. First, mismanagement of funds raised the costs for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi to six billion dollars, a 22-fold increase of the originally estimated price. To this day, a lot of the money is still not accounted for. Second, approximately forty billion dollars of taxpayers money was lost in the political manipulation of second-generation wireless telecommunication licenses. Currently, a national coal-mining license scandal of comparable proportions is surfacing. According to a recent estimation published by the prominent news magazine Outlook, over one trillion euros have been misappropriated since 1992.
2. Anna Hazare, “Team Anna” and “India Against Corruption”
While the amounts involved in these rather charmingly dubbed “scams” are difficult to conceive, they fuelled the “India Against Corruption” movement (IAC), which, domestically and abroad, has been observed with admiration as well as reservations. IAC is led by charismatic “Anna” Hazare (“Elder Brother Hazare”) and his core support organization “Team Anna” ”, which has recently been dismantled and is now being transformed into a political party. Their methods of protest, which include fasts, blockades and marches, speak a clear language and are understood by the common man. Such a movement, in the eyes of many, has been overdue for decades.
Anna Hazare was born into a poor family, not able afford higher education, and served in the Indian army for twelve years before he returned to his poverty-stricken village, Ralegan Siddhi, in the mid-1970s. Here, he revived the local temple, drove out moonshiners, sometimes violently, had cigarette sales banned, founded a grain bank, solved the local problem of water scarcity by initiating watershed construction, inspired villagers to abandon caste discrimination and successfully fought for rural political empowerment. In the beginning of the 1990s Hazare started a movement against corruption in his home state of Maharashtra, was arrested for his protests and public fasts, released from prison due to immense public pressure and succeeded in driving several corrupt politicians out of office. He then proceeded to push for a number of important pieces of state and national legislation, such as the Right to Information Act of 2005.
In April 2011, Hazare commenced an indefinite fast to convince the central government to participate in the drafting of a reinforced version of the Jan Lokpal Bill, a piece of anti-corruption legislation that, despite seven attempts since 1968, had never entered into law. His aligned protest movement (IAC) quickly grew nationwide and attracted massive media coverage. After 98 hours, the government conceded. Eventually, it publicised an innate but significantly less potent draft of the Lokpal Bill. Almost immediately, tens of thousands all over India publicly objected and went on strikes. Hazare announced another hunger strike and was arrested along with about 1.300 supporters, based on a legal provision banning public gatherings and protests in the park he had selected as the venue of his opposition. He was offered bail, rejected, sent back to jail and released unconditionally only four hours later, because thousands had started marching in his support in Delhi. Still, he refused to leave prison until he received permission to conduct his public hunger strike in Delhi four days later. Since then, this form of protest in prison (“Jail bharo!”) has become one of Hazare’s trademarks. Subsequently, his team maintained the pressure on the government through the media and various public events.
3. Contents of the Lokpal Bill
In the legislative process that followed Hazare’s protests the original bill had to withstand electoral politics as well as criticism and has undergone many alterations. The demands in “Team Anna’s” original draft bill have only partially been fulfilled in the government’s version. Especially, the proposed judicial powers of the ombudsman’s office have been reduced. The power of direction during prosecution and the independent competencies to impose punishment by dismissal of officials and removal or reduction of their rank have equally not found recognition. The Lokpal Bill’s central stipulations, as eventually passed by the Lower House (“Lok Sabha”) on December 27, 2011, are:
Lokpal has the power to investigate and prosecute corruption brought to its attention by anyone. It is also under the obligation to process alleged corruption cases within certain time limits. For purposes of investigation, Lokpal has the powers of a criminal court and the proceeding before it will be considered judicial. It can utilize the services of any government officer or investigation agency, which in several regards will be subject to immediate Lokpal directions. If it detects corruption of an official, it can file a complaint before a special court. The number of special courts to be established is recommended by Lokpal. Finally, special court proceedings cannot, without indication of a reason, last longer than one year. While the implementation of these new rules equals an official recognition and, in part, acceptance of the intrinsic impotencies of the current system of law enforcement, they theoretically provide an untainted foundation for change.
