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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 39, September 17, 2011

Corruption: the Great Political Divide

Friday 23 September 2011

by V.P. JAIN

We are corrupt. Corruption is deeply entrenched and it has become institutionalised. ‘Corruption has become endemic to the system and it has to be fought.’ This has become a constant refrain. Then what is the current turmoil about and where is the catch?

The problem is very simple: It does not affect everybody in the same way. It is creating an asymmetrical society. On the one hand, we have the beneficiaries of the corrupt system, the big business houses, the politicians, the bureaucrats and their cronies led by the government. On the other, we have the general mass of people who are victims of the corrupt system (euphemis-tically called the cattle class), led by Anna Hazare. And one takes sides depending on which side of the fence you are.

Corruption is much more than bribe culture and has a much wider connotation in the present context to mean the grotesque system of unholy ‘nexus’. The core issue centres round sharing of the resources of the nation: the land, the mines, the forests and now the virtual world, that is, the 2G spectrum.

Over the years, the beneficiaries of the system have consolidated their position and continue to corner the resources to which they think they are entitled to because of their proximity to the powers that be, and they are getting wealthier at the expense of the rest of the society. It is a zero-sum game. With all the scams which have surfaced recently, which are mind-boggling, both in their quantitative and qualitative dimensions, it is now a no-holds-barred situation and it is wholesale loot. In fact big business has become a metaphor for organised crime. The situation has obviously gone beyond the tolerance threshold of the people. The current resolve is, therefore, ‘enough is enough and we have to fight it out.’

It is a class war, pure and simple. The govern-ment is trying every trick to browbeat the civil society into submission. Brute force, smear campaign, propaganda are some of the weapons which they have unleashed. The most lethal weapon in the armoury of the government is the Janus-faced activists, who have emerged as a new tribe of crisis management experts. They champion the cause of the people in all spheres of the civil society. They are very suave and articulate and become cult figures, use revolutio-nary rhetoric and assume leadership roles to keep the reins of the movement under their control. System-modelling experts have shown that for any movement to succeed it has to cross the “critical value” of some crucial parameter like the extent and intensity of people’s participation in the movement to be metamor-phosed into a mass upsurge as a qualitative change. They subvert the movement at the most opportune time when it is on the verge of attaining the critical mass and threatens the established order. The strategy finds expression in the verbosity to denounce the movement in all possible ways, deflect the issue by engaging in political theorising, raising the bogey of constitutional imperatives, questioning the ideological character of the movement and, of course, invoke the Brahmastra of foreign hand to destabilise the nation. They also infiltrate the ranks, create dissensions and broker a deal, get some crumbs as a concession, shelving the substantive issues, hail it as a great victory and scuttle the movement altogether. Some of the great players were conspicuously absent during the build-up phase of the movement. But now that the movement has gathered steam, they have surfaced and gone into action.

Let us scrutinise. One of the propaganda aired by the government is that the Jan Lokpal Bill is the brainchild of a few individuals who have arrogated to themselves the right to enact the laws of the land. Let us not forget that these
so-called individuals were members of the committee, as representatives of the people, constituted by the government to draft the Bill, and they have every right to be heard by Parliament for the consideration of which the draft has been prepared. It was incumbent on the committee to forward both the drafts since there was no consensus. It is tantamount to presenting Parliament with a fate accompli by filtering out serious reservations the crusaders had on the efficacy of the draft forwarded.

Let us take the analogy from the judicial Bench constituted by the Allahabad High Court to hear the Ayodhya case. The verdict was given by a majority of two to one. But the dissenting judgement was also put on record. Later on, the Supreme Court reversed the verdict and did not uphold the majority judgment. Likewise, the government could not block the alternative draft from the consideration of Parliament on the presumption that the government, with its razor-thin majority, was the sole repository of all the wisdom and alone represented the will of the people. System-theory analysts know so well that the final outcome is very sensitive to initial conditions and it was crucial for the government to manipulate the game to prejudice Parliament by circumscribing the debate around the ‘singularity’, by foreclosing all other options, in order to succeed in their design. The government packed the committee with members of choice and in requisite number only to reach pre-ordained conclusions and took everybody for a ride. The objective was obviously to stifle democracy and accountable governance in order to protect the powerful interests wedded to the system of preferences.

