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Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Politics of Destabilization

Failed Protests Targeted Reformist Government

The “India against Corruption” campaign focused somewhat obsessively on corruption in high places. Accordingly, politicians and bureaucrats were labelled corrupt. As such, they have to be brought under the purview of an ombudsman; a body whose powers have to be decided by civil society activists, justices of the various high courts, eminent citizens and whoever else Hazare and his cohorts feel should be included.

The campaign attracted members who work in the modern Indian economy and are among the most obvious beneficiaries of economic reform. Bright and educated, they nevertheless overlooked Hazare’s unconstitutional political demand to override Parliament’s law-making powers, preferring to focus on the larger, more romantic objective of fighting corruption. These are men and women, incensed by reports of corruption and hungry to hitch their wagon to a messiah; much like the programming code they write or use at work to provide quick and effective solutions to problems; never mind that they are complex such as rural poverty, urban squalor, entrenched corruption, inflation, economic growth and poor infrastructure. The messiah will deliver!

Now the drama has ended, the question we must put to Hazare and his supporters is this: isn’t the bribe giver as culpable as the taker? Shouldn’t bribe givers also be brought under the ombudsman? In that case, private sector business and individual citizens will need to be included. Thus the agency would be given powers to haul up citizens, executives, boards of directors, owners. Such a sweeping empowerment holds in its own constitution the possibility of abuse.

Creating a super agency that can be abused or run amok is hardly an effective way to investigate and penalize corruption. If you look at recent allegations of corruption in the allocation of mobile spectrum, in infrastructure development, in mining…you will find these are sectors which are still under government control. To deal with this, the government introduced several bills in Parliament. Of the ones that got passed into law, there is the hugely successful example of financial sector regulation. The rest have been stalled because of the paralysis caused by the Opposition’s questionable tactics of stalling proceedings in Parliament.

As the Prime Minister said, these “second stage” reforms need political consensus. These have to do with land acquisition, environmental protection, financial regulation, education, judicial changes and a series of other difficult tasks in sectors like mining where vested interests hold sway and power, where the entire state-run system is bankrupt.

Hazare's handlers demanded their version of the “Lokpal” bill be adopted by a certain date. This was clearly not in the government’s power to promise because the bill must go before a parliamentary committee. The demand militated against compromise, leave alone consensus. It was divisive and corrosive and seemed to target a duly- elected government. In doing that, the Hazare protest revealed its ultimate goal: to destabilize the UPA government. The agenda seemed to be: create an anarchic situation that the government is unable to control it without resort to force and is thus forced to agree to mid-term elections.

What started out as a political demand to carve for themselves a role in drafting an anti-corruption bill appeared to have grown in scope. Clearly buoyed by incessant and uncritical media coverage that attracted crowds, Hazare's supporters raised the ante: derail the government.

Meanwhile, after initial missteps, the government managed to put a strategy in place to deal with the protest. Aware there was a sizable, perhaps dominant, segment of the population that wanted nothing to do with the Hazare campaign, the government moved to rally support. More and more voices spoke out, on television, in print and online, against the strong-arm nature of the agitation and its “with us or against us” stance. Anyone who challenged, as a respected television anchor did, the demands raised by the agitators, was branded as “pro corruption.”

Faced with adulatory fans in designer T-shirts and Gandhi caps, Hazare’s rhetoric became more self-congratulatory, more truculent and even abusive. He has called the Prime Minister names; the people at his rally used foul language to abuse UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, fuelling renewed suspicion that the RSS may be behind the protest. The crowds also attracted gaggles of hoodlums and petty criminals, resulting in instances of sexual harassment and theft.

Also people started looking into the antecedents of this new messiah. On Facebook, a post quoted from an article on Hazare that appeared in a Reader’s Digest 1986 edition. Among a host of petty dictatorial pronouncements, he banned the sale and use of tobacco and liquor. Those brewers and sellers who did not voluntarily accept the ban found their places of business ransacked. When some three people were caught drinking, Hazare lashed them to pillars in the local temple and flogged them personally with his army belt.

Many were embarrassed by his low-level comments about the Prime Minister, whom he called a ‘liar.” It is this lack of restraint that he and his aides demonstrated that people began to find disturbing. Hitler and Mussolini used the same tactics to discredit the political process in Germany and Italy. His methods came to be seen as Goebbelsian: pitch it as a fight against corruption when it really is an assault on the Constitution; pitch it as apolitical when it is truly a campaign to dislodge the government.

Hazare's managers became so besotted with media driven popularity that they could not see they were losing ground. The Parliament bailed them out by passing a resolution that allowed them to claim victory. In the end, India's constitutional democracy proved mature and resilient. Completely outmaneuvered, Hazare and his horde will return to the dark spaces from whence they emerged.

Not being much of a chip-on-the-shoulder patriot, on this occasion I want to shout from the rooftops: Jai Hind!