Lack of a convincing and binding narrative in the anti-corruption fight in India

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Bertrand Russell

The quote could hold true in India on both sides of the corruption fence. Administrators who have a lot to offer are fiddling and so are civil society members.

If the media brouhaha is to be relied upon then 2011 has been the year when India finally decided to do something against the corruption monster. India Against Corruption does give the notion that the whole of India has risen united against corruption and it is just a few months or years of struggle and we will soon have a ‘corruption free’ India.

The ‘much informed’ and connected world that we live in these tweets and posts and newscasts and headlines magnify into a gushing electronic river which creates an impression of some great revolution going on.

But how united is India against corruption and is 2011 really that year which will see the dawn of a new era going ahead. Is the Jan Lokpal Bill the bellwether? The media is notorious for its inability to capture lesser known but equally significant aspects of any issue. And I would like to state that the JLB campaign is the most unconvincing narrative I have heard to date about how corruption can be fought. And as regards binding, there are a number of other equally strong narratives which completely debunk the JLB line of thinking.

Those in the RTI brigade have their own stories to tell and there are the hard liners there who feel it is the panacea – one magic wand to fight all corruption. While it has helped a lot in the past few years we are now well aware of the kind of mess that RTI has landed itself in. And we are also aware of how little endemic corruption has reduced.

There are people from my line of thinking – a faction within activists,  strongly believe that if you have to run a society well there is no alternative to each and every citizen involving themselves in decisions taken for them by the government and RTI and JLB can be means but certainly no substitute for active involved citizens – in the absence of which all institutions are destined to fail.

And beyond the electronic gush and divergent narratives, if you walk the streets, travel on public transport and visit government offices you realise that there is hardly any feeling of a revolution – far less any incremental change from business as usual.

The one who shouts the loudest is seen the most but that does not mean he comprises the majority and it also doesn’t mean that he makes the most sense. Within the civil society arena there is considerable consternation at the disproportionate attention that the JLB campaign has drawn and for the little it will deliver. And I for one have been the most vociferous – though not public – critic of the JLB movement.

Most JLB supporters fall in a category which clearly showcases India as a country of blind belief, of unquestioning people and of people who believe disproportionately high in miracles – in this case a Jan Lokpal who like some avatar of Vishnu will come and kill the demon of corruption. All the while the people themselves will do nothing and only engage in rituals. Rituals like feel good messages on facebook and Twitter, hair raising melodramatic messages of patriotism and glory, amass at grounds, waive flags, sing songs, do dinchaka dances, create posters and wear some stupid caps and uniforms, rush in at the sight of their Anna, build cordons around him, hold candles with poignant faces. This is the most of active citizenry we see in India.

Mumbai is in the midst of making its much jinxed but important development plan for the coming decade and the number of people participating there are a very poor proxy for an educated middle class class, which has abandoned any meaningful engagement with their immediate surroundings. A lot of these will be found washing their sins in the JLB Ganga.

It is fascinating to see the huge amount of logistics and resources that people have decided to sink into all the activities that have gone to support the campaign, from time to money to their vehicles and offices and other resources. Ask them to come forward for supporting something substantive and all you hear is doubt. Its fascinating also to see how those who have something substantive to offer do not have an equal strength of resolve and the energy to scale their thoughts. Its like the Bertrand Russell quote.

There are the organisers and then there are the supporters. While the organisers have a lot of experience dealing with governance most of the supporters are people who wouldn’t even know their elected representatives and municipal budgets properly. And without ever participating in the governance of their cities they would like a JLB to come an rid their municipal corporations clean of corruption – Mere Bhartiya Mahan.

People who have been critical of the JLB have not bothered to come together for an anti-JLB campaign, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they would number equal or more.

It is sacrilege in India to be critical of campaigns and individuals in India, and especially of those in the civil society arena but still I have to comment on the organisers of IAC.

Having known Mayank Gandhi for a decade now I am not surprised at the manner and form of the campaign. I worked with him in 2008 in the immediate last association, where I was thoroughly disappointed with his approach towards the inner city redevelopment project that we were working on.

It was the same rallies and conventions and high sounding rhetoric without any substantive thought leadership or a plan which was well crafted to the existing reality. The much needed and important initiative tanked into oblivion.

Even before JLB Mayank and some of those who are part of IAC had been part of campaigns which have promised panacea but have only seen the targeted issues going from bad to worse – the Metropolitan Planning Commission and NagaraRaj Bill to give examples. At one time these campaigns were also peddled with equal conviction and noise as the JLB of today. All along I have been equally unconvinced choosing to stay convinced that there is no substitute to active citizenry.

Public memory is short, critical evaluation is sacrilege and Bharat Mata copiously produces blind believers so we continue to have one ineffective campaign after the other.

The only good thing maybe the current anti-corruption and JLB Campaign  have done is to help do an inventory of some of the naive people in India – the census doesn’t have one such category and so its been very helpful.

