The anti-corruption movement – Is it losing its way?

The anti-corruption movement is now in the news for all the wrong reasons. We have seen what could have been an extraordinary social mobilization process turn into a war of words, petty ego battles and some very poor leadership on the part of the key players in this movement. The euphoria of Anna Hazare’s fast in August had led some to believe that they represented the voice of the masses. What was not understood was that such movements rarely reflect the ‘voice’, and it is usually that ‘noise’ that gets heard. And this loud noise has a way of burying the voice of reason and caution. Many of us associated with Team Anna had cautioned about this and had asked people not to be ‘media hungry’ but to quietly go about mobilizing the people around the country. Well, the voice asking this movement to be converted into an enlightened one had few takers. People also constantly asked them to be more transparent and inclusive in the decision-making. Some of us who were associated with the campaign from the beginning got disenchanted, but held on with the fond hope of getting a strong anti-corruption law.

Unfortunately, what is unfolding today is not merely the handiwork of the mysterious ‘gang of four’ that Anna is referring to. While I am conscious that there are many out there who would love to see the anti-corruption movement die, I am also sensitive to the reality that some members of Team Anna are themselves offering the ammunition to shoot them with.

Let us look at how such a wonderful movement is slowly but surely losing its way. Ever since the fast was called off, there has been very little consultative process that civil society leaders have always been asking for. India is a large country with several credible activists who have been in the domain of anti-corruption for more than 2-3 decades. Their experience and wisdom was vital for this movement to succeed. Petty ego considerations and fears of the movement being dominated by other towering personalities did not let Arvind et al to include them in the decision making process. Not only was the process becoming the preserve of an elite few, it was also becoming more and more opaque. From decision making, to participating in the by-elections of Hisar, to taking electoral sides, to account keeping – nothing was openly discussed. Many of us quietly withdrew, as we believed that corruption had crept into the entire political spectrum and it was unfair to target out only one party. For asking voters not to vote for one party meant that they had to vote for another equally corrupt party which did not make any ethical or moral sense.

Fighting corruption had got many members of Team Anna visibility and suddenly each one was an expert in all matters that pertained to the Nation. From land reforms to electoral reforms to large development projects to SEZs, everyone became an expert on everything. The ever-hungry media only added to this hysteria and the evening television debates had them talking on everything under the sun. Apart from shifting the focus from the anti-corruption movement, it also exposed the lack of knowledge and political astuteness of many members. From Prashanth Bhushan shooting off his views on Kashmir to all the nasty consequences that the nation witnessed, it provided the powers that are an excuse to wait and watch.

The cracks that had developed earlier became more visible with the views of Swami Agnivesh. What is surprising is that many of us were blissfully unaware that Arvind was accounting all the donations received for the campaign under his own NGO and not under the larger banner of India Against Corruption. It is now clear that Swami Agnivesh knew about this much earlier but decided to speak only now. It also reflects the emptiness in terms of a moral high ground amidst the leadership of the campaign. Words like ‘Gandhian’ were indeed loosely used during the entire campaign and what we are slowly realizing is that Anna was just the right man at the right time. Unfortunately, he does not have the political astuteness nor the independent will that Gandhi had. Gandhi always led but Anna seems to allow other people close to him to lead him. This could mean disastrous consequences because the movement has got its emotional and moral appeal only because of his presence, and one cannot afford him to lose his way.

The movement also shows the inherent contradictions amongst the people at the helm of affairs. It is a morally bankrupt argument for Kiran Bedi to justify over-charging her sponsors for her travel in the name of ‘savings’ and ‘funds’ for her own NGO. It is like our politicians justifying their corrupt acts as means to keep the constituents happy by constantly taking care of their needs – whether it is bribing for votes or paying for the travel of people coming from their constituency. People living in glasshouses must realize that they cannot and should not throw stones. This is not the first time that she is having controversies surround her. Many know of the issues that existed in the way her daughter got admission to a medical college on the special ‘north-east’ quota many years ago while she was still in service.

