India's assault on democracy

In response to a series of corruption scandals, the country's citizens are mounting a revolution for

An unusual revolution is underway in India. Over the past 10 days a 74-year-old former soldier and social activist called Kisan Baburao Hazare has been on hunger strike, threatening to starve to death if an anti-corruption bill drafted by his team is not voted into law by parliament. The law would create an anti-corruption agency, Jan Lokpal - a constitution-subverting supercommittee of 11 citizens vested with sweeping powers over the executive, legislature and judiciary. India's new middle class, exhausted by the contrast between its own rapid economic rise and the slow moving democratic politics of the country at large, passionately backs it. The mainstream television and print media, which cater primarily to the middle class, bestow endless coverage on it. And India is declared to be rallying behind Anna - an honorary title used for Hazare by his admirers that can also mean big brother.

Corruption has a hoary history in India. As early as 1964, a mere 17 years into India's independence, the ministry of home affairs reported that corruption had "increased to such an extent that people have started losing faith in the integrity of public administration". In the decades since, graft has become a quotidian fact of life: in an ordinary citizen's interaction with the state, there are few transactions unaccompanied by a demand of bribe. India's Soviet-inspired command economy served as a catalyst for malfeasance in the state's high offices. It spawned a culture of patronage in which senior politicians and bureaucrats showered favoured individuals with lucrative business permits and licences.

But the scams of the time seem almost trivial in comparison to the scandals that have come to light this year, the 20th anniversary of India's enactment of market reforms. One senior politician, Suresh Kalmadi, is in judicial custody at Delhi's notorious Tihar prison on charges of pocketing millions in the run up to last year's Commonwealth Games. Another inmate at the same prison is former communications minister Andimuthu Raja, who stands accused of defrauding the national treasury of $40bn by selling bandwidth-spectrum at grossly undervalued rates.

And yet, despite the pervasiveness of graft, questions abound over the wisdom of Hazare's demand. Is it, for a start, a smart idea to create a bureaucratic colossus to take on corruption caused in large part by a colossal bureaucracy? Why must we presume that the Jan Lokpal would be incorruptible? Hazare and his associates - who have branded themselves Team Anna - are easily exasperated by questions. Invited by the government to talk, their side of the negotiation ends up amounting to a reiteration of their demand: if you don't pass the bill, Anna Hazare will kill himself. How about we get the parliamentary standing committee to scrutinise it, asks the government. Hazare will die if you do, replies Team Anna. In desperation the government makes an offer: we'll try to pass the bill, but how about we make some changes - keep parliament, which is the elected sovereign of India, outside the scope of the Jan Lokpal? Anna will die, comes the answer.

Unanswerable to parliament, above the constitution, beyond the traditional checks and balances of democracy, and its incorruptibility apparently secure because its functionaries would be drawn primarily from a pool of distinguished prizewinners, the Jan Lokpal is a crystallisation of the emergent Indian middle class's yearning for a benign dictatorship.

Coming on the heels of the pro-democracy revolutions in the Arab world, this may seem a strange moment for an assault on democracy. But theIndian middle class has experienced democracy primarily as an impediment to its progress. It spared them the ignominy endured by people in nearby dictatorships, but it did not enhance their lives. They worked hard, eschewed politics and retreated into a private world. Their emergence as a globally potent consumer class occurred despite, not because of, the government. Now they have money, influence and power. They matter - and this agitation is the first major national platform that has brought them together, and its purpose, unsurprisingly, is to divorce governance from politics. In return for expediency, they are prepared to brook every ill, however extreme.

The politician who typifies the style of governance Team Anna longs for is Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat. The fact that Modi may have abetted an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002, in which more 1,000 people were slaughtered by Hindu supremacists, has not prevented him from securing handsome mandates in India's most rapidly embourgeoising state - and earning praise from the cheerleaders of "new India. In 2008, Suhel Seth, an influential commentator, published a paean to Modi in the Financial Express. Visiting Modi at his home, Seth was struck by the frugality and childlike enthusiasm of India's most notorious admirer of Adolf Hitler. "Narendra Modi is clearly a man in a hurry... There is a clear intolerance of terrorism and terrorists which is evident in the way the man functions; now there are many cynics who call it minority-bashing but the truth of the matter is that Modi genuinely means business as far as law and order is concerned". He then quoted, very approvingly, his own driver's opinion of Modi - "He is god" - before concluding: "if India has just five Narendra Modis, we would be a great country".

There is now a discernible craving for a benign dictatorship in India. The urge to replicate the "Gujarat model" at the centre is a strong one. Unsurprisingly, Hazare himself is quite a fan of Modi. And Modi has written an open letter to Hazare, telling him that "a prayer to Ma Kamakhya [a Hindu deity] came quiet [sic] naturally" when he learnt of the old man's fast, and revealing that "my respect for you is decades old" - going back to the days when Hazare's work in a village served as an inspiration to Modi and his colleagues at the RSS, a Hindu radical organisation whose members have carried out terrorist attacks against Indian Muslims and Pakistani nationals. As a social campaigner in his village, Hazare displayed a remarkable intolerance of his own: those who flouted his strict rules against the consumption of alcohol were tied up with barbed wire and flogged publicly.

Hazare's coterie of supporters in Delhi includes Arvind Kejriwal, a recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate cash who campaigns against affirmative action for members of India's formerly untouchable castes. There are still millions of Indians whose occupation - clearing out garbage and cleaning latrines - is dictated by their caste. But in the world inhabited by Kejriwal - a world whose difficulties are doubtless eased by contributions from private corporations terrified by the prospect of affirmative action encroaching on their turf - affirmative action is a cause of inequality. Then there is Kiran Bedi, a former tough cop who has been encouraging Indians not to participate in elections, and an assortment of self-canonising civil society activists who, emboldened by the government's entreaties to persuade Hazare to give up his fast, now cast themselves as an alternative to parliament.

The appallingly incompetent manner in which the government has handled Hazare's blackmail, has reaffirmed the old adage that a robot, however intelligent, cannot function without instructions. And the giver of those instructions, Sonia Gandhi, is away in New York, marooned in secrecy, receiving treatment in a cancer institute for an unrevealed ailment. In her absence, prime minister Manmohan Singh mumbles along inaudibly, a man who has never had to win an election to acquire office, who knows power only as a gift bestowed, not a responsibility earned. His admirers have long claimed that he is indifferent to power, even that he brings some kind of a dignity to the office of prime minister. If anything, the opposite is true: you have to love power desperately to want to accept it merely to be proximate to it. The office of the prime minister is political. The experiment unveiled by Sonia Gandhi - in which she would handle politics while Singh oversaw administration - has undermined the health of Indian democracy. Singh's service is to a family, not a nation, and the fact that that family displayed no hesitation in depoliticising India's highest political office and turning it into a personal kennel is evidence of their own contempt for Indian democracy.

The most effective solution to corruption - and to a myriad other problems - is to break up the central authority in Delhi and devolve its powers to local governments. A blueprint for this already exists in Schedule 11 of the Indian constitution. But this agitation is not really about corruption. It is an odd spectacle in which the prosperous inhabitants of the world's largest - and most unequal - democracy are mounting a revolution for dictatorship.

Kapil Komireddi is an Indian freelance writer; he writes principally about foreign affairs, particularly Indian foreign policy, and his work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.