Today in India there’s palpable angst being directed towards the ways of the country’s political class and their corrupt practices. Young Indians see the widespread corruption as a major hurdle in their path to progress—India’s main Achilles heel. It’s therefore no wonder the fast-unto-death launched by 73-year-old Anna Hazare last week drew such overwhelming public support.
But one unfortunate and worrisome result of the frenzy unleashed by his four-day protest (which ended in victory for Hazare over the weekend), is that it’s created panic amongst concerned citizens of the country.
The problem is that people are so sick of the political corruption rampant in India today that they’re turning the blame on elected representatives and the very institution of democracy.
There’ve been public calls for the creation of an all-powerful ombudsman-type anti-corruption commission, a ‘super cop-prosecutor-judge,’ immune to the Parliament and executive government, and for justice for the crimes committed by the current administration to be delivered within one year.
But what happens when a completely new institution is created with the sole premise that people’s representative leadership can’t be trusted or considered?
In a recent article for the Indian Express Pratap Bhanu Mehta addressed this question, by pointing out how the idea of democracy can become twisted in these moments of high tensions: ‘Sometimes a sense of unbridled virtue can also subvert democracy. The agitation by civil society activists over the Jan Lokpal Bill is a reminder of this uncomfortable truth,’ he wrote.
The rising cynicism surrounding democracy in India is simply not comforting for the long-term interest of the country and its political traditions.
Writing for the Times of India, Karan Bedi concurs, suggesting that Hazare is causing more trouble than good by trying to ‘influence the working of a democratically-elected government and the due process of law-making by what is essentially blackmail.’ Bedi goes on to suggest that such action ‘sows the seeds of anarchy’ and thus that it can be seen as ‘a trial by media and trial by a kangaroo court.’
There’s also a rising concern among right-thinking Indians that other civil society groups, spurred by Hazare’s protest, will ‘cash in’ on the current hype, and try to force their own agendas on the nation, like the building of a temple at the controversial site of the soon-to-be demolished Babri mosque in Ayodhya.
Echoing such fears is Jay Panda, a young parliamentarian from Orissa, Baijayant, who says that ‘the solution to curbing corruption in India lies not in bypassing politics or politicians, since both are essential to democracy, but in compelling them to change through public pressure.’
Meanwhile, politician Raghubansh Prasad Singh, known for his integrity, has stated that, ‘to pillory political parties without any alternative in sight, as is being done now, is an invitation to anarchy and slavery.’ There’s no doubt that in India, the current government has had to agree to accept most of the demands being made by civil society groups. It’s even possible that the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government has to a degree welcomed some of the agitation as a blessing in disguise, a chance to retrieve some lost moral ground after the much-discussed 2G spectrum scam and scandals surrounding the preparations for the Commonwealth Games last year.
But corruption in India is all-pervasive across all walks of life and only a concerted campaign at the ground level, one based on individual will and desire not to succumb to the temptations of bribery and easy money, will be able to control it. The institution of law will not be enough. For example, although we have a very stringent law against marriage dowry, it’s an open secret that the majority of marriages in India are still fixed on the basis of an exchange of illegal money and gifts. The law has actually deterred people to be less open about this social evil.
Unless there’s a change in the attitudes of the people of India, unless there’s a greater awareness for the need for society-wide transparency, no law or super-ombudsman can correct a faultline that currently runs deep in the Indian psyche.
Middle-class morality too is always suspect. No matter how vocal they may be against corruption, if one’s son or daughter doesn’t get admitted to a medical college through the normal procedures, Indian parents won’t often hesitate to shell out a certain amount of cash as a ‘donation’ to the institution to secure a seat. Similarly, many of the very people who walked with candles in hand last week at Jantar Mantar, Hazare’s protest site in New Delhi, would very likely have procured a driving license for themselves or their children by bribing transport officials.
Corruption therefore is an ingrained attitude in India and unless we reform ourselves from the ground up becoming tough with ourselves, no amount of legislation is going to eradicate it.
Not very far from the Jantar Mantar, a parallel campaign is taking place. A movement has been making efforts to try and raise awareness for the case of Dr Binayak Sen, who’s been charged with sedition for serving the poor people in destitute villages of Chhattisgarh. This gross injustice for a great social worker has not caught the attention of Hazare, his supporters, or many of the civil society activists who don't see Sen’s issue as having enough potential to capture the interest of the corporate media and fickle middle-class.
It’s a great relief that the 4-day 24/7 reality show that was Hazare’s latest protest is over. The issue of democracy can’t be turned into a media circus. When elsewhere in the world, we are witnessing a celebratory resurgence of democracy, the biggest democracy of the world shouldn’t be seen to be undermining the very institutions that have sustained it successfully for over 60 years.