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Friday, June 10, 2011

Beyond the corruption battle

Let us not get carried away by the crusade of the self-appointed guardians of public interest

First, a "fast unto death" fueled by Information Technology; now, another one inspired by Yoga. Two of India's major exports have come home to roost, cheered by hyperventilating television news channels. Combating corruption is the larger cause that Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev advocate. And damned be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'

Never mind the Constitution; a pox on all politicians, Hazare says. The good people of India are on the move. By the sheer goodness of their lifestyles, by the shining nobility of their intent, they will cleanse the body politic. Girding his high-minded campaign is a bare-knuckle political demand swaddled in Gandhian homespun: give my chosen people a say in the framing of the Lokpal bill.

Who elected you? We nominated ourselves by virtue of Magsaysay awards and membership in "peoples' movements." What about the Constitution? Ours is a higher cause.

Ramdev's demands are too absurd to be given any sort of respectability. His potent mix of religiosity and postmodernism threatens, nevertheless, to overwhelm the Hazare protest. His followers are true believers, seeking to achieve perfect communion of the self with the universal truth.

In contrast, the cappuccino-swilling denizens of cyberspace, who form the bulk of Hazare's supporters, are causerati; tomorrow they will turn their attention to the dangers of cellphone use or the hazards of nuclear power. Small wonder then that Hazare, despite being "unwell", has said he will be present at Delhi's Ramlila Maidan in solidarity with the godman.

The question arises though: if civil society activists inspired by grandiosity and true believers mesmerised by a godman can demand a say in the way laws are made and the government is run, then why not business associations like the CII and Ficci? Or trade unions? Or for that matter, Rotary and Lions Clubs? What makes Hazare and Ramdev and their acolytes so special?

What is alarming about the hunger strikes is that the people who support them seem to have no time for political processes and constitutional restraint. Indian democracy has managed to negotiate the mind-numbing diversity that could have splintered the country; the Constitution is a charter that legitimises and separates the role of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Despite the obvious governance deficit, there prevails a modicum of the rule of law.

Changes are needed to usher in the idea of a government not as a master but in service of the people. A corollary to the notion of government as master is that of bureaucrats and politicians as a rentier class that extorts money from hapless citizens to provide services and permissions as favours rather than as due process. This is the source of corruption in all socialist systems where the dead hand of government smothers entrepreneurship and opportunities to make a dignified living.

India took a giant step two decades ago when it scrapped the licence-permit raj. Its emergence as a significant global player can be traced back to the reforms of 1991. Loosening controls is easier than the second stage of reform: to provide effective governance. Political stability is a key element in second-stage reforms.

In the UPA's first turn, we had the unseemly spectacle of an arrogant Left combining with a peeved BJP in an effort to oust the government over a foreign policy initiative: the strategic partnership with the US. The UPA survived and in the 2009 election went on to win bigger. The Left and the BJP saw their influence shrink dramatically.

But political uncertainty persisted as the UPA was confronted with accusations of corruption in telecom deals, the Commonwealth Games and various other projects. Today's challenges come not from opposition political parties but self-appointed guardians of the public interest: righteous activists and now, a slippery godman. Dealing with such groups is problematic because they don't abide by the Constitution but owe allegiance to a "higher cause".

TV news channels and to a lesser extent, the print media are obsessed by these protests. They convey the impression of a corruption-singed government at sea in the face of this 'uprising'. Overwhelmed by deafening din of TV reporters without the slightest sense of objectivity, I fled to the sanity of international journalism. There I found the following stories:

  • The Indian government has drawn up ambitious plans to double exports to $500 billion in the next three years. The trade-to-GDP ratio has already increased from 15% in 1990 to 35% today.
  • With supportive government policies, India's pharmaceutical sector has emerged as a global force, supplying low-cost, high-quality off-patent medicine to the developed as well as developing nations.
  • India has become the world center for 'frugal engineering', manufacturing low-cost products that are resistant to tough environments while maintaining high quality standards.

This is not to suggest that the protests should not be covered; only that it should not lead to a situation in which the adversarial nature of the relationship between the media and the government is twisted so much that a duly-elected government is portrayed an enemy of the people.

It would be fair if Indian journalists could also track other stories as well: of an India that is rapidly finding its metier on the world stage; of the rising aspirations of young India confronting the victim mindsets that enervate the older generation.

This article appeared in The Economic Times, June 4, 2011.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011