People with enormous credibility like Rajagopal of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Rajinder Singh and other christian and muslim religious leaders who had earlier supported the campaign have now withdrawn. Medha Patkar is unusually quiet on the happenings. Many of us who were with the campaign keeping the cause in mind have also withdrawn from this mess and are continuing with the anti-corruption agenda in a localized manner.

This lack of leadership is something that is alarming and worrisome. Everyone associated in the campaign need to realize that we have to keep ‘fighting corruption’ as the work at the center and not ourselves or our own petty egos. We need to come together, ensure that the leadership is now above board, ask tainted individuals to leave the campaign, make decision making collective, transparent and inclusive and continue till we meet our goal of getting an effective and strong anti-corruption law. We need to go beyond succumbing to the temptation of being seen and heard all the time and focus on the work on hand. We need to understand that the Nation is watching and that we cannot consider failure now as an option. If we let the country down now, we will have only ourselves to blame. The ‘gang of four’ would have won their battle without firing a single bullet. And that would be a shame.


An update on ‘Mysore Against Corruption’

It is now exactly a month since concerned and socially conscious citizens of Mysore came together to collectively fight the scourge of corruption. Building on the emotional response that Anna’s fast created, we decided to take the movement forward and take it to the next level. In an attempt to make it a more enlightened campaign, volunteers spanned across the city of Mysore and started engaging the people and educated them on the issues of corruption that we are facing as a city and on how they could join the movement. The volunteers also explained the contents of the Government’s Lokpal Bill and the differences with the bill that the civil society was demanding. We also brought out a Position Paper explaining our stand, our future course of action and what we proposed to do in the district of Mysore.

Since then, we have been continuing our campaign by forming small groups and going house to house. We have also started engaging directly with the youth and students of different colleges and addressing them regarding this issue. We are also slowly creating a structure on which all these activities would be piggy-backed. We have also begun visiting Government offices and are educating both the Government personnel and the general public interacting with them on committing themselves to neither taking nor giving a bribe.

The response till date has been very encouraging. We have a large number of volunteers joining us in this campaign and are also building a database of people who are willing to join us.

Come, be a part of the movement that is trying to make Mysore district corruption-free. Send a sms to 9742020970 to register yourself as a volunteer.


The Satyagraha ahead

Last month saw a couple of events that reminded us of the spirit of Nationalism of the early 40s. While one was the celebration of our Independence Day, the other was the celebration of the spirit of peaceful protest across the Nation that Anna Hazare led from the Ramlila grounds. One may or may not agree with the methods that Anna Hazare used in keeping the entire Nation charged with this spirit of Nationalism, but one cannot discount the fact that fighting corruption today is as much a household word as corruption itself.

We now need to understand what exactly ‘Corruption’ is and how it affects the lives of common people like us. Corruption, defined as the abuse of public power for private gain, has existed for long. It encompasses unilateral abuses by government officials such as embezzlement and nepotism, as well as abuses linking public and private actors such as bribery, extortion, influence peddling and fraud. Evidence confirms that Corruption hurts the poor disproportionately and hinders human development by reducing access to social services and diverting resources away from investments in infrastructure, institutions and social services. It arises in both political and bureaucratic offices and can be petty or grand, organized or unorganized. In the political realm, it undermines democracy and good governance by subverting formal processes. Corruption in elections and in legislative bodies reduces accountability and representation in policy-making, corruption in the judiciary suspends the rule of law, and corruption in public administration results in the unequal provision of services. More generally, it erodes the institutional capacity of government as procedures are disregarded, resources are siphoned off, and officials are hired or promoted without regard to performance. At the same time, it undermines the legitimacy of government and such democratic values as trust and tolerance. In the private sector, it increases the cost of business through the price of illicit payments themselves, the management cost of negotiating with officials, and the risk of breached agreements or detection. Where corruption inflates the cost of business, it also distorts the playing field, shielding firms with connections from competition and thereby sustaining inefficient firms. It also generates economic distortions in the public sector by diverting public investment away from the social sector like education and health care into capital projects where bribes and kickbacks are more plentiful. It also lowers compliance with construction, environmental or other regulations, reduces the quality of government services and infrastructure, and increases budgetary pressures on government.

