Monday, July 4, 2011

Here's a wiser policy option for a bold PM: Bring 'outsiders' in, keep usurpers out

There was wit and there was a tit for every tat, but Manmohan Singh still did not get it right on what has grown into the make-or-break issue of our times – how to curb corruption. He did not debunk the civil society movement like his cabinet colleagues are doing, but he said that the Lokpal Bill would be no magic wand to solve the problem.

Nobody said it would. The issue is that 64 years of democracy have not only failed to pass meaningful laws against corruption but, manipulated by self-seeking politicians and bureaucrats, made effective prosecution of the guilty virtually impossible. This has to change which is what today's public clamour is all about.

A well-meaning government would have drawn inspiration from this public mood and taken reformative action. Instead, what we see is a systematic campaign to discredit the people's movement, employing everything from high-decibel propaganda to clandestine investigations by intelligence agencies. This throws the very intentions of the Government into doubt.

Between the suave Kapil Sibal and the cynically suave P. Chidambaram, there is plenty that can be said against “outsiders” trespassing into the law-making prerogatives of an elected Parliament. But it is empty rhetoric. For one thing, people who elect the elected Parliament are not outsiders; they are the masters. For another, elections have become a black-money game that throws legislatures open to charlatans of all kinds. Please do not say that the bribe-takers, exchequer-raiders and mafia types are the exceptions. The good ones are the exceptions.

To the kind of democracy and Parliament that have taken shape under decades of officially condoned corruption, decent and law-abiding citizens of India will always remain “outsiders”. The task is to bring the outsiders in from the cold and turn the usurpers into outsiders. Manmohan Singh had a historic opportunity to achieve this. But he appears to have lost it under the compulsions of narrow party politics – or could it be due to “those who aspire to be Prime Minister” as Justice Santosh Hegde intriguingly put it?

It will be easy for suave articulators of the Government to demolish the likes of Anna Hazare. But it will be a historical blunder for them to imagine that getting the better of the Hazares of the moment is the same as getting the better of the public anger sizzling across the country. The anger was ignited by the sudden exposure of a rush of mega corruption scandals from the 2G spectrum to the Commonwealth Games. The nation was stunned by the realisation that strutting VIPs were in fact plunderers. And perhaps murderers were not far behind if the unfolding drama of the “suicide” of Bacha, A. Raja's aide, is any indication.

Let the articulate apologists of the Government also know that this is a time of heightened expectations among Indians. It is a fact of history that when governments fail to meet the expectations of the people, unrest follows. In dictatorships, this takes a longer time, but it eventually does happen, countries like Libya and Syria being the newest examples.

That type of insurrections may not happen in India. But Naxalism has happened despite every effort by Chidambaram to annihilate it. The Jantar Mantar revolution happened. People's disgust with corruption is now out in the open. Well-accented television appearances by government leaders will not be enough to circumvent it. A bull-headed Government may snub civil society out of the way, but a sharp-eyed BJP will be there to squeeze every drop of advantage from the resulting crisis. Yet another toothless law against corruption may change the game itself.

This is no longer Indira Gandhi's India. Nor P.V.Narasimha Rao's or A.B.Vajpayee's. In today's prosperous, middleclass dominant India, old-style political engineering cannot work. Even contrived transparency cannot work. Look out, Sri Kapil Sibal, Sri Chidambaram, Sri Manmohan Singh, Smt. Sonia Gandhi, Sri Nitin Gadkari. Look out and see the new wind that is blowing.