The Story of the ‘India Against Corruption’ campaign

Members of civil society during their anti corruption campaign with Anna Hazare at the Center

A lot has been said about it in the press and media, whether one may like it or not the anti corruption legislation – the lokpal bill virtually dominates the headlines today. A stroke of luck or accident whatever one may call it, the fast unto death undertaken by the Gandhian social activist, Anna Hazare, transformed this once obsolete figure in a Gandhian cap into a media star overnight. At last the Indian middle classes had found their man to take on an issue that had so dominated their minds – corruption (as if other issues did not matter) and they showered him with all the support that they could muster, from social networking sites to the the corporate controlled media, all fell gung ho upon him.

A new kind of civil society was born. Here were the new crusaders who have pledged their oath to rid society of that one problem which according to them was responsible for India’s backwardness and it was only they alone who would lead India in the 21st century as a corruption free nation. Among its leading lights the tough, incorruptible and now a corporate media showpiece, the former police women (IPS officer) Kiran Bedi, the father and son duo, Shanti and Prashant Bhushan – both lawyers adept in legal skills, a retired Supreme court Judge and now the Karnataka Lokayukta chief, Santosh Hegde famed for taking on the mining mafia in Karnataka, and Arvind Kejriwal, the NGO fixer and the brain behind the India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign.

And lest we forget, the campaign had all the divine blessings of two billionaire yoga gurus, one a Sri Sri Ravi Shankar – a corporate yoga guru, whose Art of Living (or art of deceiving?) tailor made for Indian corporate citizenry, and Baba Ramdev, among his many tall claims, the cure for cancer, AIDS and homosexuality through his yoga. About Anna Hazare himself, he had all the characteristics of a Gandhian, a teetotaler, a celibate, a life of social service, firmly apolitical and a penchant for fasting when the government refused to hear his pleas. But alas, success had so far eluded him until at last Indian elite rediscovered him as Gandhi’s second coming.

Rocked by scandals after scandals, the hue and cry by the media, an old man trying to emulate Gandhi and support of the youth and middle classes behind the campaign, government of the day trembled and gave in without much of a fight. And so was to be realized, a solution to India’s 60 year old problem, a law, an anti corruption legislation passed through Parliament approval (Lokpal Bill) creating an ombudsman overseeing all the corruption cases. The second surprise, invitation of civil society to draft the lokpal bill along with government representatives. A dream come true indeed, never had the so called civil society ever imagined dictating its terms and conditions to the government and getting away with it all. Or so they thought.

In one stroke, the civil society had rendered the opposition in the parliament toothless, leaving the BJP, the left and the remnants of the Janata factions reduced to mere spectators in the whole drama. The political machinery was livid. The matters did not help with many civil society members overreacting blaming the politicians for everything that is wrong in the country calling for death penalties and other draconian measures to combat corruption. And so government machination got together to undo the mess it found itself entangled into.

You see these members of civil society were no ordinary mortals, among them were men (and women) of high ambition. Nor did this group share the same set of ideals that would have kept them united against an almost daily onslaught by the government. In their pursuit to reach out to as many number of people as possible (which the civil society could never muster themselves due to their apathy to politics altogether), they enrolled among their ranks a fake yoga guru – Baba Ramdev who had build an empire worth thousands of crores, claiming millions of followers throughout India and close connections to the communal elements such as the RSS, VHP etc.

Competition among Civil Society on who should lead the Campaign. Cartoon: Satish Acharya

Emboldened by the success of Hazare camp, Baba Ramdev wanted a piece (if not the whole) of the action. He announced to the world at large that he would launch his own indefinite fast in June against corruption, this time over the issue of black money stashed away in Swiss accounts estimated to be trillions of dollars. The government as usual bungled. First they tried to buy him off by receiving him in manner worth of foreign dignitaries with a cortège of ministers at his feet. But the yoga guru proved to be as slippery as ever. So the government decided to use force against him and his followers during his fast at the Ramlila Maidan, Delhi. Ironically, this ill conceived act of the government actually proved to be Baba Ramdev’s own undoing, firstly by a cowardly act of trying to run away from the police in women’s clothing!

Apart from ending into an media spectacle, the whole issue hardly got much support from the ordinary masses who doubted Baba Ramdev shady character, an unaccountable empire and reverence for media spotlight which knew no bounds. The only solace the Baba found was among his fellow travelers in the BJP and the RSS. The BJP had at last found an issue to take on the government. They charged the government for creating an emergency era situation, a Jallianwalla Bagh etc etc, and Baba Ramdev became their new show mascot. But the issue proved to be a non starter and given Baba Ramdev’s instinct for unpredictability (which proved to be very handy for the government), a government threat to crackdown on his yoga empire; the Baba finally ended his fast and there the matter has rested ever since.

Meanwhile the civil society were not making much progress either in their talks with government on drafting the lokpal bill. The government was not willing to concede to civil society’s demand for a strong lokpal bill and instead is preparing the way for a much diluted version of the same. And then there was the slur campaign against some of the civil society members accusing them of corruption. Finally the Ramdev episode had firmly divided the civil society camp with no consistent stance emerging on how to deal with the Frankenstein monster for which they themselves are to blame. With the government firmly in the saddle once again and the civil society cornered on all the sides, Anna Hazare has once again pledged to go on a indefinite fast from 16th August if the government fails to pass a strong Lokpal bill as demanded by civil society. Here the story ends for now, first as a tragedy, second as a farce and who knows what next?

So where does this leave our anti corruption crusaders? With all the media glare and coverage, one might ask this simple question: what really went wrong? Blaming the government will not solve the problem. The government was never really interested in solving anything and never will be except for a few token gestures. The whole problem actually lies in the civil society’s definition of corruption. To this elite crowd of self appointed spokesperson against corruption, corruption merely meant paying bribes to government officials to obtain public services and siphoning of public money by the politician – bureaucratic nexus for private as well as political gains. It never went into the root causes of corruption that lay in the unequal distribution of wealth among the elite capitalist and landlords through their control of resources and political power which has ruined the country in every way. The movement never really went beyond the standard definition of corruption which suited them just as well and their campaign sponsors, which included the big corporates.

Secondly, the solution to this whole problem – a law to combat corruption. The civil society had reduced the entire issue to a law and order problem rather than a problem linked to society. With a firm belief that the problem can be solved by some elite technocrats in New Delhi, they virtually set aside the role of the ordinary masses in combating corruption or even running society for that matter and looking upon them merely for outside support. By completely ruling out a political struggle against corruption linking it to corporate capitalism and landlordism, and by merely concentrating on symptoms of the disease, drafting of a bill and a firm distaste towards politics or even political alternatives, they removed the edge of their campaign which could have brought millions onto the streets and wage a successful struggle against the real corruption of corporate capitalism and landlordism in India.