Posts Tagged ‘Corporate Power’

Converging agendas: Team Anna and the Indian Right (Rohini Hensman)

In Perspective on September 19, 2011 at 6:50 am

From: Infochange News & Features, September 2011

Anna Hazare’s authoritarianism, the lack of any whiff of democracy in the village he rules, the crushing of dissent, his ultra-nationalism and his belief in caste hierarchy, suggest a convergence of his agenda and worldview with that of the right-wing, says Rohini Hensman Anna Hazare Against Corruption

When Anna Hazare ended his second fast for the Jan Lokpal Bill (JLB), his followers and the media claimed that his campaign was an unqualified success. Hazare himself was more circumspect, but his promise that he would move on to electoral reform and other issues suggested that he too felt he had scored a victory. But has he?

Most people thronging to demonstrate in support of his demands thought that the campaign was a straightforward one against corruption, but it was both more and less than that. More, because the demand of Team Anna was that parliament should pass their particular bill, the Jan Lokpal Bill, by a particular date; and less, because it defined corruption in a superficial manner.

Team Anna certainly won the first round, given the government’s inability to read the public mood. By first presenting a bill so weak that it made a mockery of the idea of curbing corruption, and then resorting to preventive arrests of Anna and his close associates, it helped to mobilise massive crowds against itself. At this point in the proceedings, it was easy for a casual observer to feel that the campaign was standing up not only for a strong law against corruption but also for freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, which were being crushed by a government bent on negating all democratic rights and freedoms. Indeed, this is what many people out on the streets believed. Who would want to oppose such a campaign? But, ironically, as the government backtracked, giving permission for the fast and initiating a public consultation on the Lokpal Bill, it regained some legitimacy, while the Hazare campaign, as it became increasingly aggressive, lost it. The government wisely agreed to a formula that would allow Hazare to break his fast without losing face, but even a cursory examination of the terms of that agreement make it clear that it was a major retreat for India Against Corruption (IAC) from their earlier hardline stand. Why were they forced to back down?

An authoritarian bill backed by the RSS

Questions were raised about the dangerously authoritarian character of the bill they were backing, with its creation of an unaccountable, unelected body that would have the power to tap phones, intercept emails, and remove every government functionary from the Prime Minister and Chief Justice to the lowest peon. Access to judicial review for those targeted by this all-powerful body would be meaningless, given its power to remove judges it did not like. By defining corruption as the disease rather than seeing it as merely a symptom of a deeper disease – power without accountability, power to commit crimes with impunity – the JLB was a formula to introduce a new source of corruption rather than eliminating it. It was also, potentially, an assault on India’s democratic institutions, one heightened by the demand that either the law should be passed by parliament by August 30, or the government should quit. This ultimatum ruled out any possibility of pre-legislative discussion and debate of the two bills, or consideration of other proposals like those of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) which had successfully campaigned for what has turned out to be the country’s most effective tool of transparency to date, the Right to Information (RTI) Act. And the demand that a parliament elected by hundreds of millions should quit because a few hundred thousand people claiming to represent ‘civil society’ were demanding it mocked the conception of democracy. Where the RTI Act had put power to combat corruption into the hands of ordinary citizens, the JLB seeks to concentrate this power in the hands of a super-powerful state institution.

The enthusiastic participation of the RSS and other members of the Sangh Parivar also disturbed many. During the second fast in August, the backdrop of Bharat Mata was replaced by Mahatma Gandhi and RSS members were kept away from the dais, but the cries of ‘Vande Mataram!’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki jai!’ continued to be as frequent as before. Sushma Swaraj claimed openly that the RSS was mobilising for the protest [1], and the VHP told the media it provided free food – a major crowd-puller – for 20,000 protesters. These proclamations are discounted by some on the Left, who argue that the RSS would naturally try to claim credit for any mass movement. However, this isn’t true. Bigger crowds were reported at the protests against the nuclear tests in 1998, hundreds of thousands of workers have marched in protests against the attack on labour rights, but the Sangh Parivar did not try to claim credit for them because they did not identify with the cause. In this case they did, and the reason is not hard to find. A campaign against narrowly-defined corruption in a government not controlled by them, a demand that the government should either pass a law setting up a super-state they could easily control or else quit, suited them perfectly. They were not trying to capture the movement: it was tailor-made for them.

Both the authoritarian character of the bill and RSS backing for the IAC can be explained by the characteristics of the leadership of the movement and the movement itself.

The leaders

The ‘civil society’ panel that drafted and negotiated with the government over the Jan Lokpal Bill consisted of Anna Hazare, Santosh Hegde, Shanti Bhushan, Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal. Anna Hazare himself, projected as the leader of the campaign, hails from Ralegan Siddhi, a village in Maharashtra. As a detailed study of his village by Mukul Sharma (well summarised by Yogi Sikand) reveals, he holds absolute power in it: there have been no gram panchayat elections for the last 24 years, nor even elections to cooperatives, and no campaigning is allowed during state or national elections. Just as a mother is entitled to slap her child (according to him), he feels he is entitled to use coercion or violence against those who infringe his rules. Alcohol is banned, and anyone taking it is tied to a pole and flogged. Although he opposes untouchability, dalits are supposed to follow the occupation dictated by their caste, and have been forced to adopt vegetarianism. In a streak of puritanism reminiscent of the Taliban, satellite dishes, cable TV and any music other than bhajans are banned [2]. The comparison with Gandhi by dim-witted mediapersons is belied by his calls for the death penalty [3].

