Analysis: A self-styled Gandhi and corruption in India

By Khadija Patel 17 August 2011

Just hours before he was due to fast to the death, police in India arrested the country’s most prominent anti-corruption campaigner on Tuesday. The arrest is proof that the Indian government, sporting all the confidence of a superpower, is battling to contain a "freedom" struggle against corruption in the country. By KHADIJA PATEL.

There are few places on earth where corruption is a greater malaise than it is India. While at the forefront of economic development and technological advancement, India also struggles to free itself from what is essentially a culture of sleaze. International corruption watchdog Transparency International estimates truckers in India pay US$5 billion in bribes every year. More informal reports put the “illegally” accrued wealth of India’s most prominent political family, the Nehru-Gandhis, anywhere between US$9 and 18 billion – no small cash.

A widely cited 2005 study conducted by the Indian chapter of Transparency International found more than 45% of Indians had first-hand experience paying bribes or “peddling influence” to get jobs done in public offices successfully. Last year, South Africa was ranked 54th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, India was ranked 87th of the 178 countries studied. South Africa’s own issues of influence peddling quite aside, the malaise of corruption in India is not unchallenged. 

The meteoric rise of India from dingy backwater to global superpower has seen with it the rise of a massive middle class centred in the country’s cities. Here, in swanky high rise apartment blocks that tower imperiously over shanty towns, the middle classes are growing increasingly disgruntled with corruption, abysmal public services and leaders who shirk accountability.

The middle-class campaign to drive out corruption from Indian society has found an unlikely hero.

Annasaheb Hazare, a self-styled “Gandhian”, in the Mahatma sense of course, has become the face of the campaign against corruption in India. In April this year, he undertook an indefinite fast to force the Indian government to appoint a committee to amend draft legislation to establish a national ombudsman dedicated to tackling corruption. It was just five days before the government caved and a committee then met to begin drafting a bill.

Hazare’s fast was a unifying moment for the Indian middle class. Industrialists, Bollywood stars, and activists all rallied in support of him.  In Hazare, modern India has found a new Gandhi, a man willing to sacrifice his life for the greater good. If the escalation of Hazare’s cause has been fortuitous in inspiring sympathy from such a vast section of the population, the campaign has also been especially timely. Several high-profile corruption scandals have made headlines in India in the past year, sending thousands of protesters into India’s streets.

The most shocking of all India’s recent corruption scandals was unravelled late  last year when an audit by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) revealed that the licensing of telecom spectrum for 2G (second generation) services in 2008 were sold far below market values, described to “2001 prices”, resulting in a US$40 billion loss to the Indian government. These licenses were said to have been awarded on purportedly first-come, first-served basis, putting those bidders with political influence in prime position to walk away with the loot.  This then, is modern India, superpower bedevilled by a culture of corruption. No more is this schizophrenia more apparent than in Delhi’s staging of the Commonwealth Games last year. India hosted the tournament with characteristic colour and hoopla but when the cameras were trained away from India’s best efforts to show off its progress to the world, it was revealed that even the Commonwealth Games was not untainted by corruption. The tournament was riddled with financial irregularities and when Suresh Kalmadi, the highest-ranking member of the games’ organising committee was arrested in April this year, he was charged with criminal conspiracy.

The spectre of Anna Hazare has become increasingly daunting to the Indian government as it reels precariously from a string of corruption scandals and allegations that it has lost touch with the millions of Indians who have seen little benefit in India’s economic boom. On Tuesday, as Hazare was set to gather in a Delhi park with thousands of supporters to begin another indefinite fast aimed to bring the government to heel once more, he was arrested. Along with Hazare, 1,500 of his supporters were also placed in a seven day judicial custody. Opposition parties in Delhi have been vociferous in issuing their condemnation of the arrest, demanding that Hazare be released immediately, but Hazare’s critics argue that his latest campaign has not been reasonable.

Hazare’s latest fast comes as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh introduced the promised anti-corruption bill to Parliament, steering the establishment of an anti-corruption ombudsman. Dissidents of the bill slammed the draft version as toothless. While the ombudsman, or “lokpal”, will have powers to investigate ministers and bureaucrats, it will not be mandated to investigate the Prime Minister and senior minister.
As Hazare prepared to fast to death in protest, he was whisked away by police offers who insist he was in contravention of city bylaws. “We had no option but to arrest Anna Hazare. Our intelligence report said around 20,000 people would attend the fast. We didn’t want to cause any traffic obstructions or difficulty to the common man,” Delhi police reasoned. As news of Hazare’s arrest spread, protests flared across India. Home Minister Palaniappa Chidambaram said Hazare and other leaders had been placed under “preventative arrest” to ensure they did not carry out a threat to protest. “Protest is welcome, but it must be carried out under reasonable conditions,” Chidambaram told a news conference.

As critics around the world slammed India for arresting Hazare, the US government offered instead a vote of confidence in India’s ability to manage “internal situations”.  “India is a very strong and vibrant democracy, and we have confidence in India’s ability to manage its internal situation in a manner that is consistent with the democratic values of the state,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters.

Away from the niceties of the UN Security Council and the approbation of the US, modern India is impeded by an insidious culture of corruption. This is not a matter of a few rupees passed on to a police officer to avoid coughing up a more severe fine. Hazare’s protest and the dissatisfaction with the Indian government are aimed at combing out institutionalised corruption. PM Singh may have averted further condemnation by ordering the release of Hazare late on Tuesday but as Hazare insists he will continue fasting, demanding the right to protest in Delhi’s JP Park, Hazare will continue to haunt the Indian government.  Singh earlier this week while marking the 64th anniversary of India’s independence from Britain, said there is “no magic wand” to rid India of corruption. He may soon wish for a magic wand to subdue Hazare and his growing band of supporters. DM

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Photo: Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare waves from a vehicle after being detained by police in New Delhi August 16, 2011. Police arrested India’s leading anti-corruption campaigner on Tuesday, just hours before he was due to begin a fast to the death, as the beleaguered government cracked down on a self-styled Gandhian activist agitating for a new “freedom” struggle. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi


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