ANOTHER bogey raised by the government and Opposition alike is the sanctity of Parliament to enact laws. Parliamentary procedures have to be adhered to and the legislative process cannot be abandoned. There are no two opinions on the supremacy of the august body and nobody has questioned the constitutional imperatives. So far as the sanctity of Parliament is concerned, there is a need to introspect. Scandals like cash-for-vote, business lobbies deciding ministerial posts and their portfolios, question-marks raised at the integrity and honesty of the legislators and, of course, all the scams which have triggered the current uprising have not covered Parliament with glory and embarrassed the whole nation. And what is this talk about parliamentary procedures as something holy? The entire decision-making in Parliament can be simulated and laws enacted without wasting precious time, energy and public money. Legislators are not free and are bound by the whips of their respective parties. Consequently, it has become more of a debating club and the outcome emerges on the scripted lines as per the arithmetic of the demographic profile of various parties.

The Prime Minister attributed the culture of scams to the compulsions of coalition politics. The observation of the PM is not a satire for ridicule as made out in some quarters, but symptomatic of a much deeper malady. A little exercise in introspection will show that nothing is farther from the truth. UPA-1 was also a coalition government like UPA-2. But then why all the scandals in the second innings and not in the first if it were generic to coalition politics? In the second phase the partners changed and with that the ideological equations too. The PM was always uncomfortable with the Left, and at the earliest opportunity, after their debacle in the 2009 elections, got rid of them and found new friends who gave him a free hand to carry forward his policy of neo-liberalism with a vengeance. Everybody in the government wanted to recover the lost ground, with the consequences for everybody to see.

The PM took great pains to underline his honesty and integrity as a person. But the tipping point is the definition of honesty. Narrowly defined, it may mean making money. But the honesty of a politician lies in his honesty of purpose, to work for creating an equitable and just society, a task in which he has utterly failed. He wilfully pursued neo-liberal economic policies as a matter of ideological commitment, and he has resolutely stood his ground, knowing very well that these policies serve the interest of the corporates, national and international, and not address the concerns of the ‘aam admi’ which mandated the Congress to govern. What a pity, the aam admi is feeling betrayed by the party he had voted to power as it is now pitted against him. The contentious nuclear deal, for instance, was cleared with electrifying speed, while the Jan Lokpal Bill continues to get mired in procedural technicalities. The issue, which has caught the imagination of the whole country, is no more than a game of political chess for the political parties. It is an irony that in the absence of any framework for accountability, the country is run by lobbies and we have as many of them as the number of promising operators.

But there are a lot of imponderables to be considered. Of course, there is the obvious danger, one would concede, of building the so-called people’s movements, out of sheer expediency, by whipping up sentiments to achieve parochial and communal objectives like building the Ram temple which catapulted the BJP to power at the Centre. But, then the government was more than a willing partner and complicit to the mob frenzy which led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Both the BJP and Congress have a history of engineering mob frenzy, ostensibly on the plea that it was a spontaneous outburst, to push divisive issues to the centre-stage. One only shudders to recall the mass murder of the Sikhs (1984), and communal riots in Bombay (1993) and Gujarat (2002), to name only a few by way of illustration, to focus on the underpinnings of the stage-managed so-called people’s movements.

History is replete with instances when those who were not part of the locally dominant culture were reduced to second-class citizenship and they became outsiders in their own country. I, like many others, am myself a victim of such vandalism against the minorities. The dominant community in the locality has constructed a temple on the road in front of my house, a non-Hindu and a rationalist, in defiance of all the laws enacted by the revered Parliament to safeguard my freedom to carry on with my own belief system undisturbed and in peace. Tainted by the shadow of political considerations, the government, in spite of all the protests, remains a mute spectator to such violations of funda-mental rights of the citizens, expediency being the hall-mark of governance. The government has become totally impervious to the plight of the peaceful and law-abiding citizens and refuses to act, as a matter of policy, unless blood runs in the streets.

