A major highlight of India’s Independence Day events on August 15 each year is the speech given by the prime minister of India from the rampart of the historic Red Fort in New Delhi. This year, the throng awaited the annual address to the nation with heightened curiosity and anticipation. The reason was simple: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was going to talk to the people in the midst of raging agitation against corruption led by civil society leader Anna Hazare. Singh was expected for the first time to spell out his position on Hazare’s threat to fast unto death if the government failed to come up with a stronger anti-graft Lokpal Bill, or ombudsman bill, in the ongoing session of the parliament.
And he didn’t disappoint the nation. During the 40 minutes that he spoke, nine minutes were dedicated to explaining the government’s view on corruption, which Singh described as one of the biggest hurdles in the development of the country. He also appealed to the agitating civil rights activists not to resort to fasting to press for their version of the disputed bill.
But the atmosphere is so confrontational that the activists just aren’t willing to listen. Despite the police not having given them any permission to launch hunger strikes from their chosen location—a park located in the middle of a busy road in the capital—civil society groups decided to proceed with their campaign.
The way the whole spat between the government and the civil society groups is unfolding has become akin to a 24/7 drama. The media have been latching on to each and every detail of their activities and scrambling to broadcast statements emanating from all sides.
But amidst this whole din, the fight against corruption has become personalized and politicized. The activists are using some harsh rhetoric against the government, while the ruling party is resorting to name-calling.
Civil society representatives believe the government hasn’t been serious in addressing the issue of corruption, while the incumbent coalition suspects the intentions of the non-governmental organisations in persisting with the agitation despite the introduction of an anti-corruption bill in the parliament.
How far can this slugfest be justified? No doubt, there’s general anger across the country over the prevailing scourge of corruption in all walks of life. The unfolding of big-ticket graft cases against some cabinet ministers, and large-scale financial bungling in the preparations for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) last year, has further accentuated the people’s anger.
The main gripe of Anna Hazare is that the Lokpal Bill doesn’t include all the points that his team suggested to the government. In the absence of those provisions, civil society has labelled it ‘toothless’ and wants to resort to hunger strikes to force the government to include all their suggestions in the legislation.
Cashing in on the prevailing mood, the activists are targeting parliament, ignoring democratic debates, and attempting to blackmail the government by threatening hunger strikes. The government’s high-handed response to the non-political group’s threats has further inflamed passions, and a situation has arisen where confrontation seems inevitable.
Can a democracy be supported by raising the pitch and attacking the very institutions that have sustained the nation for so long? It’s democracy, after all, that has allowed the activists a voice, and given them the power to challenge the government. But no government, no matter how liberal it is, will give permission for an indefinite agitation of 100,000 people in the middle of the nation’s capital.
Still, the reality is that the Indian middle class has been a victim of corruption for decades. The government’s failure to address systematic corruption has been prompting them to question the whole political class and the institutions of governance.
On top of that, the slowness of the leadership to punish those involved in graft has also added to the existing frustration. Had Singh, once a darling of the middle class, acted against then-Telecom Minister Andimuthu Raja in 2008, when that minister’s underhand dealings surfaced for the first time, he would have saved his public image and the credibility of the government. Singh also delayed acting against Suresh Kalmadi, the chief of the CWG organising committee, further eroding the confidence of the people in the prime minister to get tough on wrongdoers.
The prime minister might have sounded both serious and sincere over tackling corruption, but people are no longer willing to go by his words – they want swift action.