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Beyond the corruption clamour

Apr 16, 2011

Social activist Harsh Mander voices caution in the midst of voices that poured in support of anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare in the Indian capital. Overlooking corruption that stems from inequities and injustice can only turn the Lokpal into an oppressive dictator, he claims.

As young middle-class Indians gathered to express their anger at corrupt governance, it was a significant moment for Indian democracy. The country has witnessed many protests for wages and land, self-determination and human rights. But this campaign was different. It's decades since educated and privileged young people felt stirred enough to take to the streets, seeking hope of a better India. But this is not a one-time eruption and the political leadership can afford to ignore this message only at its own peril.

I believe that the addition of this new constituency, of a youthful and aspirational middle class, to democratic dissent, is healthy for the republic. Unlike the poor and toiling masses, their opinion matters to the political establishment, who learned to their dismay that these young people too want clean governance.

For four decades, repeated governments have demonstrated bad faith in failing to pass a law to constitute a Lokpal. All political parties demand it when in opposition, and subvert it when in power. The UPA's draft Lokpal Bill was another weak-kneed attempt. But I worry that the alternative Jan Lokpal Bill would instead create a statutory dictator, by bringing investigation, prosecution and recommendation for punishment under the Lokpal. It would sacrifice 'due process' of justice in its anxiety to ensure powerful policing of official corruption. There are few checks to prevent a dominant Lokpal from becoming oppressive.

I support the more general demand of the demonstrators that citizens must be consulted before laws and policies that affect them are framed and passed. The government conceded this in small part by constituting the National Advisory Council (NAC). But of course there are innumerable shades of opinion in civil society beyond those in the NAC. The governments must institutionalise a mandatory process of pre-legislative consultation with citizen groups before any major statute is considered by Parliament.

And yet why could I not actively join the demonstration at Jantar Mantar? First, the symbols and allies that the campaign chose disturbed me: the stage was decorated with a picture of Bharat Mata, almost identical to that propagated by the right-wing RSS. Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the two 'god-men' who dominated the campaign and whose followers contributed the largest numbers at the protest, endorse many Hindutva causes including the construction of a Ram Temple. RSS leaders like Ram Madhav were welcomed on to the stage. My fears were further confirmed when Anna Hazare declared that Narendra Modi was a 'model' chief minister. It's difficult to comprehend how a campaign that claims to be Gandhian can extol a government responsible for the slaughter of its religious minorities. Is the condoning of violent retribution against communities, the complicity in slaughter of the official machinery, the systematic subversion of the criminal justice system to protect those guilty of the massacre, or extra-judicial killings not signs of corruption?

My notion of good governance includes but extends beyond cleansing governments of bribery and financial malfeasance. It is of a just, compassionate, democratic State, which is fair to all citizens regardless of their faith, caste, gender or wealth. Corruption has deeper causes than merely the absence of institutions to punish the corrupt. It stems from inequality and injustice, from illegitimate power and dispossession.
For many young people of privilege, their discovery of democracy began with this televised campaign against corruption. But Mahatma Gandhi taught us that fundamental to satyagraha is love, self-sacrifice and a firm adherence to truth. And that wrong means can't authentically deliver right ends. I can't choose allies to fight corruption who stand opposed to the egalitarian and secular democratic foundations of our Constitution. To me the battle against corruption must be intrinsically part of a larger confrontation against oppression, injustice, hate and fear. There are no shortcuts.

(Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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