India’s Anti-graft Protests: Why Demands for Inclusiveness are Not a Distraction From Fighting Corruption

In this article, the author brings to light some of the criticism that the Anna Hazare led anti-corruption agitation is facing on counts of not being inclusive enough.

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By Arvind Iyer, 5 Jan, 2012

Team Anna, as the group of largely ex-bureaucrat activists headed by anti-graft agitator Anna Hazare has been christened by commentators, had earned praise through much of 2011 for being able to articulate a unanimous-sounding consensus of Indian civil society across the barriers that render it notoriously fractious. Even some of their detractors had conceded Team Anna’s success in rallying a typically apathetic citizenry around a cause backed by a mobilization and momentum which is thought of by many educated city-dwellers as grievously lacking in a parliamentary system crippled by the ‘politics of identity’ and coalition compulsions.

By the year-end however, the response to Anna Hazare’s latest edition of his hunger-strike protest was underwhelming and the growing unease with an apparent authoritarian streak in Team Anna became palpable. What was just months ago one of the most successful campaigns in recent Indian history looked no less dysfunctional than the Parliament it takes potshots at. The dilemmas of ‘Coalition Dharma’ which complicate governance in India are no less applicable to Team Anna if it claims to represent Indian society in its identity. The manufactured unanimity of Team Anna seems sustained by a self-assured insularity from dissenting voices, which if heeded would give Team Anna pause. This is in part because activists besides the telegenic Team Anna get scanty mainstream media coverage, thus creating an illusion of nationwide consensus. Following are some voices which ought to give Team Anna and its supporter’s pause, if not from their legislation-obsessed agitation, at least from their repeated accusations of their critics as divisive and unpatriotic.

  • Team Anna’s way of addressing concerns about inclusiveness have been transparently stage-managed and tokenist. Shekhar Gupta, the editor of the Indian Express daily, writes: “Representative inclusiveness, they probably believed, was part of our cynical electoral politics though that did not stop them from having a Dalit and a Muslim girl help Anna break his fast, making it the first time that a child was described as “Dalit” on a public stage in a mass rally.” The photo-op which seems to have been hastily ‘Photoshopped’ on to a movement largely indifferent to concerns of diversity, also raised concerns among some viewers about the unintended consequences of religious labeling of children.

  • The boundaries of ‘peaceful protest’ are always in the risk of being breached by Team Anna’s implicit endorsement of elements whose commitment towards adhering to constitutional propriety and prevention of civil unrest, seems questionable. A case in point is a black-flag demonstration against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by alleged supporters of Team Anna, during his New Year visit to the Golden Temple at Amritsar. The choice of protest venue in Amritsar was irresponsible for the obvious reason that it could potentially open the wounds left by the upheavals of the 1980s in the said shrine, which is viewed by a significant portion of the said community as a site of a government assault on their faith. If this irresponsible choice of protest venue did not lead to something untoward, it is in part due to the unimpressive numbers of the protestors and the overwhelming security presence. Better civic sense is expected of a movement supposedly representing ‘Civil Society’ than such an exacerbating of security concerns. Also, a better explanation is expected from Team Anna than doublespeak simultaneously defending and disowning supporters, if it is to retain its credentials as movement insisting on public probity.

  • When it is well-known that India suffers more from lack of enforcement of existing laws than the absence of laws in statute books, the Lok Pal model is inordinately obsessed with augmenting the lists of penalties, leaving intact the slackness of enforcement and lack of transparency that provide the opportunity for corruption in the first place. Also, an informer-rewarding ‘police-state’ that the proposed Jan Lok Pal regime resembles, may have the side-effect of inducing officials to recruit and reward officials who are pliable and willing to exchange favours for silence, thus exacerbating inequities like nepotism and workplace discrimination in government offices which affect delivery of service to citizens besides graft.

  • Inclusiveness has rightly been part of the national agenda at least in letter if not in spirit and Team Anna’s attitude towards mechanisms of inclusiveness has been either indifferent or borderline hostile. There has been a tendency among Team Anna supporters in online discussions to accuse anyone raising concerns about inclusiveness of playing ‘identity politics’ and being establishment lackeys. A case for critics of government intervention for inclusiveness to consider, is this measure by the Karnataka government for inclusive hiring in school-meal kitchens. A point to ponder for critics of the ‘politics of representation’ is, would people divided by caste have voluntary chosen to mingle in a school kitchen without that nudge from the elected government?

  • Team Anna’s vision of an India which, far from its professed aim of ‘Direct Democracy’ involves a replication of the Ralegan Siddhi model nationwide i.e. a series of ‘Ashram-cracies’ revolving around a patriarch, in a proto-industrial setting with curtailed civil liberties, is a vision that does not resonate with much of India’s aspirational youth.

  • Land acquisition policies and resulting displacements, the denuding of natural resources by a corporate-political nexus and imposition of near-martial-law conditions in some parts via the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, are contributing on at least as large a scale as government corruption in disenfranchising citizens and even turning some towards insurrections; thus calling into question Team Anna’s description of corruption as the greatest national risk which must be fought mindless of all others.

In the interest of genuinely playing their legitimate and very timely role as a civil-society group, this is an opportune moment for Team Anna to introspect on how their protests can sometimes be counterproductive, how the loose cannons among their supporters can be appropriately restrained and marshalled and how to broaden their dwindling base of support.

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