The moral of the story is obvious: the government has all the instruments to control lawlessness and mob vandalism if they want to, which they have rarely used. But they have never hesitated to use force to curb people’s movements dubbing them as part of some sinister design. And all political parties have their share of the blame: the BJP in Gujarat and Chhattisgarh, the Congress at the Centre, the NCP in Maharashtra, the BSP in UP and the CPM in Bengal. The society is ruled, it seems, not on the basis of principles but by the nature of man. The all-party meet to discuss the issue of the Jan Lokpal Bill was a damp squib; it had to be. Politicians across the spectrum were one in rejecting Team Anna’s demand. Understandably, All political parties closed ranks, for the only bond which holds them together is their complicity in the common crime of suppressing people’s movements.

Is it any wonder that Parliament, with its professed promise to address the grievances of the common man, has failed the enact the Lokpal Bill for more than 40 years, in spite of the fact that it was piloted several times? And the problem, since then has been compounded many times over, eroding the faith in the institution of parliamentary democracy to create a just and equal society. Political scientists are already debating alternative models like the presidential system and many more. Such is the level of frustration and attendant trust deficit, that the system now has all the ingredients for revolt in the form of mass upsurge; all that one needs is a trigger, and it is invariably provided by the government. There is a strong theoretical supposition in the political science literature that civil unrest is a consequence of the ‘relative deprivation’ of the people in a country.

BUT we cannot be oblivious to the potential of building people’s movements for just causes. We have a lot to learn from movements directed to frame environmental, feminist and human rights issues for the governments to address and Parliament to legislate, with considerable success. One might as well add to the list the Jessica Lal and Matoo murder cases and how people’s movements secured justice. One cannot simply stand and stare and not contribute one’s bit. One should bear in mind that the only safeguard is to participate in the movement and give
direction and not leave the field free for unsavoury elements as a licence to vandalise. The apprehensions of people’s movements becoming disoriented are well-placed, but one has to take guard.

The responsibility to steer such movements for social engineering lies with the progressive forces in the country and they must not look for alibis either because they cannot assume leadership roles or because of some other reser-vations, either on ideological grounds or forebodings. They must play a decisive role by giving the right orientation and right perspective to such movements and it can be done only by active participation. It would, of course, be presumptuous to think that people’s movement is the sole patent of some individuals, groups and political outfits. The Left may still be sulking from the trauma they suffered due to the people’s movement in Singur, but they have learn the lesson and come out of the phobia and join the mainstream of protest movements which challenge the established exploitative order. The minorities and Dalits have everything to gain from such an uprising, for they bear the real brunt of the corrupt governance.

Anna has broken his fast only after Parlia-ment has conceded his demand to incorporate the citizen’s charter, lower bureaucracy and Lok Ayukta in the overall framework of the Lokpal Bill. This, however, should not be misconstrued as the be-all and end-all of the struggle. In fact, this is the beginning of the people’s movement and it has to be taken to its logical conclusion of cleansing the very system which gives rise to corruption in the first place. Maladies like bribe, nepotism, violation of human rights, land grab should not be seen as topics but as facets of the larger issue of polity and the system around which it is structured. The NCPRI, which appeared to be initially hostile to the Jan Lok-pal Bill, is now finding a lot of common space to share. Currently we have four Lokpal formu-lations in circulation. The Jan Lokpal, the NCPRI version, the Bahujan Lokpal and Loksatta’s part Lokpal. And, there will be many more. If these versions represent different segments of the society and address their specific concerns and anxieties, and incorporating them fortifies the Jan Lokpal Bill, it is welcome. But, if this multiplicity is the emergent property of the dictum ‘the rich exploit the poor and the poor fight among themselves’ and acquires narcissistic overtones, it will be a self-inflicting tragedy.

