Sunday, June 19, 2011

Just Another Cynic's Take on the Current Brouhaha Over Corruption and Politics in India

With Baba and his fast to mobilize masses in the fight against corruption, Anna and gang trying to bring PM under Lokpal's gambit and government taking stands/actions which to be fair it can definitely take legally, but then they make government look like a bunch of arrogant powerful folks. We have all shades of arguments being thrown in the debates we watch on TV or read in newspapers. Whatever these arguments are, at least everyone says that they want to solve the corruption problem, so let's go through some of their stands and arguments briefly.

First, we have Anna Hazare, whose fast did energize many intellectuals and enough in the middle class to support him because they were frustrated with the corruption scandals which have surfaced in the recent past. He and his colleagues believe that creating another giant power center cum government institution of Lokpal will solve the problem. Without getting into the debate on what should be the right size of government, let's accept that having a Lokpal with adequate powers to keep a check on the government and politicians definitely sounds like a good idea in the current times and in the Indian context. But team Anna's adamant stand on having PM under the Lokpal's gambit makes me wonder that if they would end up compromising on some other more critical aspects of the Lokpal bill in their attempt to have this symbolic victory over PM.

Next is Baba Ramdev, who has been making his speeches against the government on the corruption issue since past few years (I don't want to get into his claims about curing AIDS or medicines like Putravati or any other similarly ridiculous ideas). Disregarding some of the intellectuals who feel that Babaji felt jealous Anna's rise on this agenda and did all this, we can say that some times he even makes sense to the intellectuals. On the whole, probably he is creating some amount of positive energy in India through his yoga and speeches. But finally, with all the drama, a short lived fast and his flip-slops, he has definitely lost some of his credibility.

BJP/opposition: VP Singh took on the corruption issue of a Rs 64 crore scam and snatched the power from Rajiv Gandhi, who had led the Congress to get highest ever MP seats in the previous election (404 MPs). Contrast this with the current situation, BJP and other opposition parties have had the opportunity to take on the current coalition government on the scams worth humongously larger amounts of money than Bofors. Their inability to mobilize public support from the already frustrated citizens of India, clearly raises a lot of doubts about their capability (or the quality of their leaders) to come into power in the center in 2014 or maybe even 2019. Whether it is their lack of capacity or fear of getting trapped later because they also are equally corrupt can also be debated. In any case, opposition's showing has been pretty weak on an issue which is by nature a political issue.

Coming to Media, it is a group which definitely feels that they are the watchdogs for the government and convey that they are morally more responsible than us lesser mortals. Some of them have may have earned this feeling, but it is a shame for the media that the starting source of most good stories in the recent past has been civil society organizations (a topic for another post). Probably the economic pressures keep them from becoming anything but business of sensational infotainment. Whatever it is, they have been trying to take sides with Anna's team, or government. Ones taking side with Anna blindly are probably doing so because they can get more eyeballs, whereas the others lambasting Anna's team (and also NAC) for trying to hijack the role of politically elected lawmakers maybe doing so because feel they are smarter than others because they know the constitution.

Finally, we have the maibaaps in government i.e. Congress, which (along with opposition parties) seem to be totally ignoring the fact that politicians as a class have lost credibility in the eyes of us commoners. It doesn't mean that they won't win the next election, because to their advantage corruption and the amounts of money involved in an election make the electoral politics out of bound for rest of the mortals and the leaders of civil society organizations. And such is the audacity is our leaders in the government that they want to crush any of the efforts of civil society or public to even protest. In Baba Ramdev's case, his naivete in politics was leading him to a path of destruction only, but then government has to crush the movement, which made him gain empathy from even the intellectuals who disliked Baba for some of his ridiculous ideas. To add to this self-inflicted injury, they went ahead totally rejecting the idea of bringing PM into the gambit of Lokpal and made the statements which came along with their strict stand. It is a negotiation which definitely could have been handled much better, and thankfully they have now come to the idea of having more options on the table like keeping PM out till he/she demits, but it's so late that it just makes them look like bending a bit after they realized they can't do without it.

Showing you can crush when you have the power do so, is not considered being responsible. Compare the center's handling of Baba Ramdev with how Ashok Gehlot handled the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan. Nobody would doubt the integrity of some leaders in the Congress but still their strong reactions to these protests are just creating more reasons for the public to not trust them.

An odd thought here is that VP Singh was a rebel from Congress, and given that no one in the opposition has shown potential to lead the country in this fight against corruption, could it be possible that someone from the Congress would capture this opportunity. A rebel would definitely make a really interesting political drama, but it could tried someone staying within the system too e.g. Rahul Gandhi. Again it's an opportunity for him and someone else too, but we would have to wait if these men of power would just stay risk averse as they been mostly or take their chances.

Anyway, maybe because I am ignorant, I feel that this whole problem is much more complex than any of these stakeholders try to portray it to be through the solutions they propose. The near universal acceptance of corruption in the Indian society can make one say that within limits corruption has become a part of the culture for most Indians. Elites and some civil society’s members may be able to take a higher ground and claim that they have neither given nor taken a bribe ever, but rest of the mortals have their benchmarks of how much corruption is tolerable and what is a cancer for the society.

People are certainly looking for the options to place their trust upon, at least the voter turnouts at all the recent state elections suggest so, but there aren’t any options. That’s why they find it easy to trust some crusaders for their cause from the civil society when that role should ideally have been played by the politicians. It’s not just the people, but even the real centers of power like our PM, Mrs. Gandhi and the likes also find it easy to trust these NGOish leaders and thinkers than the politicians from their own party, and that is why we have a NAC.

My take on the situation is that it is all mesh of many vicious circles. Our polity has failed to provide us with the competitive leaders, primarily because it is nowhere close to equal opportunity world because the money required to be considered as a serious player is very high. This unfair competition then enhances to incentives to be corrupt, and then these corrupt leaders find themselves lacking any authority to stop others (bureaucrats, judiciary, govt employees) from being corrupt. Adding to all this the rising aspirations of citizens of our democracy living in an increasingly connected world where they can easily see that the possibilities of growth could be beyond imagination, and the result we get is what we see today: an economy quite entrenched in corruption (even in the private sector) with people have become very pragmatic and care more for their goals.

Another institution like Lokpal could also probably follow the same path and become corrupt over time if corruption problem is not targeted holistically. We need to clean up our judiciary, administration, politics all together while maintaining a right balance of power among these players and also managing the economic growth in a inclusive manner at the a good rate of growth. From where the change can start is a dicey question especially with so many entangled vicious circles, but more or less we can agree that politicians are the most likely candidates who could lead India through this transition, though not alone. We can just hope that either our existing political leaders will transform into such responsible and visionary leaders, or we will soon see another crop of leaders which is highly competitive and capable to deliver up to the expectations of public.