The Anti-Corruption Movement Needs A Stronger Democratic Thrust

Dipankar Bhattacharya

A modified version of this article appeared in the Deccan Chronicle, June 12 2011, under a different heading.

y all indications, the issue of corruption has once again begun to assume explosive proportions in Indian politics. Given the unprecedented scale of scams and the wide range of institutions that have been exposed to be affected by the rot, the public outrage should not cause any surprise.
Unable to whitewash the scams or satisfy the people with any convincing action, a rattled UPA government is now behaving increasingly despotically. Swinging from one extreme to another, the same government which sent a high-profile ministerial team to receive Baba Ramdev at the airport unleashed a midnight crackdown to evict sleeping protestors from Ramlila Maidan, and now the ‘Ramlila model’ is being projected as a lesson for all future protests. The current rhetoric of the Congress party and the UPA government reminds one once again of the Emergency era.
If the powers that be once again represent the lethal mix of megabuck corruption and high-voltage repression, to be sure, India will also witness a people’s upsurge to save democracy and the country from this disastrous combination. The growing anti-corruption mood of the Indian people definitely contains seeds of such a larger democratic awakening.
True, one does not yet see the kind of mass political momentum witnessed during the 1974 student-youth movement popularly known as the JP movement or the ‘Rajiv hataao’ campaign in the wake of the Bofors scam in the late 1980s. It is easy to lament the absence of leaders of the stature of a Gandhi or a JP, but it is important to appreciate the objective conditions that distinguish the current phase of anti-corruption movement from the 1970s or 1980s.
Today it is not only the UPA government at the centre which is in the dock on the issue of corruption, many state governments, too, are facing the heat, and the BJP’s Karnataka government is on top of that list. The BJP naturally cannot lead any credible charge against corruption. Unable to mount any independent challenge, the party is trying to ride piggyback on Baba Ramdev. It is the utter lack of credibility of most ruling parties on the issue of corruption which has brought the civil society initiative and discourse to the fore. 
The second distinction concerns the changing nature and context of the very issue of corruption. Today corruption emanates from two key sources – public funds meant for welfare schemes, and the growing nexus between big business and political power.  While the former flows through the decentralized layers of panchayati raj, the latter flourishes in the corridors of power. The pro-corporate policies of liberalization, privatization and globalization may have eliminated the old ‘licence-permit raj’, but only by unleashing a new reign of unbridled corporate loot and plunder. Whether one talks of the black money stashed abroad or the illicit wealth accumulated inside the country, it is driven by the swelling corporate coffers.
And let us not forget the exemptions and concessions legally handed out by various governments to the corporate sector.  The corporate tax exemption provided every year by the union government surpasses the highest CAG estimate of the 2G scam. To take another example, the iron ore mining barons have been legally making a windfall profit of 3-4,000 Rs. per tonne, illegal mining only adding to this bonanza. If an upstart politician like Madhu Koda has suddenly amassed wealth worth thousands of crore without the benefit of either 2G or CWG, it can only be explained as a spin-off from the mining leases and sundry MoUs.
The anti-corruption discourse currently dominating in the media however does not really confront this underlying reality. While Anna Hazare’s move revolves around the aspect of an effective anti-corruption legislation in the form a Jan Lokpal Bill, Baba Ramdev has focused on the issue of repatriation of black money stashed abroad to suit his theme of swadeshi. A Lokpal having watchdog powers over every office and institution in the country including the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice is surely greatly needed, just as it is high time to ensure repatriation of all Indian wealth illicitly held abroad. But the anti-corruption agenda cannot be limited to just these two aspects; it must necessarily include the bigger question of reversing the current policy regime which systematically robs the people of their resources and rights.
In other words, the anti-corruption campaign must grow into a consistent and powerful pro-democracy movement. The experience of both the campaigns which have come to be identified with Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev has made it clear that the anti-corruption movement cannot be divorced from the democratic perspective.

Questions have rightly been raised about the limited legalist focus of Anna Hazare or the communal company and retrograde social vision of Baba Ramdev. As the movement gathers greater momentum and unleashes the initiative and imagination of larger sections of the people, one hopes it will also acquire a stronger democratic thrust. Call it India’s second independence or Arab Spring!