India's Need for Tahrir Square

This time may yet be remembered as India's own spring. If it fails to happen, then it really will take a Tahrir Square to shake up the establishment and deliver meaningful change to the Indian people.
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In 2011 multiple corruption scandals implicated senior officials and cabinet ministers in India, involving sums of public money thought to be equivalent to almost one-quarter of India's GDP, and casting doubt on the public policy formation in sectors crucial to India's economic growth -- such as infrastructure and telecommunications. India's rapidly growing middle class emerged from its comfort zone to express outrage at this brazen public looting. Led by the Anna Hazare, a respected Gandhian social reformer, a national campaign by a group of social activists to establish a new and powerful anti-corruption body -- the Lok Pal -- has been underway for the past year.

In spite of the momentum created by the public display of anger, the proposed Lok Pal bill failed to become law in the winter session of parliament. Throughout the past year, there were fierce exchanges of accusations between the ruling Congress party and the main opposition (the BJP), and there remain very strong schisms among the country's influential and voluble civil society on whether or not any proposed new ombudsman is a sensible way to tackle corruption. For every Medha Patkar supporting Anna, there is an Arundhati Roy opposing him vociferously. To add to the confusion, there are at least two versions of the Lok Pal bill: the one introduced in Parliament by the government is universally considered weak and at best a half-measure, while the bill proposed by Anna and his associates raises serious practical issues, such as whether it is a good idea to create yet another powerful and ultimately autocratic body which may be accountable to no one.

Both sides have done a good job at alienating some of their supporters, as well as their opponents. For its part, the government ensured that the bill would be defeated as a result of its political machinations and predictable bureaucratic inefficiency. On the other side, Anna and his advisors also appear to have undermined their own movement by speaking too much, seemingly on every issue under the sun, and with rather intemperate and unbending rhetoric. Unless there is course correction, Anna Hazare risks being projected by the government as a crackpot rather than a messiah.

All this rush, rhetorical jousting and legislative gamesmanship has made the issue more befuddled and complicated to follow, perhaps providing the political class with a means of escaping from the dragnet. If this is India 's "Arab spring" then it is also uniquely Indian, in that there are circles within circles, hundreds of self-styled leaders who claim to be speaking on behalf of "the people", and a million mutinies instead of a single Tahrir Square. It is current proof -- as if any were needed -- that the Indian political process is at times its own worst enemy, and that entrenched self-interest combined with governing ineptitude ends up ruling the day -- even when the objective and purpose are so clearly defined and justifiable.

Despite these complications, the significance of Anna Hazare's campaign cannot be minimized, and should by all rights serve as the model for galvanizing public support in India and throughout the world. He has brought the issue of corruption into mainstream Indian political debate for the first time in more than a generation, and has succeeded in mobilizing India's urban middle class -- no small task. Unlike earlier major protest movements in the country, such as over caste-based job reservations or economic reforms, the issue of corruption has actually united rather than dividing different ideological, class, caste and demographic groups. At a very fundamental level, the roots of urban middle class anger are the same as the despair of Indian villagers that have led to the Maoist insurgency: terrible governance, stifling corruption, tremendous economic disparity and the total absence of any kind of urgency by the political class.

Official apathy has reached such alarming levels that more public money is spent on salaries or pensions of government employees, or on ministerial perks such as free houses and cars with flashy beacons, than on public health in India. In fact, it would be hard to find another democracy anywhere else in the world where bureaucrats -- an unelected, unrepresentative and essentially unanswerable elite -- have amassed so much power, privileges and entrenched immortality while hiding under the banner of 'governance.'

All of this inflames the Anna Hazare movement and makes it such a potent threat to the political establishment. The issue of corruption and governance is now likely to become the most animated political pivot in the near term, especially with five states in India scheduled for elections in the next two months. By taking the Gandhi family head-on and by name, and by associating corruption primarily with the Congress party, Anna has raised the stakes spectacularly for Congress, especially in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the country's most populous and politically important state. It is ironic that heir apparent to the Gandhi dynasty -- Rahul Gandhi -- has staked his own political fortunes on a state where the stakes are so high, and which might, if early reports from the ground are accurate, yet prove to be his Waterloo.

For some years now, there has been over-anticipation in the media and even worship within the Congress party of the notion of Rahul Gandhi's accession to the highest levels of power. A good result in the UP state elections, where he has been campaigning intensely for many months, was considered by most analysts as the appropriate starting point for his eventual elevation as the future prime minister of the country. In the current environment, a "good result" has now become that much more crucial for the Congress party, because anything less will be interpreted as a loss of face for the Gandhi family. The Anna factor has thrown a wrench into the carefully scripted Sonia/Rahul succession plan.

Should the Congress do poorly in UP, greater political and economic instability may await the country. The Congress is intrinsically populist by habit. Despite having some top economic brains and reformers in its fold, the Singh government has dispensed massive subsidies, loan waivers and other unsustainable sops over the last few years. India's overall fiscal deficit has increased to nearly 12 percent, an increase of 50 percent since 2004 when the Congress took over, and further subsidies enshrined in a proposed food security bill, a pet project of the Gandhis, now threaten to raise this much higher. Everyone knows that subsidies are profligate and unsustainable, but in the face of a poor result in the forthcoming state elections, sensible voices in the Congress will most likely be overruled.

More broadly, the strange twists and turns of this anti-corruption campaign have allowed for a closer inspection of India's fabled democracy, and it is not the pretty picture Indians usually acclaim. Yes, India votes often, does vote in large numbers, and its poor do indeed vote the most. But India also has a habit of kicking out incumbent governments. All this should and does make Indians proud, especially given the neighborhood of failing or autocratic states in which India finds itself. On the other hand, there is also an absence of civilized debate and compromise in the Indian public sphere, with the focus instead being on how to outmaneuver each other. Of late, many elements of Indian media and civil society appear to have been co-opted into the power elite, and a recent scandal -- still unsolved -- involving an influential corporate lobbyist and many senior journalists has led to disturbing questions being raised about how independent the Indian media truly is.

In the end, Indian democracy remains mired in personality cult, secretive deal-making and cheap demagoguery. An American analyst once said that Indian democracy appears to represent the people without adequately serving them. A strong anti-corruption watchdog, whether as proposed by Anna or as conceived by others, may yet change some of that. The anti-corruption platform is a very good start toward re-fashioning Indian democracy and governance, but ultimately Indians will need to demand more fundamental political change in the country, especially in the social contract between them and their elected leaders. If that were to happen, then this time may yet be remembered as India's own spring. If it fails to happen, then it really will take a Tahrir Square to shake up the establishment and deliver meaningful change to the Indian people.

*Subhash Agrawal is a political risk consultant based in New Delhi and editor of India Focus. Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the forthcoming book Managing Country Risk (March 2012).

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