Sunday, May 15, 2011

The India Against Corruption movement


(Updated below)
Anna Hazare and team are now working on the draft Lokpal Bill. I wanted to address some of the arguments raised against the India Against Corruption(IAC) movement.
Primarily, Corruption is a systemic problem. It is not something that we have in our blood. The below arguments, instead, address corruption as a kind of individual mind-level thing. That is wrong. It is also counter-productive, because it tries to make citizens feel powerless. That is the goal of these arguments - to make citizens feel cynical and powerless and just give up - while a few people on top can loot the country.

Anna Hazare's tactics

First, Anna Hazare's fast was not a fast to eliminate corruption.
A lot of scorn and disbelief was poured on Anna, because he was apparently trying to end corruption suddenly. The media represented it as a fast against corruption.
But in reality, the GOAL of the fast was very specific - it was to get a few "civil society" members to participate in the drafting of the new Lokpal Bill; and to scrap the government proposed Lokpal bill.
This goal was clearly achievable and they did manage to win it.
The goal was never to "eliminate" corruption with a fast; Anna or the Bhushans or India Against Corruption are not idiots. They did not expect that suddenly all public servants would reform with a fast.
Gandhians are fairly intelligent. They understand how Gandhi used non-violent tactics. Each one of Gandhi's fasts or marches were planned to achieve a very SPECIFIC goal (such as repealing the tax on salt). He never fasted saying he wanted independence.
But thanks to the way we learn history; and the way our media dumbs down issues; Anna's fast was called a fast to eliminate corruption. I think that was a disservice to his fast.

Can we eliminate corruption with a bill?

My short answer would be yes. The long answer is that it depends on what the bill is trying to do.
If the Lokpal bill simply said, "We hereby declare corruption to be a crime. Be gone, corruption" then the above question is valid. But that is not the content of the bill. The bill is neither about outlawing corruption (existing laws do that) or prescribing punishments for corruption (existing laws do that).
The primary purpose of the Jan Lokpal bill is to set up an independent authority on par with the Supreme Court or the Election Commission (This requires an amendment to the Constitution). The bill goes on to specify the powers of that authority; its funding sources and the organizational structure.
Thus the Lokpal Bill is not a "law" in the sense it is commonly understood in India. It is more about setting up a process.
Does the Election Commission eliminate voting irregularities? No, but it brings them down considerably.
This same way setting up a Lokpal structure will REDUCE corruption, over time. That is what the bill tries to do - create Lokpal.
The opponents of Lokpal simply set an impossible standard by asking the question "Will it eliminate corruption". No, it won't - but it will bring it down over time. And that is fine, and better than having no Lokpal at all.

Aren't we all corrupt?

One English magazine ran a story about how we are all corrupt ourselves and so on.
Before I address that specific argument, I want to point out a couple of things:
1. When we had the race attacks in Australia an year back, Outlook magazine ran a cover story saying "Aren't we all racists?". I read through the story; and they were basically comparing the use of fairness creams in India with actual race-based murders in Australia. I wrote a detailed rebuttal of that here.
Whenever someone says "Aren't we all guilty of X?", they are blaming everyone except themselves. The "we" in that question is simply a trick. They are really saying, "I am a nice guy/girl and not guilty, but look at all those other Indians"
It is a feature of predominantly conservative societies (such as India) to either blame the victim or assign guilt to society in a way that is unsolvable.

2. We also have to remember that currently there is a class war going on in India. That fact was laid out in the open from the 2G-scam; the Radia tapes; and Wikileaks exposures. The upper 1% of the country, including corporate media, politicians, and big industrialists are in an alliance to divide the country into pieces and sell all of it.
Thus, whoever asks the question "Aren't we all corrupt" is actually engaged in action AGAINST addressing the corruption problem. The introduction of this "talking point" is a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the criminals.

Now, for the actual argument: No, all of us are not corrupt. I have certainly held no public office, and so I cannot be blamed for corruption. I think that is true for 95% of Indians.
The Lokpal Bill is an effort to address corruption by PUBLIC officials. Because they have the most power, this is the correct focus of the bill. Let us say my apartment complex has a secretary and that person is diverting funds. That is NOT the purview of the Lokpal Bill.
We are not trying to become a saintly nation - we are simply trying to control corruption by public officials.
Again, this argument sets an impossible standard. The pundits are saying this - since we are all guilty of some thought crimes at some point, we should not pass the Lokpal Bill because none of us are pure.
If that is the standard, why have the Indian Penal Code at all? Since we have all stolen laddus from Mom's kitchen at some point, we should not have any laws against theft. That is what this argument boils down to.

The Jan Lokpal activists set up an alternative government

The concern was that civil society members "blackmailed" the government to include themselves. Thus they were described as setting up an alternate power center.
I thought this claim is fine in the abstract, but it makes no sense in current India. The Radia tapes and Wikileaks exposures clearly show that we ALREADY have an alternate government in India - it is really the Tatas, Ambanis, a few other industrialists, media persons and then some political families running the country.
Given this situation, I do not see a problem with another power center.


