India faces a deal with the devil


The political drama playing out over India, the largest democracy in the world, is about the corruption that rots the system. Yet, the way it has galvanized millions of people into a grassroots movement against the status quo seems to be propelled by deeper undercurrents, that is, the fears, hopes and aspirations of a people staring into their global future.

The crisis between the government and the avowed Gandhian, Kisan Baburao Hazare aka Anna Hazare, and his growing number of supporters is about the soul of India and the rising conscience of a nation. A nation that awoke at the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, which embraced a new «tryst with destiny», has resonated to a call for a renewal after 65 years of independence. India must make the right choice in the Faustian bargain.

Anna Hazare, 74, was arrested on August 16 in Delhi as he

began a fast «to the death» to exert pressure on the government to enact a strong anti-corruption act as envisaged in the Jan Lokpal Bill, a law to establish a lokpal (ombudsman) with the power to deal with corruption in public offices. This led to nationwide protests in support of Hazare.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, supporters of Hazare said he would leave jail after reaching an agreement with police to stage a two-week hunger strike at New Delhi’s Ramlila grounds. This followed mass protests outside the jail in which he was being held as well as in other parts of the country.

Unrealized promises
The promises made on the eve of independence by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, remain woefully unrealized:

The service of India means, the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over. And so we have to labor and to work, and to work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world …

Hazare was awarded the Padma Bhushan – the third-highest civilian award – by the government in 1992 for his efforts in establishing Ralegan Siddhi as a model village in Maharashtra state. His activism in that state included drives against corruption, the creation of a right to information movement and a campaign against liquor from food grains. Then this year Hazare initiated a satyagraha – resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience – movement for a stronger anti-corruption ombudsman bill.

Calling his movement the second call for independence, Hazare asks what has India gained in 65 years? «The colonial white rulers, the firangees, have left the country, but now we are beholden to the new brown oligarchs who are looting the country and lining their off-shore accounts.»

Sitting in prayer at Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial at Raj Ghat on the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi on August 15, Hazare was seeking guidance from the father of the nation, the man who spearheaded the satyagraha independence movement.

Hazare was only 10 years old when India gained freedom. Yet, he has fashioned his life as a social reformer in Gandhi’s mould and example. Indian people grasped his simple and humble message of reform and have come out on the streets in large numbers.

A few hours before he was to begin his fast to push through the Jan Lokpal Bill, which languishes in the parliament, Delhi police arrested him on the morning of August 16 from his home and put him behind bars in Tihar jail, the largest prison in Delhi, on charges that he had not complied with the rules of assembly in a public place.

The government has been pushing its own Lokpal Bill as a way to get ahead of the political storm over corruption and to avoid public scrutiny. It disagrees with Hazare and civil society activists on seven crucial points:
1. Hazare and civil society activists insist that the prime minister should fall under the ambit of the lokpal. The government believes that Hazare is insulting the prime minister.
2. Activists want the lokpal to have powers to probe the higher judiciary, including Supreme Court judges. The government has excluded the higher judiciary from any oversight.
3. Government has declined to include members of parliament inside parliament and in parliamentary committees within the lokpal’s purview. Activists vehemently disagree with this provision.
4. The government wants only officers of joint secretary level and above to be under the bill. Civil society has demanded that the entire bureaucracy has to come under the lokpal’s oversight.
5. The government has refused to merge the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Central Vigilance Commission within the bill.
6 . Civil society and the government differ on the proposed level of punishment for corrupt officials, life imprisonment versus a maximum of 10 years, respectively.
7. Civil society wants the appointment of the ombudsmen at the local state level, which the government has plainly declined.

Due to these contentious issues, which are at the heart of the Indian experiment, people using social media have turned Hazare into a modern Gandhi and a national hero. People on the streets, both young and old, are carrying his signs and wearing his slogans: «I am Anna Hazare.»

Indians in New York and London, who have been blogging in support of the movement, believe that corruption is keeping India from leapfrogging from an underdeveloped country to a developed one. Two decades after liberalization, the central government, India Inc and the crony capitalism they have collectively fostered faces serious road blocks and may need to be rebooted.

The causes for the call of a national renewal are directly related to the liberalization begun 20 years ago and to the long-held lofty ideals of Indian democracy: «Mera Bharat Mahan.» (I am proud to be an Indian.) Liberalization has brought economic relief to the new middle and upper-middle classes. The spigot of direct foreign investment has been opened like a tube well on a drought-infested farmland. But the relief has not reached the majority of the population, especially, the lower middle classes and the rural poor, which constitutes the majority of Indian population.

