x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

An anti-corruption fight for India's soul

If India's anti-corruption bill passes the upper house, a good deal of credit belongs to Anna Hazare.

For decades, Indian politicians have blocked the creation of an anti-corruption agency. A cynical point of view - and certainly many Indians are cynical about politics and corruption these days - might question what they had to fear.

Despite objections from opposition parties, the lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, passed a version of an anti-corruption bill that would create an independent committee to investigate politicians and civil servants.The bill, which will be debated in the upper house today, would put criminal investigations into the hands of the government-controlled Central Bureau Investigation.

Part of the credit for this breakthrough, if the bill is indeed passed, will belong to the 73-year-old activist Anna Hazare. Opinions will be split on Mr Hazare, who ended a two-day hunger strike yesterday, but it is inarguable that his campaign has keenly focused minds on corruption in India's politics and society.

One of the objections to Mr Hazare's campaign is that he is trying to "legislate from the street" by bringing populist pressure to bear and force a stronger role for an anti-corruption agency and ombudsman. This is a basic misunderstanding of India's democracy. Mr Hazare and his supporters are exercising their constitutional right to protest. The government's worst mistake in the entire episode was to arrest Mr Hazare for hunger striking in August. Fasting for a political cause is a time-honoured tradition in India that cannot be abrogated by the police.

That said, politicians have another responsibility to craft legislation that is effective, and not merely pleasing to Mr Hazare's supporters. It might be argued that this is the balance that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, generally respected as a man of integrity, has been trying find in the most recent legislation.

Whether it will be effective is an open question. The battle against corruption in India requires profound political and social change over time. From the telecoms scandal that cost the country $40 billion (Dh147 billion) to the everyday bribes that so many Indians pay, graft is an endemic condition that undermines the country at every level.

Mr Hazare's campaign may not have all of the answers, but it has brought corruption to the forefront of Indian politics. Judging by the record, politicians needed that goad to focus on this issue of singular importance.