Monday, 29 August 2011

The Anna Coin Has Two Sides

Corruption. It used to be one of those dinner-conversation words that just rolled off your tongue while you tried to talk about something other than the weather. The ice in your whiskey clinked and you moved on to the next topic. It used to be a small, but persistent fact of life. Like power cuts, school fees and new Bollywood releases. The last few months and particularly the last 10 days have seen this word change. The implications of what the world's largest democracy is seeking to do, are profound. There is a sense of a sea-change occurring. Conversations are now more frenzied, more animated, the newswires are buzzing, the online forums are on fire. The Twitterati are jumping in with 140-character opinions of their own. Something's up and everyone has something to say.

To say corruption is endemic in Indian society would be a gross understatement. It's all-pervasive. It's everywhere. There is precious little you can get done without some form of a bribe or backhander. The average Indian's life from cradle to grave is peppered with little bundles of notes shoved into sweaty palms in what looks like a back street drug deal. Chai-pani, as it's often called, begins when you are born, starting with a 'tip' when your birth certificate is issued, and then through every stage of life, admission in a nursery and later in school, then college and university, getting a driving license, a passport, a ration card, a telephone line, an electricity connection, a sales tax registration number for your business, the filing of an income tax return, the registration of your marriage, the buying of a new home, the making of an insurance claim if you damage your car, the planning permission you need to make alteration to your house and finally the issuing of your death certificate and everything in between. The greasy hand of the corrupt civil servant reaches you well beyond your grave. You would think that something had to give at some point, but no. We were content with it all. A small price to pay for expediency, we thought and continued to feed the beast, like we were tipping for pizza delivery. However, it wasn't the little stuff that put corruption on the top of the dinner table list. It was the big stuff. And my, was it big! The License Raj everyone thought was long dismantled had morphed into a different, audacious, blatant and shameless creature altogether. Politicians plundered with naked abandon. India became something of a banana republic. The video illustrates some of the scale. 

Indians love a hero and they bestow the choicest epithets on them when they spring into the public's consciousness. Such is the case of 74 year old former soldier and now anti-corruption activist, Kisan Baburao Hazare. We call him 'Anna'[pronounced Un-na]. It means big brother, more specifically kind, benevolent big brother. Not quite the grand honour afforded to Mahatma Gandhi, who was called 'Bapu' (father), but a great honour nonetheless. Anna Hazare is the new hero, the new activist, the new symbol of an Indian Spring, if you like. As I write this, the story is still unfolding and I suspect the likes of Ketan Mehta, Mani Ratnam and Govind Nihalani are salivating at the possibilities. Somehow I'm thinking Paresh Rawal. And I miss the days when an online search for 'Anna' threw up images of a lithe tennis player.

Much has been written about the hows and whys and whats, so I won't go into that here. Suffice to say that activism in India has moved beyond the burning of effigies. The result of the last couple of weeks' of high intensity drama has been severe embarrassment for the government who completely misjudged the national mood, labelling Anna's actions as blackmail. The government capitulated and now, after four decades of dilly-dallying, ducking and evading the issue, India's parliament will create a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman to police everyone from the Prime Minister to the peon in a village office, in a bid to end the institutionalised corruption that defines life in India. The Jan Lokpal Bill looks like it will become reality. Tens of thousands of civil servants and law enforcement officials will be implicated and dismissed. Harsh, career-ending punishments will be meted out. The scourge of corruption will be yanked out, roots and all. All will be held accountable. Zero tolerance. Finally. Indian politics Cromwelled. Jolly good.

But hang on a minute. There's something else...

There's a dark side. How clever is it to undermine a democratic process, something India has the best there is? The Jan Lokpal Bill will create a bureaucratic monolith to clean up another bureaucratic monolith? Are we assuming the Jan Lokpal would be incorruptible? That they will not inflict their own brand of morality on us? Look at Team Anna for example; we are all aware of Anna's stance on alcohol consumption. I'm not sure being tied up with barbed wire and flogged in public is what I want. I happen to like my drink. What of Arvind Kejriwal, who may have a point about reservations restricting the nation’s output? Let's not forget, he's a lobbyist. That's his job. And supercop, turned Judge Judy, Kiran Bedi? She's been encouraging Indians not to participate in elections. Disengagement of the common man from politics is exactly what got us here in the first place. Just what the entrenched politicians need. Many of the others backing Anna, with their coloured and chequered histories, aren't exactly exemplary models of decent behaviour. When an anti-virus programme begins a cleaning process, it first checks itself and its associated files for infection. Will the Jan Lokpal do that? It will be run by people after all. Humans with the associated human frailties.

What about the process that got Anna what he wanted? What he achieved may be laudable, but look at the precedent it has set: If you don't pass the bill, Anna Hazare will kill himself. If you say you want to discuss it, Anna Hazare will kill himself. If you ask to keep the elected sovereign body outside the purview of the bill, Anna Hazare will kill himself. And there you have it, unanswerable to parliament, above the constitution, beyond the checks and balances of democratic processes, we could end up with a bureaucratic monster no one has control over and a law unto itself. Much like the institutions we are seeking to clean up. Somehow this worries me immensely.

I have always been in favour of a small government, less central authority, more power to the smallest units possible and a complete dismantling of ridiculous rules that make criminals of us all. The smaller the government unit, the closer it is to the ground, the more accountable it is, the more of the people, by the people and for the people it is. It's not like the brilliant Indian constitution does not have provisions for this kind of localisation. A draft exists in Schedule 11. Look at it. Here's a useful presentation for an overview.

I could be wrong about my analysis and my views could be skewed, living in a country where a Deputy Prime Minister can get a driving ban for speeding, an MP can get a parking ticket, go to jail for misappropriating an expense claim for a sum vastly dwarfed by an amount you'd shove under the table for a place at school or lie about a night with a prostitute.

I will consider India fixed when "Don't you know who I am?" is followed by a "I don't. And I don't give a shit."
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