Anna factor: Govt just doesn’t get it
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. When it comes to corruption and the public mood, this government – and perhaps the political class as a whole – just doesn’t get it.
Let’s take the things that the government’s people are saying off the record.
They are claiming that they can’t understand why educated Indians do not see through Anna Hazare and his movement. Do people not see how discredited the leaders of the movement are? Kiran Bedi has been dogged by allegations of impropriety and irresponsible behavior throughout her career. The circumstances of Arvind Kejriwal’s resignation from government service remain murky. It is not clear why Shanti Bhushan needed to be chairman of a committee when his son was already a member. Is there nobody else in civil society who can take his place? What about the Bhushan family’s controversial land allocation in UP? Is civil society really willing to be led by Prashant Bhushan who has sympathy for Maoists and Kashmiri separatists?
Further, add government sources, Anna Hazare’s own credentials are suspect. He may well have a following in his village based on the work he has done over the years. But does he really have a world view that the rest of us want to subscribe to? Can 21st century India afford to look up to a man who believes that anybody who drinks should be tied to a tree and flogged?
And, they go on, what about the intransigence of Hazare’s people? Most of them are now so drunk on their new-found fame that they cannot bear to settle with the government. They want to be eternal protestors, media-created public heroes who have brought the government to its knees. They will not agree to any compromise. They will not respect the authority of Parliament. And they even believe, in Arvind Kejriwal’s words, that Anna Hazare is above the Constitution.
How can we, as educated Indians, not see through these people and be so committed to their cause?
I have no quarrel with some of the things the government is saying. I would not be as harsh on the leaders of India Against Corruption (I am sorry but I am not going to call them Team Anna, as though they are a girls’ volleyball team) and I would argue that they have been subjected to a deliberate campaign of attack. But yes, I do concede that they are not perfect. I accept also that they have come to love the limelight and can be maddeningly intransigent.
But here’s where the government doesn’t get it: most people I know recognise the weaknesses within the Hazare movement. Ordinary Indians are not the babes in the wood that the government thinks we are. Most people do recognise that the Hazare group has conflicting views and agendas. And while there is widespread respect for Anna Hazare’s sincerity, this respect does not necessarily extend to all his followers.
The government’s problem is that it does not realise that even though we know all this, even though we are aware of the weaknesses in the India Against Corruption team and are as worried by its intransigence, we will still not take the side of the political class as a whole, let alone the government of the day.
And there is a good reason for this: corruption.
Every Indian faces the scourge of corruption today. If you buy a house anywhere in India, you will have to pay bribes just to get the normal things done: registration of property, installation of utilities, etc.
If you run a business, you will be at the mercy of a multiplicity of clearance authorities who will rip you off on a regular basis. If you run a shop or a retail establishment of any kind, you will have to pay hafta to the local police station. And so on.
It’s all very well to go on about A Raja and corrupt ministers. Yes, of course, there is corruption at the top level and it shames us as a nation. But the real reason why there is so much public anger over corruption is not because some fat cat took a huge kickback, it is because none of us can live our lives as ordinary law-abiding citizens without being hit again and again for bribes and hafta.
It was always true that if you did something wrong you could buy your way out of trouble by paying bribes. We learnt to live with this.
But what’s happened now is that even if you have done nothing wrong, even if you’ve lived an exemplary life, you still have to pay bribes.
Even your ordinary entitlements as a citizen of India are denied to you unless you have greased the palm of some government servant.
And there’s nothing you can do about it because the system is rotten from top to bottom.
That’s why there is so much frustration over corruption. And that’s why the India Against Corruption movement is touching a chord with educated Indians.
When the movement took off, the government could have done one of three things. It could have ignored it. It could have engaged with Hazare’s people. Or, it could have taken note of the public anger and finally tried to do something on its own to fight corruption.
It chose to try a mixture of the first and second options. When it was no longer possible to ignore the movement, it decided to grant Kejriwal, Bhushan and Bedi the status of unelected representatives of the Indian middle class and to negotiate with them. Quite apart from the fact that it was not clear why these three deserved the recognition (especially as the same government is now busy rubbishing them), the government also made the mistake of letting India Against Corruption choose the battle-field: its draft of the Lokpal Bill.
Once that decision had been made, the battle was over and the government had lost before a single shot was fired. We know now that the India Against Corruption people will not accept anything other than their own draft. And even if the government gives in on that, they will launch another campaign (right to recall, right to reject, etc.) that will land the government in yet another mess. Having lost the first battle, the government is now fated to lose the war.
A sensible government would have seen beyond the individuals and addressed the root causes of public anger. It would have made some attempt to understand middle-class frustrations and would have introduced anti-corruption measures of its own.
Instead, it chose to act as though the problem was not corruption but
Anna Hazare. Foolishly, it believed that Hazare could be managed and that the movement would go away.
Not only was this a serious miscalculation, it was also an insult to all educated Indians. We have a genuine grievance. Our right to lead law-abiding lives is regularly violated by governmental corruption.
And we were entitled to seek some genuine redressal.
Instead, all we got was a pointless and ultimately futile negotiation between the tired old faces of the government and the new suddenly famous faces of India Against Corruption.
And nothing changed.
If you don’t believe me, ask around. Ask anybody who runs a business if, during the year when this anti-corruption frenzy has raged, people have stopped asking him for bribes. Check with anyone who runs a shop.
Has the police station stopped demanding hafta? Find out from anyone who has dealt with a government office. Have the peons stopped asking for bribes? Are the clerks moving files without having their palms greased?
The short answer to all of those questions will be no. As far as corruption goes, it is still business as usual.
The tragedy is that the political establishment seems indifferent to the plight of the ordinary Indian. Instead of fighting corruption at the level where it affected ordinary people, it has spent a whole year engaging in useless and inconclusive negotiations with Kiran Bedi and Co.
So, when the government now comes to us and says that the credentials of the people it has dealt with are suspect or that Anna Hazare has some bizarre views, I don’t really care.
Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan, Kiran Bedi and gang were never my representatives. I didn’t elect them and I certainly did not empower them to act on my behalf. It was the government that gave them legitimacy and made them famous.
My concern – and the concern of millions of ordinary Indians – is with the corruption that prevents me from leading an honest life even when
I have done nothing wrong and want no more than the things that I am entitled to as a citizen of India.
That’s why I don’t care what the government thinks of Kejriwal and gang or their draft or their intransigence. I care only about being able to live my life in a corruption-free society.
But the problem – as I said at the beginning – is that the government just doesn’t get it.