The anti-graft campaign perhaps needs personalities to draw crowds and TV viewers. But the danger lies in the ‘face’ becoming the issue and institutional reforms not figuring at all.

Contrary to media hype, the anti-corruption campaign has gone downhill ever since Anna Hazare’s ‘team’ lost the initiative on the Lokpal Bill -- at a moment when the nation’s self-aware middle class had been fired up not so much by the existence of widespread corruption but the scale of it.

The call for appropriate legislation could have been one of the most pioneering reforms after the RTI Act, an attempt to deter graft rather than simply expose it as the RTI Act could do.

But Team Anna muffed it on account of an insistence on its own version and its refusal to accept the basic tenet of constitutional democracy -- that governance may originate in a pure ideal but is realised through public pressure on its operational weaknesses.

From whole to its parts

The Lokpal Bill was shelved and forgotten as the crusade itself entered a long hiatus only to emerge as parts of an idea posing as the whole.

Arvind Kejriwal’s India Against Corruption campaign should have reminded the nation about the necessity of the Lokpal legislation; instead it began to titillate it with dramatic exposures of the obvious.

Given the history of coalition governments over the past two decades, it is hardly surprising that graft cuts across party lines; nor is it hardly surprising that counter-accusations should fly thus, reducing a campaign bereft of substance into low comedy with heroes and villains.

Trivia kicks in

Television social networking abetted the transformation of a high ideal into low farce. The electronic medium’s need to give a face to everything turned the campaign into entertainment; how does one visualise the Lokpal Bill or the absence of mechanisms to ensure public probity, except by trying to dramatise its worst consequences?

Television turned the crusade’s personalised campaign against corruption into soap opera; the need for a face to exemplify corruption’s dramatic and harmful effects led to the equal need for a persona symbolising its remedy; the villains had been identified, so were the heroes; the ‘face’ had become the issue and its resolution.

At that moment the struggle for legislative reform turned into a soap opera that has now become self-parody, as the audience struggles to identify the ‘real’ villains: Robert Vadra? BJP’s Gadkari; or maybe Arvind Kejriwal himself?

The campaign for cleaner governance needs a resurrection from self-parody. Perhaps aware of that need, Anna Hazare has endorsed the rather dangerous idea of an ex-Army chief to dissolve Parliament.

It’s an idea that comes to soldiers the world over when they want to put into practice their passionate belief that political and social disorder are outcomes of indiscipline, muddled thinking and anarchic behaviour evident in the desire for and pursuit of, democracy.

Bookending corruption

Yet, the anti-corruption crusade is necessary and can be resurrected by harking back to its beginnings when Anna Hazare and his team set out to discover a systemic approach to corruption within government. Some issues it can take up are.

The Lokpal Bill: A demand for the introduction of the Lokpal Bill this winter session appears the best bet to turn the current farce into the high drama of participative democracy ushering change.

The campaign has to focus on the legislation’s passage into law, regardless of how weak it may appear to the righteous. In fact, a leaky law may provide the incentives to maintain sustained pressure on the lawmakers and policy planners for evolving a more refined and effective deterrent to graft.

The assumption with which any campaign ought to begin is not to eradicate corruption, for to try that is to eradicate human greed, but to deter it with the threat of punitive action.

This is where the Kejriwal campaign even against corporate accessories to graft remains toothless at best, vicarious thrill at worst.

Demanding the Lokpal Bill and then working for its institutional refinement would anchor charges of graft to a corrective pathway.

Reining election funding: The Lokpal legislation, however, can be an effective deterrent to graft arising from the power to allocate resources — a power that governments all over the world enjoy to some degree or other — if one of the principal causes for such huge corruption in New Delhi and State capitals is taken care of: the humungous financing in elections across the board.

Revisiting the Representation of the People Act, 1951, for those sections dealing with election funding as an article in this paper suggested, would be a good place to begin the long process of curbing extravagance in elections and perhaps reduce the incentives for constant graft as the source for replenishment of party coffers.

But who will bell the cat? The framers of our Constitution gave us outstanding statutory public audit bodies. But institutions that can deter such misuse have to be fashioned anew.

That is where India’s participative democracy comes into its own. It is through popular demand for legislated institutions like the Lokpal that India’s embarrassingly debilitating chasm between its economic potential and dismal political management can be bridged.

The campaign for the Lokpal Bill gave the country its first taste of change for better administration through the right channel: Parliament.

But team Anna botched it by giving a face to corruption; television trivialised it by making that face the issue.

(This article was published on November 6, 2012)
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