4. The Dilemma of Internal Checks and Imbalances in Future Law Enforcement
Undue political influence and corruption in India know few boundaries. The Lokpal institution itself would inevitably have to be monitored. In the end, institutions are only made of people… Lokpal officials will certainly face the temptations of corruption as well as influencing by politicians and other potentates. While a new law can be passed, a new breed of corruption-immune people cannot simply be willed into existence. To a large extent Lokpal will be, directly or indirectly, staffed by the political groups and players whose members it is supposed to oversee. Many of the “new” officials will have worked in and been integral parts of the existing bureaucracy.
“Team Anna” was facing this problem internally. IAC has already had to expel immediate collaborators, who were prone to graft. Even leading members of “Team Anna” have been found guilty of tax evasion and irregularities in financial statements. Even though every registered supporter is required to disclose his personal revenues on a regular basis. As a reaction, IAC was eventually conducting “recruitment like it is done by political parties before elections” to staff its core committee. Considering its main objective, former “Team Anna” can only hope that the recruiting has not been as maladroit as the phrasing chosen to announce it and will not negatively reflect within the new anti-corruption party.
5. Hazare the Gandhian and his Supporters
Hazare considers himself a “Gandhian” and the forms of protest he employs mirror the methods of the Mahatma. Like Gandhi, he fasts to protest. Like Gandhi, he was imprisoned, because he refused to cease prominently opposing government pressure.
Inspired, more than 140.000 formally committed to Hazare’s cause and registered (via www.jailchalo.com or text messaging “Jail Nagpur” to 575758) for Team Anna’s offspring “Jail bharo!” (“Let’s go to jail!”) campaign. Among the registrants are numerous well-paid software industry workers. They risk entries into their criminal records and thus the visas required for the much desired tech-careers abroad only to potentially get arrested and join Hazare’s next fast behind bars. Although signing up for a protest campaign does not necessarily result in actual participation, IAC clearly has major support from the young middle-class. Elections in India are usually won by bringing the country’s poor to the ballots. But the social climbers are often afflicted most by corruption. It is their overregulated businesses, their money flowing to clear the individual path through Asia’s thickest administrative jungle, their taxes winding up in some politician’s pockets and eventually their outrage, careful optimism and daily commitment that fuel Hazare’s movement. Only their initial political desperation and resulting agony have made it possible that the movement is led by a 74-years-old father figure like Hazare and not a fresh-faced and furious techie.
The early demand of “Team Anna” to broadcast their negotiations with the government live on TV hints at the movement’s additional pillar: Much of the mainstream media provided a daily forum to “Team Anna’s” leading figures. In fact, even in the most balanced news reports, Hazare is generally considered the unelected representative of civil society revolting against a disconnected political class.
6. Overcoming the Flaw of Non-Legitimization
Publicly, IAC-supporters constantly emphasized the movement’s legitimacy by claiming that “the people of this country are superior to parliament”. Constitutionally, they were implying that “Team Anna”, and not the representatives of parliament, truly expressed the will of the people. It is in fact precarious that a majority of Indians, although they may vote for some of them, do not trust their elected leaders anymore. At the same time, it is conceivable that there is a permanent search for effective approaches to battle corruption. After all, for more than forty years representative democracy has failed to deliver on this crucial demand of the electorate.
Dragged out of their political apathy by the professionally managed long-term “Team Anna” campaign, many now look towards a single man for inspiration, guidance and reform. The emergence of this guru-like figure, “Anna”, who single-handedly mobilizes masses, justly worries India’s political establishment. Many are half-blindly following Hazare, which the media politely fails to mention. Consequently, few beyond Hazare’s direct opponents call attention to the potential threat of a self-declared popular leader. In a country that has been guided into independence by a civil as well as spiritual father figure, who never held public office, this argument however, to the common man, is not a powerful one.