«Corruption has clearly increased since the economy opened up in 1991. Economic reforms were supposed to usher in liberalization but liberalization has actually meant big bucks for corrupt politicians,» according to Brahma Chellaney of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

The scale of some of the corruption scandals over the past few years is staggering:

  • The total amount of black money – funds earned on the black market on which income and other taxes are not paid – is estimated at over US$1.4 trillion.
  • The underpricing of the 2G spectrum by the Department of Telecommunications that resulted in a loss to the exchequer of about $39 billion.
  • Costs for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi ballooned form the millions of dollars to the billions, largely due to inefficiency and corruption.

    India’s new wealth has brought forth a disorientation of deeply cherished Indian values. As Indian political psychologist Ashis Nandy told this writer in April, «Corruption rots the whole system.» The prime minister’s hands are clean, but the people around him run the system. The flush of new capital has made economic disparities very stark. Local villagers and officials, who have never seen this amount of wealth, are being bought off and the regular folks have no alternative.

    The common man, a peasant or a villager, the aam insaan, feels insulted walking on the streets of Delhi. The imported cars, BMW, Mercedes and now Rolls-Royce, have driven them off the footpaths. «Doesn’t India belong to these people?» asked Nandy.

    What is this new India? Does this new India not belong to everyday citizens on the street and to the new generation. or is it simply beholden to the oligarchs and industrial elites who have hijacked the state?

    As Ramchandra Guha, the author of India After Gandhi wrote recently in the Financial Times of London, India cannot dream of being a superpower while it is incapable of eradicating rampant corruption. According to Transparency International, India ranks 87th on last year’s report on international corruption, from 72nd in 2009, and it could fall even further after the major scandals mentioned above.

    Thus, Mahatma Gandhi must have been turning in his grave when Anna Hazare went to Raj Ghat and prayed for the soul of this country on the 65th birthday of its founding. Within minutes, thousands of people rushed to his aid and to wish him well: «Anna Hazare go ahead, we are with you!»

    As I observed from Delhi in April, 2011:

    Watching the anti-corruption populist wave, I was reminded of the Gandhi from Hollywood played by Ben Kingsley … However, the Gandhi that inspired Martin Luther King Jr, who embraced civil disobedience and challenged Western notions of development, while fading with time still pervades the Indian mind. Gandhi remains the totemic father figure in the Indian political psyche, whose not-so-feeble shoulders now hold-up the largest democracy on the planet. Just as Americans will never get over George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln as the moral architects of a nation, Indians will never get over Gandhi.

    As Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi’s ardent follower and closest associate, was fond of reading the American poet-laureate Robert Frost, India now faces a fork in the road. Will it become a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate, multinational and materialist interests? Or will it retain some semblance of a cultural identity, ethical determination and the idea of a national suffrage? This is India’s Faustian bargain.

    Nehru beckoned Indians to a better future, but not at the cost of selling out their souls:

    The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavor? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.

    Given India is now adept at cultural borrowing, relying heavily on Western scripts in their docudramas, movies and plays, it is appropriate to draw out the Faustian bargain between Mahatma and Mephistopheles, the devil reincarnate in Goethe’s Faust.

    Every Indian political and cultural elite must now face the Faustian bargain. In the race to catch up with the West, will India choose an expedient path towards development and simply jettison its backward villages, where most of Hazare’s poor, tribal and downtrodden populations live? If Indian policymakers were to choose this path, they would soon discover, not unlike their Western forerunners, that they bargained their souls to achieve a chimerical goal of modernization, where every modern comfort is available but happiness is in short supply.

    After all, this is one of the key lessons India must adopt from the West. Gross domestic product growth does not translate into happiness in a linear and straightforward manner. As Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has shown, in a critique of neo-classical economics, that human capital is just as important as financial capital and building communities and families is just as central to development as building financial resources.

    Building economic capital at the expense of human capital leads to anomie and loss of meaning, dysfunctional families, alcoholism, drugs, violence and a downward social drift. Surely, India does not want to replicate the century-long travails of the West by winning the world but losing its core values in the process.

    India’s founding fathers, almost all of whom were trained at elite Western universities, knew the strengths and pitfalls of the European enlightenment project, which the rapid pace of development often accompanies. In the age of globalization, if Indians were to forget the hard-won lessons of the independence struggle, India might lose both «the home and world» in the 21st century.

    This time it will not be because of colonialism. It will be simply because India lost its way. Now, following on the Mahatma’s footsteps, Anna Hazare is showing a path out the quagmire and many Indian people are willing to follow his lead.

    Dinesh Sharma is the author of Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President (ABC-CLIO/Praeger, 2011).

    (Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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