And when I say people I must qualify that it is the educated middle class – the ones with a full stomach who can afford time pass. The vast majority of the population, the economically not so well off,  have been sanguine. The electoral victories of the NCP (Anna’s bete noire) in the recent municipal council elections in Maharashtra are an indicator even after discounting for electoral malpractices.

7 thoughts on “Lack of a convincing and binding narrative in the anti-corruption fight in India

  1. Rishi,
    You espouse a bottom-up approach to ridding social ills that infect our country. Municipal budgets, Mumbai development plan and citizenry participation thereof represents an important and neglected aspect of social engineering.
    But there has a to be a macro view as well, a top-down approach which I believe Anna represents. I must admit I am more than a little perturbed about an all-powerful Lokpal turning into an Animal Farmesque Orwellian nightmare. But as we all know, good things evolve and so, I hope, will this bill. It will not be the elixir in its first form; citizenry will need to learn from its mistakes and evolve it and more importantly discard it if it indeed becomes big brotherly.
    This may be easier said that done, but my point is that both top-down/macro and bottom-up/micro approaches are fundamental and necessary and one cannot be a substitute for another.

  2. Thanks Sid for the comment. I am not suggesting a substitute, I am just appalled at the complete lack of any balance – there just is no micro happening. There is a base to a pyramid before there is a peak. Here we want to wave flags at the peak which does not have a base.

    Had citizens worked on the micro over the past five decades the corruption problem wouldnt have become so macro in the first place. And if we are not interested in looking at the roots then give me a Sharad Pawar any day over an Anna Hazare. The man has high quality intellect at least.

  3. Hi Rishi,

    I think you missed some points. There is lot of awarness that has been created by this campaign. The “aam admi” never used to bother about these but now they got some strength to protest in simple cases.

    I heard of some cases where govt people are afraid to take bribes. Isn’t it a right thing? If media joins these campaigns in +ve way, it would be more helpful

    1. Thanks Krishna. Protesting in these small cases is like throwing pebbles at an elephant. The individual can feel happy about it but the elephant hardly even notices. The “aam admi” is good to SRK and Tendulkar. I covered more in reply to Raajesh.

  4. Hi Rishi,
    At least the JLB has done one good thing – their is an increase in awareness amongst people that we need to participate. This I can say because Adolf and myself (Raajesh) have done about 45 odd meetings in various parts of Mumbai and there is a buzz that things need to change.. Agree with your pyramid theory and working on the micro levels but how do we get to activate people in huge numbers without all this tamasha? You are speaking from a perspective of a very well informed person but their are thousands out there who just are as you rightly say
    “” India as a country of blind belief, of unquestioning people and of people who believe disproportionately high in miracles – in this case a Jan Lokpal who like some avatar of Vishnu will come and kill the demon of corruption. All the while the people themselves will do nothing and only engage in rituals.”
    With all these qualities we will have to have this tamasha because this is what they will grasp.
    Don’t these set of people get trapped by the political parties with all the blitzkrieg advertisement, banners, posters, media shows etc etc. Sometimes intelligence requires that you talk the language people understand. You are completing your thesis whilst the rest of the country people have still to understand the crookedness of the situation.
    In any case instead of criticising anyone let every activist, individual play his role in doing constructive work in fighting corruption. Adolf and myself felt lets activate the common citizenry to fight elections and become true public servants. Similarly decide what you can do to fight this menace. Ultimately our goals are the same, though the paths may be different.
    If you feel that you have a solution to attain better micro level participation of citizens lets implement it. It is not necessary that IAC has to agree or for that matter anyone has to agree….there is room for every thought. Just as we also found some finger space…we have 12 wards where the people participated to have their own citizens consensus candidate. Now some sceptics will say ” will they win ” We say we at least started something. We did something to bring in the change. Like a child this movement will grow and attain strengths at the right age.
    Please do not construct my writing in any way as a criticism. It is more in the spirit of let each one of us do something to set things right. If we need to be of any voluntary help please let us know and we will be there.
    Best regards
    Raajesh Senha.

    1. Thanks for the inputs Raajesh and much appreciated. Its good to have your inputs from the field with Adolf. I am now particularly inactive from public life and so maybe not aware of the immediate reality but this much I will say that in my 15 + years of being active I have seen enough of these cycles of euphoric moments and people getting charged up and deciding to make a change and then its only a few in the front and everybody disappears. The Mithi floods is my favourite example. There was high voltage publicity and awareness. What happened? Atleast that effected almost everybody first hand. Its is only a few of us now who keep on almost a monthly basis being involved in a very weak manner for the lack of absolutely no new faces coming forward. I hope you get the drift. And mind you I will still not call myself a cynic – an optimist still but without romantic delusions about what people are.

  5. Rishi

    Corruption is a moral issue, whereas ‘issue of corrupt practices’ is a management issue. It is possible for people like you, me and us to fight corrupt practices and bring about transformation in a decent and purposeful time-frame. However addressing the former calls for a social transformation and generational change. So we should possibly attempt achievable or wish good luck to Generation ‘N’ !


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