From a historical perspective, it is thus not surprising that the political saviour Hazare is still regarded as (only) a social leader for whom formal democratic legitimization is not required. After all, he is not the sole spiritually popular and therefore politically influential personality in Indian public life. While Westerners are often most familiar with Osho or Bhagwan, there are others like Baba Ramdev or the recently deceased Sathya Sai Baba, who have numerous devotees and followers among the powerful. Now however, in the context of the party structures growing out of the remains of his social movement, Hazare will have to prove himself and seek electoral approval as a political leader within India’s multi-party system, prone to often random coalition politics.
7. A Family’s Democracy?
Hazare has assumed the role of the leading protester against the ruling political echelons. Currently, and with few interruptions since Indian independence in 1947, the latter are recruited within the Congress Party (“The Congress”), which Hazare is namely holding responsible for India’s rampant corruption. The Congress has shaped post-independence as well as modern India to its advantage and detriment. Meanwhile, the Ghandi-Nehru family has always maintained a decisive role in the party. It is currently led by Sonia Gandhi and it is widely assumed that she will be succeeded as the party’s leading figure by her son and designated heir to the throne of Indian democracy, Rahul Gandhi. His father (Rajiv Gandhi), his grandmother (Indira Gandhi) and his great-grandfather (Pandit Nehru) have already served India as prime ministers. His family name he owes to another great-grandfather (by adoption) of his, who was the father of the nation (Mahatma Gandhi). In 2004, he thus almost naturally entered politics as a member of parliament in his father’s former constituency. Since then, he has been expected to become a popular leader of influence and eventually assume the country’s highest political office of prime minister. Thus, ironically, Hazare the Gandhian inherited his style and methods of applying political pressure from the commendable ancestors (Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru) of the political leaders he is attempting to convert to improved governance today.
8. Legislative Challenges of a People’s Movement
While IAC has drawn large crowds and gained immense popularity throughout 2011, it is facing systemic, organizational as well as individualistic challenges linked to the legislative process.
a) Simple Laws and Other Two-Sided Solutions
The anti-corruption brand “Anna Hazare” is admired and highly valued. However, Hazare’s disputable theories aiming for practical and quick solutions to complex personal, psychological and social problems threaten to dilute it. The Indian anti-corruption movement is no Arab spring. It is largely represented by a man, who is no exception to the rule that men have weaknesses.
Hazare’s demands and theories about social order and community affairs have gone beyond the Lokpal Bill and are widely cited. In Europe, some of his statements would be classified as the eccentricities of an old man, whose views may occasionally be considered, but certainly not euphorically affirmed. In Indian politics, provocative rhetoric and simplistic hands-on proposals make up an important part of the political opinion spectrum. “Popular” often means appealing to the poorly educated.
Hazare’s rhetoric risks alienating the well-educated middle-class. They do not believe that flogging and beating up alcoholics “after three prior warnings” will keep them off the booze, that slapping a minister is justified and “serves the betterment of society” or that corrupt politicians necessarily deserve the death penalty. Eventually, the educated and sensible, which Hazare politically awakened, may stop listening. Hazare must therefore be cautious that he doesn’t start sounding as excessive as the populist politicians his supporters denounce.
b) Matching Legislative Strategy and a Frustrated Audience
Not only does Hazare endanger his movement by getting ideologically sidetracked. In fact, his central strategy has shown severe signs of weakness.
During the parliamentary Lokpal debate, his team occupied an immense fasting ground in Mumbai and prepared for more than 100.000 attendants to maintain the pressure on the government. No more than 3000 eventually appeared to support Hazare in a three-day-fast he had to abort due to his deteriorating health. Also, many did not understand what exactly Hazare aimed to attain with this fast. The parliament in New Delhi was at work after all. The movement’s initial demand had therefore been met.