Fighting corruption is no longer a fad and has become a necessity in order to ensure development and a semblance of social and economic justice. We as a Nation have reached a point of frustration in our attempts to fight this menace and are now looking not just for ‘another messiah’ to come and help us fight but also for a strong legislation to provide us with the instruments to fight. Anna Hazare arrived at the right moment with the right intent and could galvanize a society tired of feeling helpless, hopeless and impotent.

What we saw was the beginning of the fight for a strong Lokpal bill and many began asking if it would help us in this fight against corruption. It is no secret that this law will only serve as a deterrent and operate when people use it to file cases and pray that the system operates to ensure justice is done. Examples in Hong Kong and other places where the law operates without fear or favour has clearly demonstrated that it can help curb corruption significantly. While the law itself may have a limited role in our fight against corruption, we need to understand the gains that this movement has given us. For the first time in the last many decades, the nation has been galvanized into fighting for a social cause from one platform. Despite muted voices of dissent, we as ordinary citizens have not only found our voice but also the freedom to express it. It was not just the crusade of Anna Hazare, but of lakhs of men and women of all ages and backgrounds who found a platform to express themselves peacefully. What we now need to understand is the awakening of this new India, which lets our citizens engage with a democratic process and participate in matters of State that affect and influence their daily lives.

While one may argue and debate on who actually won, I would like to point out that the entire Nation did. On one side, we saw what a charismatic and honest man could achieve when he operated out of the strength of his convictions. We saw the power and potential of a million citizens aroused with the passion of National reconstruction. We also saw the dignity and supremacy of Parliament restored. After many years one actually felt reassured listening to the more than seven hours of parliamentary debate on the bill. The collective consciousness of India was aroused and suddenly we found a National purpose to give our lives for. The level of civic engagement and intent to participate in our fledgling democracy leaves one feeling positive about the future. We now need to ensure that the spirit of reconciliation and partnership that the civil Society, the political class and our parliamentarians displayed is not just a flash in the pan. What one needs is maturity and wisdom on all sides to take this win-win feeling ahead and ensure that this movement sees a logical conclusion acceptable to the whole country.

Amidst all this, let us not forget the long and tortuous path ahead. We need to understand that our dream for India should not be a mere anti-corruption legislation, but something more far-reaching than all that. What we see today is not just the degradation and greed of a few but of most Indians in all sectors. And we need to go beyond the demand for a law to ensure that our beliefs, values and practices reflect the true spirit of Gandhi and his message. For it is easy for a movement driven by emotion to lose track if not sustained on the platform of spiritual values that Gandhi based his Satyagraha on.

Satyagraha is such a demanding responsibility and one needs to go beyond just sloganeering and waving the National flag. It needs to translate into a moral transformation and self-purification of the person indulging in it. A true satyagrahi knows and lives his values deep from within and can neither display any hatred nor any dislike of any person or system. All that he has is a deep and engaging love for truth and keeps expressing his views till he can achieve his intended end by not just peaceful means but also by constant self analysis of his methods and actions. In the Gandhian understanding of peaceful non-violence, there will be no space for self aggrandizement or for the theatrics that we saw displayed last week or bowing down to the vindictiveness that the Government is displaying now. Gandhi was clear in not just the meaning but also the spirit of ‘Satyagraha’ and was always conscious that ‘Satya’ and ‘Aagraha’ went together.

Engaging with democracy and legislative processes will attain a higher and nobler stature only after we start engaging with ourselves on a personal and intimate level. We need to be constantly aware of our commitment to love, peace, non-violence and truth on an individual level and strive to live it in all small actions that we perform each day – like waiting for our turn in a queue or stopping at a red light or going out of our way to help a stranger in need. That will be the true Satyagraha that we need to launch immediately and only then will the India of our dreams emerge. Otherwise all that we may get is not a moral society, but a corrupt one with only a law no Gandhian will be truly proud about.


