(C. Uday Bhaskar is Director of the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation. The views expressed in the column are his own.)
By C. Uday Bhaskar
The early morning detention of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare by the Delhi police on Tuesday has snowballed into a major controversy on the streets of Delhi and other urban centres in India and poses a complex challenge to the beleaguered UPA government led by PM Manmohan Singh.
The gauntlet that has been hurled is that soon there will be no place left in Indian jails to detain the increasing number of activists and Hazare supporters.
Rampant corruption in everyday life that the hapless Indian citizen confronts when dealing with any part of a venal state apparatus has been compounded by a cynical realisation that almost all the major pillars of a nascent democracy are now tainted with institutional turpitude.
Individual greed and naked opportunism has been tacitly encouraged by an unholy politico-bureaucratic nexus that encompasses different kinds of mafia groups -- the builders lobby, the kerosene and petrol adulterators, road building robbers, private education empires, black money tycoons. The Commonwealth Games scandal and the 2G scam are the proverbial tip of a very murky iceberg.
This complex eco-system that had its genesis in smuggling and the gold control of the early 1960s that converted then Bombay into a smugglers’ city of dons and ‘dadas’, ‘bhais’ and gang lords. This nexus corrupted the city and its governance structures thereby impacting the internal security lattice of the country. These linkages have been captured evocatively by Bollywood and it was only a matter of time before corruption became a central feature of the Indian body politic.
The world’s largest democracy has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of legislators with a criminal record and some state governments are brazenly admitting notorious individuals into the party-fold for electoral considerations.
Muscle and money power now dominate Indian politics and this is the trend that team Hazare has sought to quarantine by seeking a Lokpal legislation - a kind of citizen’s ombudsman bill.
Ironically, despite the fact that PM Singh dwelt at length on the cancer of corruption in his traditional Aug. 15 Independence Day address, currently the UPA government finds itself on the back foot in the face of a groundswell of support for team Hazare -- which is further amplified by incessant audio-visual coverage of the protests and arrests.
In his characteristically earnest manner, PM Singh cautioned the nation that there could be no fast track or magic wand to address this scourge. Urging the veteran Gandhian activist Hazare not to adopt an inflexible position and allow the matter to be deliberated upon in parliament -- which is a rational and appropriate course of action -- it was hoped that the protest would be called off.
The Tuesday detention of Hazare and his core team augurs ill for arriving at a modus vivendi over a very contentious issue that has bedevilled the Indian state since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. By adopting rigid and inflexible positions -- the use of regulatory force by the state on one hand and the obduracy of the Hazare team on the other -- the empathetic socio-political malleability that the challenge warrants is being squandered.
The parliamentary democratic contour, that was once associated with periodic elections and a ‘first-past-the-post’ winner taking all the pelf and power with little or no accountability, is now being challenged in complex ways. An irate middle-class and a very aware populace that is cyber savvy and stoked by 24x7 TV news channels has extended the contours of participative democracy and citizens rights.
The establishment is clearly on the defensive and to recall an old Wodehouse line, is in the process of effortlessly putting its other foot in the mouth. But it would be as misleading to assume that team Hazare is the sole voice of a billion-plus Indians or that some citizens usurp the mandate of parliament.
The silver lining is that the churning process has begun and an astute political leadership should not be indifferent to the pulse of its people.
The Congress family apex is in transition and the BJP in democratic disarray. The current Hazare challenge can be a valuable opportunity if the political establishment and the more strident civil society reps choose inclusive and equitable perspicacity over populist petulance.