The Corruption Joke, Pal!

30/08/2016 4:13 PM IST | Updated 31/08/2016 8:23 AM IST
Ahmad Masood / Reuters

When is the last time you remember a prime-time debate or a newspaper headline or an internet mast-head featuring that septuagenarian anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare? My personal guesstimate is not even once in the last four years. In fact, he rarely inspires even a cursory mention in the inside-pages any more. And this was the same man who brought the nondescript village of Ralegan Siddhi on the global map and had hyperventilating marquee TV editors queue up almost obsequiously for his coveted words of wisdom. Today, he has been contemptuously dumped by the same serenading media. Of course, practically no one ever mentions what had become then the national shibboleth -- the Lokpal Bill. What has led to Hazare's ignominious fall and the dramatic disappearance of the Lokpal Bill from public memory? Was that self-righteous brouhaha just a deadly political game in clever disguise?

Truth be told, it was not a movement, it was just a moment.

India reacted with its typical hyperbole. "The second Gandhi is born" it was announced as Anna Hazare started an indefinite fast to press for the passing of an anti-corruption legislation called Jan Lok Pal. While many were genuinely concerned, affected by the overwhelming oppressiveness of graft in India, there were others who chanted, "Off with their heads", including an indignant bunch sporting Armani's latest perfume. Suddenly everyone believed one anti-corruption bill would be the panacea to all our problems of bribes and cash transactions. The year 2011 was one of incandescent hysteria, with its own distinctive political personality. Technically, the UPA lost the general elections in 2014, but the writing was on the wall in 2011. Hazare scripted it, a certain Arvind Kejriwal & co were its lead performers. Narendra Modi would have the last laugh.

It is an altogether different proposition, though, that what was purportedly meant to be an organized effort by civil society to pressurize the government into immediate action, turned into a circus with an incongruous assortment of Bollywood celebrities and other wannabe Page 3 aspirants becoming its principal participants. There was no smell of jasmine in the air, only Chanel. Worse, vitriolic fury was on high supply by dubious political prop-groups, and the shockingly condescending supposed guardians themselves, under the mistaken belief that Jantar Mantar was the next Tahrir Square. That only exacerbated matters. Truth be told, it was not a movement, it was just a moment. Hazare, considered by many to be a genuine advocate of reform, was overnight branded as the next Mahatma Gandhi, which I frankly thought was an extraordinarily garbled comparative assessment. Clearly, the majority did not know much about Mahatma Gandhi. I don't think many do even now.

I remember the ordinary mortals of Bihar lamenting their grievous misfortunes in the early 1980s: "They are corrupt in Maharashtra and Gujarat also, but at least they do some work. Here they do nothing." In a nutshell, political corruption and systemic bribery were seen as necessary evils of our social ecosystem. In IPO road-shows abroad, a constant query was on India's fixed "10%" under-hand earnings not reflected in PE ratios. But now suddenly our otherwise dormant national sub-consciousness had transformed into inflammatory anger, and though it had boiled over into a bizarre plate, it was inevitable. The middle-class appeared less moderate, less muddled; corruption bothered them.

Kejriwal maintains a studious silence on the Lokpal Bill. So does Modi. Ironically, these were the two direct huge political beneficiaries of the 2011 agitation.

There were two principal reasons behind the Jantar Mantar mélange; one, flagrant inequalities even within the expanded definition of the middle-class, and, two, the widespread perception that several listed billionaires and thousands of unlisted millionaires had increased their net worth through rent-seeking and crony capitalism. That several governments and political parties, both at the Centre and in the states, were surreptitiously supporting the "suit-boots" at the cost of public assets. It is a valid concern. The pent-up fury was understandable. Disturbingly, it is a world-wide phenomenon; a mere 6000 politicians, chief executives, and other bigwigs effectively run the world. Of the world's 100 largest economic entities, 63 are corporations, not countries. The world's richest 1% possesses half the wealth in the globe. Inequality has an adverse effect on political standards. Hence the dramatic upsurge in national protests across different parts of the globe on issues that affect the common person. Hence, Occupy Wall-Street. Hence Brexit. Hence the sudden surge of anti-globalization all over the world. Hence Donald Trump.

Everyone agrees that corruption harms growth. The collusion between the tripod of big business, politics and bureaucracy has corroded governance. The resulting corruption has impacted social infrastructure, the quality of life of the deprived and destitute, and the services provided by the State. Corruption is a tax levied on the poorest of the poor. Since practically all political parties have had an occasional golden handshake with corruption, it was ludicrous that some were engaging in moral grandstanding, shooting from the shoulders of Hazare. Corruption also does incalculable damage as it lowers efficiency, and worse, human morale. There is a humongous percolation effect, and the hapless scapegoat is finally the traffic constable who gets nasty jibes for those fifty bucks he casually sneaks into his khaki trousers. That's why poor countries remain poor. That's why Indonesia is not Singapore despite such neighbourhood proximity. And that's why Argentina, once a prosperous cousin, became a basket-case while America blossomed into a global El Dorado. The UPA can take pride in the fact that it introduced powerful legislations to combat corruption in Parliament besides the watershed RTI and Lokpal Bill; the Whistleblower Bill, Citizen Grievance Redressal bill, Public Procurement Bill, and Judicial Accountability Bill, amongst others.

Hazare is history. The Panama Papers are gathering moth-holes. Everything is forgotten. Life rolls on. India's gravy-train express, I assume, is on high speed.

For a $2 trillion economy that has apparently $450 billion sitting in foreign bank accounts it means that our real national income has been scrupulously punctured. India's underground economy exists in serene harmony with that of honest taxpayers because of shoddy governance and political patronage of big-ticket corporate czars. Vijay Mallya may be the poster-boy of non-performing assets (NPAs) today, but the real astronomical offenders are still getting red-carpet welcomes in political functions. Unless we take strong steps, India might experience a lower rate of kickbacks and bribe fees, but the problem will linger on still like an incurable infection. Moreover, even if the Lokpal Bill is a crucial milestone, it is by itself just a deterrent, and does not ensure infallible execution. The fact is that we are lazy in tackling corruption. Evidently, no one is in a hurry.

Intriguingly, no one in the BJP-led NDA talks of the Lokpal Bill anymore (passed by the UPA in 2013). Arvind Kejriwal maintains a studious silence. So does PM Narendra Modi. Ironically, these were the two direct huge political beneficiaries of the 2011 agitation. The electronic media has since then switched on to more attractive issues. And all those candle-burning types do not even express angst on social media. Hazare is history. The Panama Papers are gathering moth-holes. Everything is forgotten. Life rolls on. India's gravy-train express, I assume, is on high speed.

The author is national spokesperson of the Indian National Congress Party. The views expressed are his own.

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