Taking the fight against corruption forward…

The last 11 days have been one of intense debate across the country. Questions like ‘Will the Government buckle under the pressure of Anna’s fast?’, ‘Is the fast by Anna a blackmailing technique?’, ‘What is the Lok Pal bill?’, etc are being raised every day. Television and print media have not lagged behind and they have been constantly updating the events at the Ramlila maidan on a real-time basis. Never in the history of Independent India have so many concerned citizens participated in such numbers in anything nationally significant. People have also been raising very valid questions like ‘Does the protester on the street know what he is protesting for?’. Others have been asking ‘What next?’ People like me who have been associated with the movement from its inception have views that are also shared by other civil society activists. It is time that we move away from the Emotional Campaign that we are seeing to a more Enlightened one.

The movement against corruption in India has been a fairly long one for many of us. Many activists have been fighting in one way or the other for more than two decades. A few of us have also used existing acts like the Right to Information and the Prevention of Corruption Act in this fight against corruption. Experience gained out of such earlier fights clearly shows that there is a need for a comprehensive and effective anti-corruption law in this country. The present UPA Government had made fighting corruption a part of its election manifesto and had drafted a Lokpal bill in 2010 itself. This bill, though weak and not acceptable to most of us, did include the Prime Minister under its ambit. Most of us subscribed to the view that ‘no law’ was a better situation than having a ‘weak law’ and hence were worried that the Government would end up making a law which would not only be ineffective but also make the common man complacent to anti-corruption issues. It was then that many of us in the civil society got together to come up with our own draft and engage the Government with this draft. Simultaneously the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) also prepared a draft and substantial contributions for this draft came from Arvind Kejriwal. The sub-committee on Good Governance of the National Advisory Council under the Chairmanship of Ms Aruna Roy also started work on preparing a draft for the Government’s consideration. With so many differing views already in circulation, one can understand the debate that had been sparked off within many civil society groups.

Around Nov-Dec 2010, Arvind had begun to disagree with the NCPRI team and wanted to have an omnibus Act that would not only be strong but also be comprehensive. The rest of the NCPRI team was of the view that the Act should not only be strong and comprehensive but also practical and implementable. Arvind decided to come up with his own version of the draft and this was a very rudimentary one then. Around the same time, in December 2010, a few Bangaloreans came together and started the ‘Corruption Saaku’ campaign. As part of the launch ceremony, they had organized a walk and had invited Arvind, Jayaprakash Narayan of Lok Satta and myself to speak. It was on that day that the all of us decided to take his Act and make it a part of a larger civil society initiative and get more people on board in our fight for a strong law.

It was indeed Arvind’s networking and convincing skills that got a large team on board which included Anna Hazare, the Bhushans, Kiran Bedi, Swami Agnivesh, Justice Santosh Hegde and others and come under banner of ‘India Against Corruption’. Many of us from the civil society were convinced that we had to mount an incessant campaign and get the Government to consider our points of view while preparing a law. A copy of the early draft was sent to the Prime Minister and to the Chief Ministers of all the 28 states. Expectedly, none of them showed any interest in these drafts and we felt completely ignored. As a part of our advocacy with the Government, a few of us met with the Hon’ble Prime Minister, Sri Manmohan Singh on the 7th of March 2011. His not so encouraging response left us with no doubt that the Government may not be serious about bringing a strong and effective anti-corruption law. It was then that Annaji in an emotional response announced his fast. None of us were even prepared for the response to his fast of April 5th and the Government was completely taken aback at the national awakening that was churned. The rest of the events of the last five months clearly showed that the citizens of the country are fed up with the corruption that hurts them on a daily basis. The emotional response till date should be a clear signal to the Government on the mood of the people. Rallying to the call of Anna, people of different ages and walks of life have spilled on to the streets and are now demanding the Jan Lokpal bill.

