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Details and their devils

Harbinger of change or flash of public petulance? The real test for the Hazare Effect starts now. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Sep 01, 2011 02:00 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

I get it that people are angry at politicians, our honourable elected representatives, whose latest concern is punishing actors Om Puri, for calling them ganwaar (rustic dimwits) and naalayak (incompetent), and former police office Kiran Bedi, for calling them duplicitous folk who wear "several masks".

I get it that it's a bit rich to call the Anna protestors anti-democratic when democratic institutions, including and especially Parliament, are failing our expectations. The latest example: how a cabal Cabinet-ministers-cum-sport-overlords has stopped a law to make sport more accountable. Like Team Anna, I too am distrustful of government (not just this one but any), and I agree that if it were not for the extreme passions generated, an Indian Parliament may not have been willing to listen.

I get it that whatever reservations you may have had with Anna's "second freedom movement" - as I do - it has humbled politicians, at least a bit, and reminded them that earning the trust of India's growing, impatient middle class will not be easy from here on.

What I don't get is this: if we distrust one authority so much, why are we now prepared to trust a powerful institution staffed by other authorities-bureaucrats and judges?

It cannot be anyone's case that Indian bureaucrats and judges are any cleaner than its politicians. For that matter, it is hard to argue that any of us is cleaner than the men and women who administer India. We are all cut from the same cloth.

As some of the passions of restive August die down, this is the time to calmly reflect on the long, bumpy road ahead. Apart from our personal failings, there are two institutional signposts to consider.

First, corruption always rises in a rising nation. Countries like the US and South Korea suffered major periods of institutionalised corruption before their institutions became strong enough to survive fickle, corrupt officials and politicians.

Two, this overhaul of institutions is never easy. A corrupt system requires many energising jolts before it starts to reform. The Anna effect is one of those jolts, a loud, public burst of energy. But national renovation cannot be pushed through only on the streets.

If the middle class suddenly feels empowered or involved in the affairs of the nation, it must now be interested in the details of governance, which is where future devils lie.

For instance, do we really need a Lokpal of the type Team Anna envisages, overlapping with existing authorities and holding out prospects of an unelected super regulator?

The Karnataka Lokayukta shows us how existing institutions can attack corruption at the highest level. The state's biggest corruption industry, mining, is at a standstill after a Lokayukta investigation. Chief minister BS Yeddyurappa has resigned and is now fighting to stay out of jail. His former industries minister, Katta Subramanya Naidu, has been in jail since July, pending trial in a lokayukta court on charges of selling public land for personal profit. All this has happened without the lokayukta getting the powers envisaged for the lokpal.

The idea of five lokpals, proposed by the National Campaign for the People's Right to Information, to fight different types of corruption so one body is not overloaded and underqualified is sensible. So, too, is the idea to keep the judiciary out of the lokpal's purview. This will help preserve the independence of the judiciary at a time when India needs its institutions to be strong and act as checks and balances on one another.

Parliament, which is presently considering the Judicial Accountability and Standards Bill, may need to send it back to the drawing board.

None of this will happen unless Team Anna and others like them expand their one-point agenda and educate both the media and politicians. Instead of empty "game-changing" boasts, such as the one Rahul Gandhi made in Parliament, he could persuade his party to deliver independent lokayuktas with police and judicial wings to Congress-ruled states. That's better than making pledges he cannot deliver; remember the promise he made last year to tribals, "I will be your soldier in Delhi"? Instead, tribals only see more soldiers from Delhi, and the Maoist insurgency worsens. Slogans and street battles are no substitute for systemic change, something the impatient "Anna is India" army should also understand.

Their impatience is good and bad.

Bad, because the impatient middle class often encourages corruption by hiring touts and pays bribes when it is does not want to stand in line. So, it is blind to improvements. In 1996, determined not to hire a tout or pay a bribe, I took 16 days of leave over six months to get the registration of my motorcycle transferred from one state to another. Today, many flaws remain, but the experience in most Road Transport Offices has improved dramatically, thanks to technology and stricter vigilance. Ask me. I move home every few years and am a regular at these bastions of the Indian State. There are other examples, from the Election Commission to the Delhi Metro.

The impatience is good because younger India clearly does not share my patience or perspective. Change must come faster. Aspirations in what will soon be the world's youngest nation have risen at a rate inversely proportional to the delivery of services by state institutions. But impatience cannot replace knowledge and common sense.

It is hard, if not impossible, to police corruption. The key is to prevent it, and that can only come from reform, more reform, better governance and even better governance. That, in turn, can only come from sensible, sustained public pressure. The weeks ahead will indicate if restive August was a harbinger of change or a flash of public petulance.

First Published: Aug 31, 2011 21:55 IST