Thursday, 8 September 2011

the indian anti-corruption movement

generally i tend not to write about indian politics, because i don't follow what's happening there and don't even really understand the political system beyond the fact that there are state & federal governments and it's a republic. i know some of the political parties and some of what they purportedly stand for, but really don't understand the details and nuances.

which means that i'm hardly qualified to discuss what i'm about to discuss, but that doesn't stop many people, so let me forge ahead anyway.

so there's this dude in india who went on a fast. not the ramadan kind of fast that muslims do, but the political protest kind of fast that was done by gandhi amongst others, and more commonly know to us as a hunger strike. the thing that our current protester, anna hazare, was fasting about was corruption and the need to end it. mr hazare is not the only one on hunger strike in india at the moment, but somehow his protest caught on and caused huge outpourings of support across the country.

there are several reasons for this. one is that he is supported by a highly organised and well-funded team, a team that is in fact known as "team anna". there have been allegations that some of this funding has come from america, through the ford foundation as well as a couple of other organisations. more of it has come from large indian corporations. while there were promises to provide transparency around funding, i can't find any evidence of this actually happening. they promised to put financial information on this website, but it has no search function and i don't have time to trawl through it.

team anna appears to have some pretty good media networks and connections. or perhaps it's that the media jumped on the bandwagon when it saw the protest gathering support. regardless of how it has happened, the protest has had a very high level of coverage in all media.

while the motives seem to be very noble and worthy of support, i've been having some issues with this protest movement. the first thing that bothered me was the nationalistic fervour that underpinned the protest. i'm not a supporter of nationalism at the best of times, and it seems to me that an anti-corruption movement should be able to seek support based on the principles of justice, without having to resort to any kind of national pride. however, this piece raises more serious issues about the way the issues are being framed:

Never in India’s history, not even during the freedom movement or war-time, has such aggressively patriotic fervour been unleashed. Mahatma Gandhi never used portraits of a tiger-riding Bharat Mata, and Bhagat Singh’s battle-cry was not Vande Mataram. In their own distinctive ways, the three major streams of our freedom movement, Gandhi, Netaji and Bhagat Singh, reflected the respective beliefs and ideologies, and competed in the philosophical space of nation-building....

So here is the quibble. Once you produce the national flag, and Bharat Mata, all arguments cease.... In effect, if you then disagree with me, you are unpatriotic, and your arguments are immoral, pro-corrupt. A democratic movement has to give space for disagreement, argue with those who have a different point of view, not wave the national flag and shut them up.

more than that, nationalism is frightening in any context because it is destructive to minorities, and to anyone who doesn't conform to the nationalists' definition of what constitutes the ideal patriot. the terms "unamerican" or "unaustralian" are predominantly used to stifle any kind of dissent, and to push for a conformity that is destructive to individual identity.

to add to this concern is the possibility that team anna has links to the RSS, a right-wing nationalist organisation that is linked to some violent stuff. mr hazare himself denies any personal political affiliations, which may be correct. but if members of his team are aligned to the RSS, then his own personal affiliation is of little importance.

on top of all this, the protest seems to be a very middle and upper class one - a movement for those who can actually afford to pay the bribes and who are personally affected by them. and while that certainly has some merit, it's not a movement that seems to deal with issues of poverty and social justice. it's not a movement that will really help those who are most in need of support in that country.

finally, i'll quote arundhati roy who has come out strongly against team anna for various reasons. the basic point is that the solution to corruption posed by team anna is a pretty dangerous one:

While his means may be Gandhian, Anna Hazare's demands are certainly not. Contrary to Gandhiji's ideas about the decentralisation of power, the Jan Lokpal Bill is a draconian, anti-corruption law, in which a panel of carefully chosen people will administer a giant bureaucracy, with thousands of employees, with the power to police everybody from the Prime Minister, the judiciary, members of Parliament, and all of the bureaucracy, down to the lowest government official. The Lokpal will have the powers of investigation, surveillance, and prosecution. Except for the fact that it won't have its own prisons, it will function as an independent administration, meant to counter the bloated, unaccountable, corrupt one that we already have. Two oligarchies, instead of just one.

Whether it works or not depends on how we view corruption. Is corruption just a matter of legality, of financial irregularity and bribery, or is it the currency of a social transaction in an egregiously unequal society, in which power continues to be concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller minority? Imagine, for example, a city of shopping malls, on whose streets hawking has been banned. A hawker pays the local beat cop and the man from the municipality a small bribe to break the law and sell her wares to those who cannot afford the prices in the malls. Is that such a terrible thing? In future will she have to pay the Lokpal representative too? Does the solution to the problems faced by ordinary people lie in addressing the structural inequality, or in creating yet another power structure that people will have to defer to?

the worst case scenario is that this nationalistic protest movement will lead to a nationalistic right-wing government lead by the BJP. not only will this be bad for communal tensions in the country, but it certainly won't help those who struggle with poverty. and i can't imagine they will do anything significant to reduce corruption.


Maungakiekie said...

Like you, I'm no expert on Indian politics. However, I recently came across books and videos by an Indian man named Vishal Mangalwadi. I recommend his books for an easy-to-understand insider's view of Indian religion, politics, and history.

Hugh said...

I read an excellent article about the Hazare movement in The Economist that seemed to broadly agree with you. It also pointed out that India already has an anti-corruption agency that's widely viewed as ineffective, so a new agency, even with expanded powers, is unlikely to do much (and may even become a source of corruption itself).

I think the solution to the corruption, not just for India but for most countries suffering it, is to remove the economic conditions that make bribery a necessity.

(I would disagree that corruption is only a middle-and-upper-class issue though - it effects those who can't afford to pay bribes too, as they are denied access to services that they are legally entitled to)

Hugh said...

And here's that article:

katy said...

I have been following this a bit and a comment from an Indian commentator that interested me was around the use of hunger-striking as a tactic in fighting for social or political change. Because it is such a drastic tactic it was criticised as being "anti-democratic" in that it really forces a response, can't be ignored regardless of the "merit" of the cause. Whether or not this is a fair criticism, because there isn't the same kind of tradition of hunger-striking in NZ (where I am from) I was intrigued by this perception.

Hugh said...

I think that's going a bit far, katy. Hunger-striking has a long and positive tradition, particularly in India. I doubt anybody would claim Gandhi's use of hunger strikes was anti-democratic!

stargazer said...

katy, i've read that criticism too and it's a pretty valid one. as ms roy points out in her piece, the proposal put forward by team anna has some pretty major flaws. but by creating this movement through the use of high levels of funding, a pretty sophisticated PR team and the rooting of the protest in the cloak of nationalism, there is very little room left for democratic debate.

it's hard to define what makes a legitimate protest. the other woman protesting against police brutality (linked to in the post), or the fasts of gandhi as part of the independence movement implicitly seem right and valid to us because we identify with the cause. even though latter was a strongly nationalist movement, with the end result being a large amount of bloodshed as india was basically torn apart.

anyway, it'll be interesting to see where this one ends up and whether there are any concrete changes that makes life better for all citizens.