There is a general feeling that the Jan Lokpal Bill has left out corporate groups, political parties, NGOs, professional groups, religious corruption and the like. Poverty has become big business for many NGOs, and scandals like the 2G spectrum pale into insignificance in the face of the current revelations of the riches of many religious outfits and the mushrooming of cults and obscurantist organisations. The Left parties have rightly demanded that all constituents of the ‘Nexus’, including the corporate graft, be also brought under the ambit of the Jan Lokpal Bill. Anna has already moved in this direction, though obliquely, by giving a call for electoral reforms. Besides suggesting a series of amend-ments to the draft Lokpal Bill, the NCPRI has envisaged strengthening of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) into an independent body to tackle bureaucratic graft at the middle and lower levels; creation of a decentralised grievance redress commission to respond to the common man’s daily needs; amendments to the existing Judicial Accountability and Standard Bill to ensure functional independence and independent scrutiny of the judiciary; and modification of the Public Interest Disclosure and Protection to Persons making the Disclosure Bill to provide suitable protection to whistle-blowers. They have also agreed to include the PM, but with a rider that it should be endorsed by the full Bench of the Supreme Court. The reservation in some quarters about the Jan Lokpal formulation is that it will create an anti-corruption regime with ‘excessive powers’ that would override the democratic checks and balances. The Anti-Corruption Lokpal Bill presented in Parliament, on the other hand, is ‘dangerous’ in that it allows government control over the agency by granting government power to appoint and remove the Lokpal.

These are all matters of detail and judgment and can be easily worked out to everybody’s satisfaction, if the intention is to enact a strong and effective Jan Lokpal Bill. The ‘social temperature’, to borrow a phrase from the lexicon of ‘social physics’, is rising and the linkages of the unholy nexus crumbling. This calls for a total revolution and all political parties, especially the Left, has the foremost duty of focusing the discourse of the movement to systemic overhaul, and they must seize the opportunity and rise to the occasion. The evolutionary paradigm has a stern warning for all political parties as an analogy: only those who can adapt and change will survive.

WITH the suspension of the movement in its current form, the government is back to its true form and has already started targeting the activists by unleashing a smear campaign. Privilege notices have been issued against Team Anna members Kiran Bedi, Prashant Bhushan, Arvind Kejriwal and actor Om Puri and more are in the pipeline. The I-T Department has slapped a notice on Anna’s chief campaigner, Arvind Kejriwal, raking up an old issue, asking him to pay dues of more than Rs 9 laks. Anna has appealed to the government not to be vindictive and has warned that this attitude would create unrest in society. Civil rights activist Aruna Roy termed the notion of parliamentary privilege ‘fundamentally flawed’ and said it needed a relook.

The current movement by the civil society is not an emotive issue, nor a reality show engineered by the media, which can be hijacked by unscru-pulous elements or opportunistic alliances. System-modelling experts have shown that such patterns form spontaneously, or self- organise, from a multitude of interacting people. Patterns of action, thought or behaviour often arise without the benefit of a master coordinator. They emerge and evolve quite spontaneously, steered or governed not by any goal or purposeful design, but by all sorts of highly complex mechanisms, the outcomes of blind forces and long drawn-out evolutionary processes. The process is set in motion if the movement holds a promise of better opportunities to improve the position of the people in the system, obviating the necessity to resign themselves any longer to their wretched condition.

It is an issue of survival for the masses whose lives have been jeopardised in the name of development. We have no choice after we have been driven to the wall but to challenge the predator, that is the only hope. If democracy is to survive in this country, then the discourse cannot remain merely at the level of general principles of justice, freedom and survival with dignity, but must device legislative procedures through which these general principles can be imple-mented.

The auhor is an Associate Professor (retired), School of Learning, University of Delhi. He can be contacted by e-mail at:

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