Drastically though, Hazare’s fasts solely translate into effective political pressure when they are open-ended and death is looming over his head. It appears a timely limited fast does not truly impress anyone in a country where many still die of malnutrition. More importantly, the protest symbol of the fast in India cannot be excessively employed. Otherwise, it will loose its unique character and significance. To a large degree, this has already happened, created immense organizational frustrations and led to “Team Anna’s” transformation into a political party.
Further, when Hazare is emphasizing the importance of passing a “strong” Lokpal Bill as opposed to a “weak” government draft the complexity of the legislative process and disputable facets of the bill complicate this task. Their audience is the general public: outraged and supportive, it is also politically frustrated and therefore not always particularly well-informed. Few have actually read the bill in its many versions. To confuse matters further, the views of other interested parties such as law enforcement agencies, civil liberty activists, former chief justices and high court judges, were frequently cited and then publicly dismissed by influential members of parliament or other political figures. Even some important voices within IAC now oppose the bill as passed.
It will therefore be essential to sufficiently inform and mobilize the IAC’s support base. Unfortunately for Hazare, as elections and polls have shown throughout the past months, corruption exposures and IAC campaigning did not reliably translate into voter reactions. However, there often simply were no credible political alternatives available. This may change now.
c) A Bill Mixed Up in Politics
Even before the Lokpal Bill was introduced, it became obvious that all involved parties were flip-flopping and the entire political class is responsible for the current situation. Meanwhile, Hazare’s alleged personal proximity to the main opposition party’s (BJP) right wing party base organization (RSS), his critique of Congress rule and his unwillingness to publicly call the other parties’ doublespeak by its name seem short-sighted. The BJP at one point even attempted to include “Team Anna” in its state election campaign efforts. Also, when asked about a potential IAC campaign against the BJP after it refused to support Lokpal in the Lower House, although the opposite had consistently been announced by its leaders for months, Hazare only commented that “Congress has cheated them to the maximum.” Now, he will have to step on some more old friends’ toes, if he wants his party to retain the credibility it earned in its prior incarnation as a social movement.
d) Self-Destructive Criticism in the Legislative Process
Only issue-specific criticism of the government’s Lokpal draft is productive. Where the government actually concedes, which it did in many crucial regards, or goes beyond IAC’s demands in its proposals, as it did for example through Rahul Gandhi’s bold pet amendment advocating constitutional status for Lokpal, it is tactically insufficient to proclaim “We will not oppose this”. Only if progressivism from all poles is welcomed in the cause’s interest will it reflect positively on the movement.
Further, democratic parliamentary systems are designed to reach a consensus through debate. The expectation that all demands of one group participating in the public discourse will be satisfied is unrealistic. It actually borders blackmail, considering the potential for violence during mass gatherings in India, when a group’s leader like Hazare threatens to “tour the country to raise a storm” if his specific vision is not realized by the legislators.
e) The Danger of Premature Diversification of Legislative Battlegrounds
Another danger to the anti-corruption movement is diversification. Members have been positioning themselves on a number of social issues. A few months ago, IAC initiated another campaign that enables customers to submit complaints against dishonest auto-rickshaw drivers via text messaging and the internet. Also, a leading IAC member has expressed his controversial views on the sensitive issue of Kashmir, forcing Hazare to publicly call the region “integral to India”.
Meanwhile, the initial goal of IAC has not been achieved, yet. Diversification is certainly the way to keep the movement and eventually the party alive. But, at the same time, it requires crucial resources and draws attention away from the main cause. First, a satisfactory Lokpal Bill must be maneuvered past all pitfalls of the legislative process. Then, actual implementation has to be achieved and first results must become apparent. Before that, diversification could disrupt coherent lines of argumentation, alienate originally sympathetic religious, social, caste or occupational groups and derail local initiatives. The revitalization of Lokpal is the yardstick Hazare’s political influence, quality of leadership and worthiness of support are measured by. His focus thus needs to remain on Lokpal for now.