There are many valid criticisms leveled against the movement on the constitutional validity of such pressure tactics and on whether civil society has been overstepping its role from being a ‘pressure group’ to taking on the larger role of formulating legislations. Without getting into this subject that has been well debated in the press, I would only like to mention that consultation and participation in a pre-legislative process is not only fully constitutional but a sign of a mature democracy. How far should one go in doing this would be a more appropriate question? The events that have unfurled over the last two days has led to many discomforting questions in many of us who have been associated with this movement from its inception.

One needs to not only understand the reason for the protest but also the details of the differences in the bills. The inclusion or exclusion of the Prime Minister or the Judiciary is not the only major issue. One can argue and debate on what the provisions of the Act should be and that is exactly what the present movement should hope to achieve. While television cameras do show a large number of people, especially at the Ramlila grounds, we need to ensure that the debate does not stay confined to the elite, English-speaking urban middle class but also percolate to the millions of rural Indians whose life is the most affected by corruption. We also need to recognize that a few people in Delhi cannot represent the entire civil society and their views, and space for a more consultative and democratic expression of ideas is now necessary.

There are now three versions that will be discussed in Parliament as mentioned by the Prime Minister in his speech yesterday. The Government from the last couple of days is showing restraint and some a recognition of the prevalent mood of India and respect for the demand of Good Governance. It also clearly indicates that the corruption as an electoral issue could affect the fate of many politicians tomorrow. The attitude of the Government is becoming evident from the differences in the statement of the Prime minister over this last week. The number of people asking the question of ‘why is anna being obstinate’ is now growing larger and this voice also needs to be heard. Swami Agnivesh, one of the key members of Team Anna voiced his discomfort openly and questioned the continuance of the fast. Many of us who have committed ourselves to this demand for a strong Lok Pal act are also concerned that Anna is insisting on continuing his fast. The view that is gaining ground is that he should give up his fast, but continue his dharna at Ramlila grounds.

We now need to understand that however slow and long drawn the Parliamentary process is, it is the only recourse in a civilized democracy. While civil society is well within its constitutional rights to demand laws to ensure good governance, we should let the process take place without subverting it with demands of impractical timelines. While we make demands of participation and consultation on the Government, it is only fair that Team Anna also be more transparent and democratic in its decision-making. Arvind and Prashanth Bhushan are seen to be the key persons advising Anna and they should understand the enormous responsibility on their shoulders. They should not let the surging and loud crowds distract them into making impossible demands and should use their newfound power with caution and discipline. They should understand that the work at the center today is getting a good and strong anti-corruption law and not just ‘my version of the law’. Other civil society voices also need to find a space in this debate and we should use the invitation of the Standing Committee of Parliament to present our views forcefully and effectively. And let us not forget that we could always revert back to peaceful and non-violent struggles if the Government and Parliament let us down. Let us also remind our Members of Parliament that the next general elections is only a few years away and the citizens will not hesitate in voting out people who do not try to articulate the legitimate voices of those whom they represent. Making this struggle ‘Gandhian’ will need one to raise it morally higher and that will happen only when we allow existing institutions to function. Let us not forget what the consequences of a broken down system could be for the future of this country.

Anna Hazare should now give up his fast, engage not only the Government but also a wider group of civil society leaders, and use his popularity with the common man to keep the pressure on the Government and not relent till we have a strong, pragmatic and effective anti-corruption legislation. Let us not forget that we can have this law only with the support, cooperation and intelligent participation of the civil society, the common people, parliamentarians of all political hues and the Government in power. It is indeed a collective responsibility and we should not allow the ego of any one individual or institution to come in the way of what we Indians rightfully deserve.


Update (28/08): The Kannada version of the above article was published in Prajavani today.

The 6th day at Gandhi Square

The day being Sunday, as expected, more Mysoreans participated in the campaign than before. We had doctors from the Indian Medical Association, the Mysore Clinical Society, the Family Physicians Association, Association of Physicians of India and the Mysore Medical College Alumni Association joining us. We has students from the Sanskrit Pathashala and other schools and colleges also joining us.

