Inside Story

Delhi drift

Deep political disillusionment in India won’t be solved simply by creating a new anti-corruption czar, writes Robin Jeffrey

Robin Jeffrey 31 August 2011 1099 words

Above: Flag seller at Anna Hazare anti-corruption rally in New Delhi.
Photo: India Kangaroo/ Flickr

NINETEEN SEVENTY-FIVE was a bad year for governments in India and Australia, and 2011 isn’t looking all that flash either. In India, an almost leaderless government staggers like a battered boxer in the face of an “anti-corruption movement” focused around a village social worker, Anna Hazare. In Australia, Labor Party politicians confess that the party hasn’t been so out of favour with so many voters since the Whitlam years.

The Australian High Commissioner to India back in 1975, former journalist Bruce Grant, wrote a book called Gods and Politicians comparing the circumstances of the “emergency” declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975 with the operatic ending of the Whitlam government, dismissed by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, in the same year. (Irreverent commentators suggested that “god” in the title referred to Whitlam and “politician” to Mrs Gandhi.)

A few superficial similarities gave Grant’s book its starting point, though he had to draw a bow longer than Robin Hood’s to sustain the comparison. What worked was the fact that both the Whitlam and Gandhi governments of the early 1970s had been elected with tremendous hope and enthusiasm. Both had seen that support dissolve into sour antagonism, and both ended in constitutional crises.

Indira Gandhi’s government faced a widespread protest movement in 1974–75 led by a veteran nationalist, Jayaprakash Narayan. Convicted of electoral malpractice, Mrs Gandhi twisted the constitution, and the arm of the figurehead president, to impose authoritarian rule for nineteen months. For its part, the Whitlam government, though still commanding a majority in the lower house, was on the receiving end of contortions of Westminster precedent when the governor-general put Malcolm Fraser in the prime minister’s chair.

Today, Australians don’t need to be reminded of the dispiriting tale of the Labor-led governments elected since 2007. But in India, disillusion and alienation run wider, deeper and more dangerously. The worst likely to happen to Australia is a government led by Tony Abbott. India’s future, on the other hand, could head down one of a number of tunnels, some of them longer and darker than others.

India faces two anti-government movements that are so different they make chalk and cheese look like love and marriage. The movement focused around Anna Hazare, the seventy-four-year-old ex-soldier turned village-uplift leader, is urban and middle-class – and makes for great television. India has 140 million television households and 500 channels, fifty of them devoted to news. Hazare dresses in the homespun white cloth of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi. He calls for simple solutions: empower super-honest super-executives to track down and punish the corruption that gnaws at all levels of life.

The second anti-government movement is less easy to televise and often produces grisly images. The “Maoist movement” in the hills and forests of east and central India is a violent revolt led by true believers. These high-caste ideologues of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) see themselves as leaders of a long struggle. For them, India today is China in 1930. Riding into Beijing (read New Delhi) in triumph is twenty years away; they will work and wait. They garner support primarily from tribal people exploited by economic interests hungry for the natural resources of remote places.

The television channels eagerly backing Anna Hazare are equally keen to denounce the subversive violence of the Maoists, whose television presence is usually associated with the bloody bodies of dead police officers. Hundreds of police, civilians and insurgents have been killed in the past ten years.

Neither the Maoists nor the Hazare followers present promising paths to India’s future. The Hazare people offer patriotic slogans, a pale Hindu-chauvinist tinge and an all-powerful anti-corruption superperson. Ironically, that is what Mrs Gandhi claimed to be offering in 1975. “Discipline,” the slogans said in those days, “is the need of the hour” and, for a time, offices ran on time and overt bribe-taking declined.

The superperson solution points down a path to authoritarianism. But dictators are particularly unrealistic in a country as diverse as India. The Indian state as we know it cannot survive unless it is democratic and federal. Only rule-based decision-making (however fraught) and meaningful local government can accommodate the linguistic, religious, regional and caste diversity of India.

India’s national government today is rudderless. The Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Indira Gandhi’s son, is seriously ill in the United States. Her illness and condition are treated like state secrets. Her son Rahul, though an engaging man, shows few signs of galvanising the nation. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is seen as an able scholar and an honest man, but also as a hopeless campaigner who has never won an election and consequently wields little authority in the Congress Party. (He sits in parliament’s upper house, whose members are elected by state legislatures.)

Elections are not due until 2014, but if the drift continues, and the anti-corruption movement waxes, Manmohan Singh’s coalition government could fall apart.

Three developments suggest, however, that long-term positives could emerge from the Hazare movement. The first is fundamental cultural change. Fifteen years ago, no one would have believed that Indian governments could, for example, ban smoking. The state of Kerala did in 1999, and Kerala today is remarkably smoke-free; scolded smokers quickly stub out their butts.

Second, the mobile phone is transforming India. By one calculation, there are more than 800 million mobile phone subscribers. That means seventy telephones for every hundred living Indians, from babies to octogenarians – in theory, a phone within reach of every adult.

Third, people are using their mobiles to record, photograph and harass officials and agencies that don’t do their duty. In the Maoist-affected state of Chhattisgarh, a tribal delegation, exasperated at being shouted at and told to go away when they brought grievances to a local official, recorded his rants on a mobile phone. They disseminated the recording through CGnet, a cell-phone-based news service geared especially for tribals; it became a national story; and some redress followed.

If the anti-corruption movement of Hazare can develop mechanisms for relentless exposure of petty corruption, it can engineer a substantial cultural change. Dealing with big-time corruption, on the other hand, requires insulating India’s existing institutions from the termites of political manipulation that often hollow them out. Adding a new institution – the super anti-corruption czar – may only add another tree, just as vulnerable to political termites as those already there. •