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.

Twitter/Instagram/Getty
Show Hide image

Eleven things that will definitely happen during the general election campaign

History is repeating itself, as the 2015 general election campaign is echoed in the 2017 snap vote.

The last election is happening all over again.

Here’s how:

1. Michael Fallon is wheeled out to link the opposition leader to nuclear war

2015

The smearer-in-chief Michael Fallon, or Minister for the Today Programme as he has sometimes been labelled, was unleashed by CCHQ to warn that as Ed Miliband “stabbed his own brother in the back” to lead Labour, he was “willing to stab the UK in the back” and threaten national security by doing a deal with the Scottish National Party to cancel Trident. It was nasty, untrue and sadly political rhetoric has only worsened since.

2017

The Tory Terminator is back! This time, aiming his nuclear wordheads at Jeremy Corbyn. But with essentially the same script as last time. Yes, the Labour leader was branded a “security risk” on Trident by the same Defence Secretary who was accused of keeping Parliament in the dark over a failed nuclear weapons test (which suggests no threat to national security at all, of course).

Fallon says Theresa May would fire Trident as a “first strike”. So once again in British politics, to prove you can be trusted with national security you have to be more committed than your opponent to starting a nuclear war.

2. The Conservatives will conjure up the prospect of coalition to scare voters

2015

In what appeared to be a rather risky strategy of constantly putting your opponents on your campaign literature, elegantly playing the recorder, the Tories banged on for weeks about Ed Miliband potentially doing a deal with the SNP in government. And somehow, despite actually being in coalition themselves, the Tories managed to make coalition sound scary enough for this strategy to work.

2017

Guys did you know that there is the chance of a “coalition of chaos” after the election? A “coalition of chaos”, yeah. What’s that, you say? We don’t know either, but it sounds good doesn’t it? “Coalition”. “Chaos”. Alliteration. No, we know there’s no chance of it happening either and that Labour is refusing to work with other parties anyway but stiiiiill “coalition of chaos” is definitely a thing. “Coalition of chaos”.

The good thing about this is that the coalition bogeyman may have less traction this time round because so few people see there being much likelihood of a Corbyn premiership.

3. Someone will photoshop the opposition leader incongruously wearing a flower crown and people will ask if it could affect the election result

2015

#Milifandom was the symbol of a more innocent time in our politics. “Whilst The Sun attacks the 17-year-old behind the Milifandom craze, young people have found an arena of their own in which to have political discussion without obvious tabloid bias,” one fan told the Independent on the eve of the election. “This will obviously have a bearing on the election.”

It didn’t.

2017

But don’t let your flowers wilt just yet, oh admiring youth of the ironic web! For Corbyn became a cult figure loved and memed by many, young and old, the moment he began campaigning to be Labour leader.


Not since flower-crowned Ed had Britain seen a politician so revered. Will this have a bearing on the election? Perhaps, but not in the way some fans may wish…

4. Russell Brand will say something and people will ask if it could affect the election result

2015

That thirsty thesaurus Russell Brand interviewed a number of politicians ahead of the general election campaign for his stressful YouTube channel The Trews and none was more anticipated than when Ed went round to his house a few days before the election. A performance filled with glottal stops and nonchalant shrugs, dropped tees and aitches left an audience clenched in cringe – and a Labour party without the endorsement it wanted. Brand went for the Greens in the end.

2017

He hasn’t had a cosy chat with Corbyn yet but Brand has just returned to live radio with a new show, and it looks like he won’t stay quiet for long as he’s already gatecrashed Katie Hopkins’ LBC show on live radio to lure “Hatie Hopkins” back to humanity.

5. A politician will be caught having the audacity to consume food

2015

Ed Miliband ate a bacon sandwich, and it made front page news. Read my colleague Amelia on why politicians eating in public is such a global preoccupation.

2017

Jeremy Corbyn has had many a food-based controversy. Giant marrow-wielding aside, he has angered Mumsnet with his dislike of biscuits, and called kebab shops “a place of great discourse and discussion” yet implored their owners to serve salad too to provide “the balanced diet that everybody needs”, further riling them by supporting the sugar tax.

6. People will trust or dismiss polls depending on whether they confirm their political bias

2015

Polling: The polls are neck and neck = the Tories will win it/Labour will win it.

Result: The Tories won an outright majority.

2017

Polling: The Tories have a historic poll lead = the Tories will win it/Labour will win it.

Result: We know now never to make predictions because…

7. Every single one will be wrong

2015

For a while after the result, everything looked like this…

2017

…so guys why should we believe the polls this time round saying Labour will be destroyed?

8. Apart from the ones that show Labour doing badly

2015

2017

Oh.

9. Which will be extremely accurate

Great.

10. Well-timed colds will cover up difficult policy positions

2015

Luckily, then Green party leader Natalie Bennett had a cold, which meant she was able to casually cough and sneeze her way through LBC’s questioning on her housing policy. So smooth. No one noticed. Cough.

2017

Not strictly part of the election campaign, but Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott was thought to have a bout of “Brexit flu”, hence missing the first Commons vote to trigger Article 50.

11. Nigel Farage will lose his seat

2015

In a beautifully degrading snapshot beside Al Murray’s Pub Landlord little Englander caricature, the then Ukip leader Nigel Farage lost in South Thanet – failing to be elected to Parliament for the seventh time.

2017

Will there be an eighth time? With his successor Paul Nuttall apparently preferring to lock himself in a room away from journalists asking whether he’ll be running for a seat, it looks like Farage is still the party’s main hope.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496