Features | Society | South Asia

India’s Anti-Corruption Crusades

Why civil society leaders like Anna Hazare and Bab Ramdev are seizing the initiative on tackling corruption in India.

By Neeta Lal for

Why are anti-corruption crusades, such as those led by social activist Anna Hazare and yoga entrepreneur Baba Ramdev, gaining so much traction? And why are they resonating so strongly with the masses? It’s an oft-asked question in India these days following high-decibel campaigns against graft and black money in the country.

Hazare has been advocating stringent reforms to tackle corruption, while yoga guru Ramdev has pursued a campaign over the government’s alleged failures in bringing back black money – income illegally obtained or not declared for tax purposes – from foreign shores.

While both leaders have their own agendas behind their agitations, there’s no denying that the issues they raise merit attention. According to one study, India has more black money than any other country – an estimated $1.4 trillion, a figure about 13 times larger than the country’s foreign debt.

Meanwhile, the toxic atmosphere graft breeds – the crafty stashing away of millions in clandestine bank accounts while the rest of the populace struggles to make ends meet – hardly augurs well for the world’s most populous democracy.

Unsurprisingly, all this has created a groundswell of resentment against the embattled ruling United Progressive Alliance government, anger that civil society activists are now tapping into. This frustration is compounded by figures such as those released by The World Bank, which has estimated that almost 800 million Indians still live on less than $2 dollars a day.

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In one opinion poll after another, corruption consistently ranks as one of the top concerns among Indians, so in a sense it’s hardly surprising that charismatic leaders in civil society are able to muster such huge followings. Clearly, civil activism results from a serious governance deficit in the country as the continued lack of transparency, responsiveness and accountability within so many government institutions is driving ordinary citizens to despair.

Hazare and Ramdev aren’t the only voices taking a lead in expressing frustration with the failures of the government. Earlier this year, 14 distinguished Indian citizens, including business leaders, eminent economists and legal luminaries, wrote an open letter to the government over the governance deficit; the letter was run on the front page of leading national dailies.

The numbers suggest the 14 luminaries have a point. India ranks 134th in the world in the United Nations’ human development index, 133rd on the World Bank’s ease of doing business list, and 84th in terms of freedom from corruption.

There are numerous other indicators suggesting government failure, from figures for child malnutrition, to income inequality, to the chronic lifestyle ailments typical of rapid urbanization. Yet despite the apparent shortcomings, the government has hardly had any direct engagement with its citizens.

In the wake of such apathy, India’s middle class, which is projected to grow to 583 million by 2025, is finally asserting itself as a political force to be reckoned with, especially in urban areas. And the key demand they are making of their leaders is accountability.

The government’s problems are compounded by the fact that more and more Indians are traveling abroad and so holding their government to international standards. Having experienced public services, infrastructure and governance in Asian nations like Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and China they are appalled by the conditions they return to.

But to tackle the governance deficit, the executive first has to acknowledge the problem, and then move swiftly to demonstrate it can be decisive and that it will display zero tolerance for corruption. It has made a good start by prosecuting a former minister, senior leaders of its own party and coalition partners on a raft of corruption charges.

In the long run, though, it will have to seize the initiative from the opposition and self-appointed guardians of the public interest through the introduction of legislative measures like the Lokpal Bill. But this anti-corruption law, also referred to as a citizens’ ombudsman bill, is currently caught up in a legislative logjam. The idea behind it is to create a ‘Jan Lokpal’ to prosecute politicians and bureaucrats without prior government permission. The bill proposes creating an office of the Lokpal (Ombudsman) at the centre, and local Lokayukta at the state level to usher in greater accountability.

Interestingly, in the wake of all the fuss created by civil society movements, the government has been forced to take some proactive measures to tackle graft. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for example, has called for all ministers to declare their assets, while Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal has hinted the Lokpal bill might be ready by June 30.

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If the UPA government really can get a strong anti-corruption law in place, it will be a bold step down the path of good governance. It will also put a welcome lid on the rising extra-constitutionalism that has made a mockery out of official efforts at tackling the most serious issues facing the country.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist.