For the first time, the campaign against graft has acquired an institutional rather than moral character.For the first time, the campaign against graft has acquired an institutional rather than moral character.

The anti-corruption campaign led by India Against Corruption (IAC) is a marked improvement on earlier campaigns and mass movements on this issue — such as the ones led by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1974-75, V.P. Singh in 1987-89 and, for that matter, even that by Anna Hazare last year.

The IAC has not just targeted some very powerful individuals across the political spectrum; it has done a service to the discourse on corruption by focusing on the system rather than the individual.

By probing the nexus between a section of corporates, the bureaucracy and the political class, it has, for the first time, approached corruption as an institutional problem, rather than simply one of ‘declining morals in public life’. This is no mean contribution, considering the damage that its forbears may have done by focusing only on individuals and their ‘integrity’, to the exclusion of everything else.

INDIRA GANDHI AND BOFORS

JP’s agitation was centred around ousting a ‘corrupt and authoritarian’ Indira Gandhi even before the completion of her five-year term, ironically to protect democratic institutions. The agitation, besides mounting a moral assault on Indira Gandhi, had little to offer by way of institutional reform.

JP’s austere, saintly persona gripped the imagination of the people of North India. He got lakhs of people to back him in what was essentially a mega personality clash. Indira Gandhi may have been pushed into imposing the draconian Emergency, to prevent her ouster in a coup.

JP’s political praxis was morality-driven even prior to the anti-Indira agitation. For instance, he would insist that a section of the political cadre should keep a distance from electoral politics and act as a moral force on the rest — and unwaveringly stuck to this principle all through his life. He set an example by refusing offers from Jawaharlal Nehru to join the government. But he did less to contextualise corruption as a political economy problem.

About twelve years after the JP movement, the same moralist strain resurfaced, but in a less virulent form. Instead of JP, it was V.P. Singh adopting righteous tones, the adversary this time being Rajiv Gandhi. He consciously cultivated a prince-turned-commoner image, creating a ripple in the Hindi heartland. The slogans around him said: Raja nahin, fakir hai. To be fair, V.P. Singh was not as dismissive of electoral politics as JP; he clashed with Rajiv Gandhi over Bofors in the November 1989 elections and succeeded in dislodging the Congress government. In retrospect, it does seem odd that the 1989 elections were virtually reduced to a referendum on whether a prime minister had betrayed the country on a gun deal, to the virtual exclusion of other social, economic and governance issues. (It must, however, be said that V. P. Singh later redeemed himself by turning to systemic concerns, such as implementing the Mandal Commission report.)

ENTER TEAM ANNA

Anna Hazare’s mass movement to place the office of the prime minister under the ambit of the Lokpal was, for all its flaws, a step forward in an institutional direction.

The disconcerting part was its contempt for the political class; but it did not turn the campaign into an overt attack on certain individuals, or seek the government’s ouster when tens of thousands were camping at Ramlila maidan in August 2011. (We hope that Team Anna member and former Army chief V.K. Singh’s recent remarks that ‘Parliament should be dissolved’ are not meant to be taken seriously.) This restraint prevailed despite efforts to personalise the campaign by projecting Anna as a puritanical figure, which, fortunately, did not succeed. Anna is no JP or even VP, and is unlikely to turn into a larger-than-life personality.

He may pursue the righteous, anti-politics, socially conservative line for a while, but is likely to fall back on the institutional approach. (We are also lucky that no one in the IAC is in a position to play the personality card, Arvind Kejriwal included, which makes institutionalism the default option.)

Unlike the IAC, Anna seems less prepared for this shift. For instance, Team Anna is yet to question the role of corporates in corruption, the way the IAC has done. Is this omission just a lapse of understanding?

From Kiran Bedi’s naïve exhortation at Ramlila Grounds to resist petty corruption in government offices, we have come a long way in just over a year.

Yet, Team Anna’s perception of corruption seems rooted in the pre-liberalisation context, when private capital was not as dominant as it is today.

According to this outdated view, corruption comes into play when the people seek government services, or when politicians need corporate funds to fight elections. Corruption was expected to fade away with the abolition of the licence permit raj and the entry of competition in providing economic services.

After two decades of reforms, it would appear that a more market-determined economy has not curbed corruption.

Corporates continue to seek favours and bend the rules, whether it is in terms of securing access to land and natural resources at favourable rates, as IAC informs us, or in violating social and environmental norms.

WAY AHEAD

The anti-corruption movement may have shown signs of maturing, but there is still a long way to go. The historical failure to locate corruption within a theory of state power, and to recognise its mutation with the onset of reforms has yet to be addressed.

The Left, too, has had little to contribute in this regard. Therefore, the task before forces such as IAC is to bridge this gap in understanding. The IAC has exposed warts in various arms of the system, which means that change would require an external political agency.

If a new democratic politics does not emerge to deal with a growing sense of despair with the system, society may lurch towards more authoritarian options, backing another leader who blends charisma, austerity, and perhaps religiosity.

Yet, this prospect can be averted. With a sustained effort, forces such as the IAC can stitch together a rainbow coalition of social movements outside the organised political space, integrating the campaign against corruption with an egalitarian vision of growth and development — in short, try to realise the 1950s vision of a more sober JP and Ram Manohar Lohia.

(blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on November 11, 2012)
XThese are links to The Hindu Business Line suggested by Outbrain, which may or may not be relevant to the other content on this page. You can read Outbrain's privacy and cookie policy here.