Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Politics of Corruption

Everyone agrees that corruption is bad and that it needs to be rooted out. Half the people who do so are corrupt themselves, and are like the thieves who join the crowd singing devotional songs. The other half are sincere, but cannot seem to agree on the means to do so.


A significant proportion of the sincere half has rallied in support of the current movement sweeping the country, which reached a mass movement status thanks to Anna Hazare. Anna himself is a person who has led a very simple life, who was a driver in the Army before he went on to transform Ralegan Siddhi village and has been conferred the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan. His personal possessions are few, and he does not seem to be harboring any political ambitions. This gives him a moral authority that few can match.


However, it is debatable whether the cure proposed by Anna is in the long run going to be any better than the disease. His proposal of having a superordinate body with power to investigate and hand out punishments, seems to be an immediate way out of our current mess, where we have lost all faith in the existing institutions. People yearn for a dictatorship when law and order totally breaks down and there is extreme hardship caused by what is perceived as lack of decisive leadership. The yearning for a Lokpal with extensive powers seems similar to that. What about the current institutions? The CBI is considered the handmaiden of the government in power, the higher courts have  been of late tainted with accusations of impropriety against judges, the lower courts have never been perceived to be totally honest, the political class is expected to make money by dishonest means, the administration is seen to be suborned to the will of their corrupt masters the politicians, and so on the list goes at every level of governance and administration. With this kind of erosion of faith in institutions, it is understandable that people yearn for a super-body.  On a little reflection it will become apparent that the age-old question is coming back to haunt us: "Who will guard the guardians"? The Lokpal, if and when it comes into being, is also going to be made up of people – who will select them, on what basis, and how will we ensure that they use their powers with fairness and transparency?


The entry of Baba Ramdev only complicates matters further. He is a yoga guru who has built up a huge following, not least due to the power of TV and media. He runs a flourishing business empire that he has built from scratch. He has shown a tendency to enter into controversial areas, and air his strongly held, but hardly what you may term unbiased, views. It is good that he is using his vast credibility to crusade for such a noble cause, but where this will ultimately lead is anyone's guess. His main demand seems to be to bring black money back into the country. It is a demand that resonates well, but black money is not some identifiable dinosaur roaming in the wild, where all you need to do is go and catch it. With his antics, he might actually end up muddying the waters more, creating confusion and diverting the debate, which might end up suiting a certain section of people quite well.


What then are the solutions? Unfortunately that is not such an easy question to answer. We already have several laws and governing institutions in place. What we need to think about is how to strengthen these institutions by ensuring sound governance and non-interference. We should  look at a thorough revision of existing laws to give them more teeth, and introducing new laws where there are gaps. We should look at strengthening the ideas of ethics, morality and honesty in our education and public debates – there is too much emphasis given to "hard" aspects that can be measured, and lesser emphasis on these softer issues nowadays. Above all, we need to introduce more transparency in all areas of public governance right from the Village Panchayat upwards – sunlight is always the best disinfectant. Transparency and dissemination of information have become more and more easy in the modern world thanks to technology and the internet. Nothing radical in these suggestions, and nothing original – but perhaps that is the way to go. It is also not an easy journey – the battle against corruption is a constant struggle not very different from the mythological battles between the Devas and the Asuras.



What is undeniable is that there is a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction and people are restive and want change. Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, and others who have risen in their support, are helping to bring the issue to the fore, and strengthening the voices demanding change. Let us hope that we will have changes that are principled, practical and capable of lasting.

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