f) Pride and Vanity
Like many successful leaders, Hazare may have to keep his ego on a short leash. Many of his more radical statements presumably stem from inflated media attention. Even his brief and scarcely attended fast during the legislative process in the Lower House was covered live on TV, simultaneously with the parliamentary voting process. His unwillingness to end the fast then despite his quickly deteriorating condition was considered obstinate by many observers. His walking out of an interview on another occasion, while certainly a matter of pride, has been interpreted as an inconsistent move. His feeling of “having been cheated” by the political class, and especially the BJP, whose president not long ago proclaimed “Anna is our leader, and we are behind him” seems to disregard the fact that many in India have felt cheated by their representatives for a long time. This personalization of the issues could be interpreted as detached and egocentric, and play against his cause. Certainly, a genuine popular leader, just like any designated politician, should avoid such an impression.
9. The Destiny of the Lokpal Bill
While the national government had promised to pass a strong Lokpal Bill in the parliamentary winter session of 2011, the proposal got tangled up in pre-electoral state and party politics. In the Upper House (“Raiya Sabha”) 187 amendments were proposed and on the last day at midnight the session was abruptly adjourned.
Before, the bill had passed the Lower House, supported by the government’s majority. The members of parliament however failed to grant the institution of Lokpal constitutional status. The status would have been additional protection, requiring a 2/3 parliamentary majority to alter Lokpal’s powers in the future. The history of local Lokpals (“Lokayuktas”) in the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana teaches that otherwise, governments under scrutiny will simply pass an ordinance to repeal the Lokpal Act and abolish the entire institution. Conveniently however, some members of the ruling coalition as well as all other parties in the Lower House decided to vote against the constitutional status or abstained from the voting process.
This was an excellent display of what has been termed “the effects of the two Indian democracies”. On TV, audiences could follow how small (largely regional) parties disrupted the order of the house, tore up the bill and , as members of the ruling coalition, rejected the progressive legislation based on narrow political concerns. They could do that because their arena is the electoral democracy, not the television democracy: their goal is to appeal to their local voters, often satisfied with the party assisting them with their economic problems and distributing favours prior to elections.
Furthermore, Indian law permits the expulsion of a member of parliament for voting or abstaining from voting “in the House contrary to any direction issued by the political party to which he belongs”. While this theoretically secures structure and predictability throughout the voting process, it denies parliamentarians a vote based on their conscience and holds the chambers of parliament hostage to the parties’ power politics.
After the parliamentary proceedings, a fierce, distracting and personality-focused controversy in the press erupted over who is to blame. It was the country’s pre-eminent newspaper, the Times of India, which accurately pointed to the “general reluctance on the part of the political class to institute an anti-corruption mechanism that would make it accountable” during these “farcical” proceedings.
10. Constitutional Barriers to Social Reform
The main problem in India comes not from the absence, but rather from the lack of enforcement of existing legislation. After all, corruption is illegal already. It is just not pursued effectively by the law enforcement agencies. IAC has therefore been demanding the set-up of Lokayuktas to coordinate the fight against corruption locally. It also promoted taking the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) under the wings of Lokpal to invigorate it and reduce political influence on the federal police. This time however, abuse of and respect for constitutional law are blocking the way.
a) The Fake Federalism Argument
With utter conviction and in surprising unity members of the opposition in the Lower House protested against Lokpal’s provision for establishing Lokayuktas. The main argument advanced was that the central government may not interfere with state matters in this regard. It was obviously to most observers, however, that the main rationales was to avoid exposure of local politicians.
The existing Supreme Court as well as High Court case law exclusively and strongly underpins the legality of establishing such Lokayuktas. Also, before the parliamentary debate a number of constitutional experts, with no oppositions raised, had extensively affirmed that the Lokpal’s “Lokayukta provision” does not give rise to a legally debatable issue for the following reasons:
The UN Convention Against Corruption was signed and ratified by India. Its Art.6 provides that the signatories “shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its legal system, ensure the existence of a body or bodies, as appropriate, that prevent corruption”.