The highlight of the morning session was the music played by Rock Vrunda, a rock band made up of engineering students and fresh graduates. They not only kept the audience engaged with their fusion music but were also the cynosure of the media. We had people from different walks of life participating and many of them requested us to continue with the campaign at Gandhi Square. We had to explain to all of them that this was not an emotional event spread over a few days to coincide with Anna’s fast at Delhi, but would be a long drawn anti-corruption campaign to fight corruption in Mysore district. We also extended invitations to other movements and progressive organizations to join us. I also spent an hour at the studio of Amogh TV answering questions from people all over the district of Mysore, explaining to them the two versions of the proposed legislation.

The core group decided that the campaign at Gandhi Square would end this evening and all of us voted to take the struggle forward as micro events in the suburbs of Mysore, led by our numerous volunteers.

Later in the evening, I flagged off the candle-light march organized by the Junior Doctors’ Association of Mysore Medical College in association with students from other colleges. It was exciting to see more than a thousand students and young graduates march together demanding a strong Lokpal bill. It was indeed very invigorating to walk with them till the Gandhi Square where the MAC team waited to welcome and appreciate these students.


Related reports in the Press:

The Hindu: Movement grows on sixth day of protests

Deccan Herald: Rock music makes Day-6 sound

The Times of India: Spreading Anna’s message on wheels

5th day: Students up the ante

The day began with a lot of excitement with our student and youth volunteers organizing the awareness bike rally. They were expecting around 200 young people to ride around the suburbs of Mysore city and tell people the differences in the bills. A few of us reached the Baden Powell School, the starting point of the rally at around 9.30 am, while others continued the protest at Gandhi Square. Within an hour, the grounds of the Baden Powell School became a surging mass of young people with their bikes and scooters. Young men and women came in the hundreds and soon we had over a thousand two wheelers assembled.

Bike rally for awareness

We started off on the rally through the main thoroughfares of the city and travelled through most of the residential and commercial locations. Volunteers who rode pillion stepped off to distribute pamphlets, apply the stickers on vehicles and talk to people about the Bill. The noise of their two wheelers and the blaring of the horns added to the energy and enthusiasm. Despite asking the riders to wear their helmets or not break any traffic rules, most of them were found helmet-less. One could get a taste of the difficulty in managing emotional campaigns, especially involving highly charged up young people. It is indeed a great achievement that all across the nation, the struggle has been nonviolent and peaceful.

The rally reached Gandhi Square at around 1.30 pm and I addressed the riders about the bill and the need for the struggle to continue. We spoke about how we need to keep up the momentum and go beyond our demand for a bill and continue our movement to bring in a corruption-free Mysore District.

We also had numerous organizations joining us – from the Suvarna Ladies Club, to the Association of Physically Challenged to different student groups and NGOs. Thousands came to express their solidarity with us.

While all this is indeed welcome, we need to understand that the struggle is going to be tough and long drawn. The days ahead will not only be determined by how the citizens of Mysore respond to what is happening around the country, but also by the response of Government to Anna Hazare’s demands. We also need to understand that movements like these cannot be sustained by emotions alone. We also need to think strategically and use this enormous positive energy and channelize it into something meaningful and constructive. This would require a different form of leadership and vision. After seeing what young people can do and considering the demographics of India today, the hope lies in what they can and should do. It is only when more of them take on the responsibility of leading this campaign, can we truly hope for change that is sustainable and long-lasting.

The youth leading the protest

We closed the day with the meeting of the core group of volunteers. A decision was taken to end the protest at Gandhi Square on Sunday, 21-Aug. The campaign will be continued by volunteers spreading across the city of Mysore and raising awareness about the differences in the bills – the one presented in Parliament and that demanded by Civil Society. We will also be looking to build a structure for MAC to continue the fight beyond the demand for a strong anti-corruption law in the days to come. People interested in signing up as volunteers are requested to register their names with Ms. Shilpa at 9742020970.