At this point corruption defines India. A few days back I read about pilots getting fake licenses - one of them landed a plane nose first. Corruption is so deep that we cannot trust ANY regulator of the government. Every regulatory authority is an opportunity to make more money and thwart the basic purpose of the regulation. On top of this, we are going to be setting up nuclear plants! And we are going to force all citizens to have Unique IDs! How is this whole system supposed to work when the government is so deeply corrupt?
I would call corruption and criminalization of politics as the worst problems facing India.
It need not be this way. We have strong enough institutions that we could be a nation without any corruption.
Punishment has to start from the top. That is the only way we can clear this mess.

Update:
In response to Sayan's comment citing P.Sainath's criticism of the Lokpal:

The "appointment" problem or who forms the collegium in Lokpal is a question not specific to Lokpal itself. It is a problem with creating checks and balances in any "co-equal" branch.
The Constitution sets this process up for the Supreme Court. The President of India appoints SC judges. By all accounts the SC has a lot of power - and its justices are not appointed by an elected official. The President of India is not elected directly by the people.
For the Election Commission, it is the same case. The CEC is appointed by the President.
The Lokpal creation faces the same problem - how do you choose "independent" people who are not elected directly by the people? You have 3 choices:
1. Have a separate election across India to choose Lokpal appointees. There are countries that do this kind of separate elections for co-equal branches. The United States, for example, has elections for state level judges. Federal judges are appointed.
Is this feasible? Can we afford to implement an alternate representational system? And, I think the biggest fear - will that system be dominated by political parties again?
2. Have the President of India appoint the officers to Lokpal. Again, the fear here is that we open ourselves to manipulation by the elected representatives.
3. Arrive at some other way to determine the collegium. This is the approach the current Jan Lokpal team has taken. They have tried to choose a collegium that is "untainted" by politics; and yet provides the correct checks and balances.
The third approach is similar to creating an "independent" investigative commission by appointing retired HC or SC judges. That happens right now.
There are precedents to the above approach. The National Police Commission recommendations 30 years back suggested a collegium that consists of retired judges, eminent people and an equal set of representatives from both ruling and opposition.

Thus, I want to look at the Lokpal collegium problem as a general problem with establishing ANY independent body. I don't think it has anything specific to do with the arrogance of Jan Lokpal writers.
Given that the bill is being written in conjunction with politicians, I hope that a compromise solution will be found that involves more elected representatives. What we will get is an engineered solution. And that is fine.

Ideally, of course, we should not be so afraid of political parties and people's elected repesentatives. But that is how things have evolved. I understand the ideal that people's representatives should ultimately have real power - but as I cited above, that ideal is already broken by having other co-equal branches such as the SC and EC.

6 comments:

Sayan said...

Here are Sainath's reservations on the Lokpal Bill.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qfAyDVogxc

Looking forward to your counter-arguments....

Ramiah Ariya said...

Thanks Sayan. I wrote an update to the original post with my opinion.
Let me know what you think.

Ravindra said...

Well Writing and giving Suggestions is quiet easier but to ammend them in your real life is even harder not for me but for everyone so all we need to do is ,to remove corruption first we need to be corruption free at our end then only we can pont others.

Sayan said...

@Ramiah: Thanks for the update. But I don't agree with you on this count. How can it be the case that the Nobel Laureates and Magsaysay / Bharat-Ratna award winners are in some way better qualified to appoint a Lokpal?

Take the case of Election Commission. It is doing a good job. And the whole process behind the appointment of Election Commission seems much more constitutional to me.

Anyway, we can agree to disagree.

Ramiah Ariya said...

Sayan, you could ask that same question about the "independent investigating agencies" appointed by Parliament. They are usually run by retired judges - who have no special "constitutional" status.
If we can do that, then why not get "eminent citizens"? My point is such a practice is present right now.

Mannu said...

good work bro.
to the argument of 'arn't we all corrupt', I feel that you forgot to diagnose one more aspect of the talking point. This self-diagnosis is not meant for curbing the Jan Lokpal issue. I have raised this argument to rather enhance the Lokpal's working ambit by suggesting that a Lokpal instituted 'training course' also be started to change, call it - evolve, the public and public-servants knowledge of 'what is corruption'.
This is because, unlike the untrained sociologist , who generally see corruption only as problem, corruption has given some benefits too (u essentially agree to that when u say that we are here not to make saints). In truth, in this land of un-equal opportunity, where caste and class marr the social life at every turn, corruption has created the reverse--unequality, something like what the reservation scheme has attempted to do.
It is necessary to see Corruption as India's social need too, which is why it has rampantly progressed.
It is now that u would understand that the success of corruption-mitigation can be achieved but not without appraising the people on morality and ethics-- about giving class room lecture on what is corruption.
The Jan Lokpal may also end up skipping some acts as that of corruption, much like u have rejected the diversion of funds by housing society secretary as an act of corruption too, unless a wider public teaching begins.
I am mostly the UNCAC man, that is- United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Even the UNCAC provides for such training course. The UNCAC is a product of expert groups from academics of PolScience, PubAd, etc.
In a regime such as democracy, it is important to know that 'righteous' is sometimes essentially what is 'popular'. Thus, Sachin Tendulkar or SRK avoiding the import duty may get skipped under undue public pressure. This is one power- distance country.
To overcome such barriers, one will have to have some public opinion correcting agency too, to avoid conflicts of popular choice versus the right choice. The expert knowledge must begin to come out of university files and reach to people. It is the constable on the road who is the face of corruption devil to most of uneducated indians whose lives are not yet directly touched by Tata's or Ambanis or Mulayams ,Mayawatis.