Article 246 of the Constitution of India defines the subject areas of state and federal legislative power. Accordingly, India’s role and actions in the UN are determined only by the union government. Local governance is assigned to the states exclusively. The concurrent powers of legislation, which the union and the states exercise together, include criminal law and procedure.
These competencies are however not decisive here, because Article 253 overrides Article 246 of the Constitution of India. It states: “Notwithstanding anything in the foregoing provisions of this Chapter, Parliament has the power to make any law for the whole or any part of the territory of India for implementing any treaty, agreement or convention with any other country or countries or any decision made at any international conference, association or other body.” The UN Convention clearly falls under this definition.
Brazenly therefore, the leader of the opposition repeatedly called the “Lokayukta provision” an unconstitutional violation of the principle of federalism. The opposition members became so absorbed with their own argument that they disturbed the order of the house for minutes. This knowing insistence on a false interpretation of the law on the floor of parliament was a great disillusion to jurists. However, the provision did not become part of the Lokpal legislation eventually passed in the Lower House.
b) The Separation of Powers under Threat
In the end of the prior public debate, the most fiercely debated issue was whether the federal police should be under the supervision of Lokpal, independent, or remain under the control of the executive. Realizing the need for change, constitutional scholars like former chief justice Khana proposed to grant the CBI general autonomy. Essentially, the status quo leads to a crucial conflict of interest when the CBI investigates members of the government. “Team Anna” therefore demanded it to be under the direction of Lokpal in the future. But since the extent of the CBI’s competencies is much broader than corruption, it would not make much sense to have it supervised by a specialized body such as Lokpal. Also, Lokpal (according to Hazare’s draft of the Lokpal Bill) is a quasi-judicial institution. The separation of the executive and judicial branches of government speaks against granting it police powers. While concentrating executive and judiciary competencies may strengthen Lokpal in the short run, it would eventually weaken India’s democracy by making it more susceptible to abuse. Creating an eventually uncontrollable monster to kill another monster is a disputable strategy.
The irony is that a form of Lokpal that violates the principles of the separation of powers, through IAC, is supported by millions to “repair” their political system. Simultaneously, most supporters are sympathetic to intrinsically undemocratic means, such as hunger-strikes and blockades of public institutions to fix India’s challenged democracy. As in France, direct methods of voicing public disapproval have dignified historical roots in India. They are customarily tolerated, and even respected. For decades under European rule, intense public protest constituted the sole way to make the people’s voice heard in the political arena; for those with limited access to education and financial resources today that is still the case.
However, pushing for socio-political reform is only justified to the extent that it is not pursued for its own sake. The time may be right to reflect on the movement’s and future party’s legitimacy, and resulting implications on Indian democracy.
11. An Outlook
Until the Lokpal Bill is passed by both Houses of parliament, IAC in the form of mass protests and Anna Hazare will remain important factors in India’s struggle for effective anti-corruption legislation. Maintaining long-term political pressure will be crucial. The Upper House will not decide on the bill for a while. If the bill is passed in another version than in the Lower House, which is regarded as likely, it will have to be sent back to the Lower House for approval. It is at the same time not improbable, that after the popular movement’s political metamorphosis, it will draw equal public participation as in 2011. After all, there would now be a true alternative to the established parties for the first time.
Recently, Hazare has adopted a more patient long-term strategy and is preparing the next big push for Lokpal during the 2014 elections for the Lower House. Without significant change, the popular frustrations released during the 2011 protests will likely have accumulated again in 2014. Then, if some of the broad traditional voting banks of the established parties can be won over in addition to the middle class, India may get a fresh start with new judicial and institutional means to fully tackle the evils of corruption.
Until now, at the very least, IAC has proudly demonstrated the political puissance of civil society in a challenged democracy. But especially within the middle class, frustrations with politics and the administration run deep. Personal engagement in this field is not considered a desirable career path. As before, many consider politics corrupting per se and graft-free social progress a naïve dream. It thus remains to be seen if Hazare’s movement will serve not only as a reminiscence of a glorious past which led the country to independence, but an inspiration for citizen involvement and political change in India.