x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

An anti-corruption revolution that is uniquely Indian

India ended the year without a new anti-corruption law. But the issue has awakened the middle class, and will not go away anytime soon.

Future historians may well point to 2011 as an epochal year in Indian politics. It was the year when multiple corruption scams implicating senior officials and cabinet ministers unfolded simultaneously, involving unbelievable sums of public money - by some accounts, equivalent to almost one quarter of India's GDP - and putting in doubt the process of public policy formation in areas such as telecommunications and infrastructure, key components of future growth.

More importantly, the country's expanding middle class finally emerged from its comfort zone to express outrage at this public looting. This frustration was epitomised by Anna Hazare, a respected social reformer, who led a national campaign to establish a new and powerful anti-corruption body, the Lokpal. Hundreds of thousands of people supported this demand by taking to the street, while millions more show support online.

Over many twists and turns, and through much drama on the streets and inside Parliament, the proposed Lokpal bill eventually failed to become law in the winter session of parliament that concluded last week. But the fight over India's corruption problem is far from over.

All through the year, there have been fierce exchanges between the ruling Indian National Congress party and the main opposition, the BJP. There also remain very strong schisms within the country's influential civil society on whether or not any proposed new ombudsman is a sensible way to tackle corruption. For every Medha Patkar supporting Mr Hazare there is an Arundhati Roy opposing him vociferously.

To add to the confusion, there are at least two versions of the Lokpal bill: the one introduced in Parliament by the government is universally considered weak, while the bill proposed by Mr Hazare and his team raises serious practical issues, including the wisdom in creating yet another powerful and ultimately autocratic body which may be accountable to no one.

In recent weeks, Mr Hazare and his advisors appear to have undermined their own movement by speaking too much, on every issue under the sun, and with some rather intemperate and unbending rhetoric. Unless there is course correction, Mr Hazare risks being depicted by the government as a crackpot rather than a serious reformer.

All this rhetorical jousting and legislative gamesmanship has made the issue more befuddled and complicated to follow, perhaps allowing the political class a way to escape from the dragnet. If this is India's Arab Spring moment, then it is also uniquely Indian, in that there are circles within circles, hundreds of self-styled leaders who claim to be speaking on behalf "of the people" and a million mutinies instead of a single Tahrir Square.

Despite these complications, the significance of Mr Hazare's campaign cannot be overemphasised. He has brought the issue of corruption into mainstream Indian political debate for the first time in more than a generation and has succeeded in engaging and mobilising the urban middle class - and India is a rapidly urbanising country.

Unlike past major protest movements in India, be it over caste-based job reservations or economic reforms, the issue of corruption unites a broad swath of Indian society. At a very fundamental level, the roots of urban middle class anger are the same as the despair of Indian villagers that has led to the Maoist insurgency: terrible governance, stifling corruption, huge economic disparity and total absence of any official urgency.

All this is what inflames the Hazare movement and makes it such a potent threat to the political establishment. In fact, the issue of corruption and governance is likely to become the most animated political pivot in the near-term, especially with five states of the country scheduled for elections in the next two months.

By taking the Gandhi family head-on and by name, and by associating corruption primarily with the Congress party, Mr Hazare has raised the stakes rather spectacularly for Congress, especially in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the country's most populous and politically important state.

For some time, there has been over-anticipation in the media and within the Congress party of Rahul Gandhi's eventual accession to power, and a good result in the UP elections, where he has been campaigning intensely, was seen as the appropriate starting point.

Should the Congress party do poorly in UP due to the Hazare factor, the situation could lead to greater instability. Congress is intrinsically populist, and despite having some top economic brains and reformers, the Singh government has actually given out massive subsidies and loan waivers to party faithful in recent years. India's overall fiscal deficit has increased to almost 12 per cent, up from 8 per cent in 2004 when the Congress took over. Further subsidies enshrined in a proposed food security bill now threaten to raise this much higher.

Looking beyond the issue of corruption, the strange twists and turns of the this anti-corruption campaign have allowed a closer inspection of India's fabled democracy - and it is not the pretty picture Indians usually see. Yes, India votes often, votes in large numbers and its poor usually vote the most. But India's democracy remains mired in personality-centric or caste-based dynamics, susceptible to cheap demagoguery.

An American analyst once said that Indian democracy appears to represent the people without adequately serving them. An independent anti-corruption watchdog, proposed by Mr Hazare or something else entirely, may yet change that.


Subhash Agrawal is a political risk consultant based in New Delhi and editor of India Focus.