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.