None of these journalists thought it fit to ask how he could campaign for the right to reject and recall candidates if he doesn’t recognise the right to elect candidates in the first place, and contemptuously dismisses the average voter as prone to being bought by liquor, saris or cash! Nor did they think to ask: If he is so keen on electoral reform, why not implement it in his village as an experiment? Why not propose reform in electoral funding, so that the disgruntled 10% can put up their own candidate, instead of rejecting all candidates and disrupting elections time and again at enormous cost to the taxpayer and political stability? What exactly should be the conditions under which candidates can be recalled?

The striking authoritarianism of Hazare’s outlook, the lack of any whiff of democracy in the village he rules as an absolute dictator, and his belief in caste hierarchy, all make him amenable to the politics of the Sangh Parivar. But the relationship goes much deeper. Some of his staunchest supporters were shocked when he held up Narendra Modi as a model for other chief ministers to emulate [4]. He later clarified he was opposed to communalism, but this does not explain why he chose to praise a man who orchestrated the massacre of thousands of innocents. Bribery need not always take the form of money; it can also take the form of promotions, appointments to sinecures, etc. The promotion of police officers who had participated in the Gujarat pogroms and victimisation of those who had done their job by trying to prevent the slaughter are among the worst forms of corruption.

Even in the narrower sense of corruption adopted by Team Anna, Gujarat has a shameful record. As Mallika Sarabai pointed out in her letter to Hazare, “irrigated farmlands have been stealthily taken by the government and sold off at ridiculous prices to a small club of industrialists. There has been no Lokayukta in Gujarat for nearly seven years so hundreds of complaints against corruption are lying unheard. From the Sujalam Sufalam scam of Rs 1,700 crore to the NREGS boribund scam of Rs 109 crore, the fisheries scam of Rs 600 crore, every department is involved in thousands of crores of scams…The state is in terrible debt because of his largesse to industry while 21 lakh farmers wait for compensation” [5].

So what made Anna give Modi such a glowing character-reference? This cannot be explained simply by any apparent naivety. If Hazare was so effusive about Modi, it was because their worldviews and agendas converged. Two points in particular are worth noting. One is the extremely complimentary comments by top RSS leaders about Ralegan Siddhi, likening it to Ram Rajya and organising tours of it for their activists, as well as organising programmes in support of him; and the other is the decision taken by the RSS in its all-India leaders’ meeting in March 2011 – before Anna’s fast in April – to launch a campaign against corruption [6] The impression of converging agendas is confirmed by L K Advani’s announcement of a rath yatra against corruption [7] and Team Anna’s deafening silence concerning Modi’s patently corrupt attempt to appoint a Lokayukta who had acquitted all the accused in the Best Bakery massacre, and therefore could be trusted to toe the state government line [8].

Two other members of the drafting team also have relationships with the Sangh Parivar. Arvind Kejriwal maintained close links with BJP MPs during the agitation as well as drawing in gurus soft on Hindutva such as Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar [6]. His association with the anti-reservationist Youth for Equality created revulsion among dalits, as did his dismissal of their suggestion that there should be a dalit on the drafting committee on the grounds that legal specialists were needed to draft a law (as though dalits were incapable of drafting laws, regardless of the fact that the Indian Constitution was drafted by one!) [9]. And Justice Santosh Hegde, whose father was all-India vice-President of the BJP, just last year referred to L K Advani (of the infamous Ram Janmabhoomi rath yatra that resulted in the demolition of the Babri Masjid and slaughter of thousands of Muslims) as a ‘father figure’ [10].

The right-wing bias of these three members of the JLB drafting committee explains why it leaves out NGOs from its ambit, since inclusion of NGOs would be a blow to massive outfits like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (already accused of illegal land acquisition [11]) and Baba Ramdev’s offshore financial transactions. It also explains why most dalit, adivasi and minority-rights activists stayed away from the movement, fearing that the JLB’s definition of ‘corruption’ would target the beneficiaries of affirmative action as well as members of the legislature and judiciary who supported attempts to level the playing field for sections of the population suffering discrimination.

The fourth member of the team, Shanti Bhushan, is a corporate lawyer whose most high-profile case in recent years has been that of Novartis versus the Cancer Patients Aid Association [12]. Novartis is attempting to prevent the production of generic versions of imatinib mesylate (an anti-leukemia drug) beyond the period of its original patent by a process called ‘ever-greening’, whereby a minor change in the form of a drug is used to renew its patent. In this particular case, it would mean that a life-saving drug would only be available at the Novartis price of Rs 120,000 per month instead of being made available by Indian companies for Rs 8,000 per month, obviously a death sentence for all leukemia patients other than the super-rich. In other words, Shanti Bhushan was hired by Novartis to argue that a company’s right to profit trumps the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution [13]. Bhushan Sr’s professional dealings with his corporate clients explains why corporations are left out of the Jan Lokpal Bill. This curious omission is also why companies like Jindal Aluminium, a company that tried to silence critics of its illegal mining activities with a false defamation suit [14], are willing to back the Anna movement with substantial donations [15]. It is also why the corporate media could abandon any pretence of objectivity and play an active role in promoting the movement [16]. For all of these power elites (big business, mass media), the solution to corruption is to privatise everything, minimise state regulation of private capital, and terminate even inadequate social security and welfare schemes like NREGA. They would like to secure their privileges (for which they now have to pay bribes) without paying bribes. Anything that cuts into their right to make money constitutes corruption.

These neoliberal underpinnings of the JLB have been criticised by many left-wing commentators and one important trade union federation. As the New Trade Union Initiative points out, “the fight against corruption must include demands for legislation and effective implementation of the laws that govern capital alongside rigorous and stringent implementation of the laws that govern work, the provision of social security and social protection, and all laws that provide working people access to their basic needs. Corruption necessarily flows from above and is deeply rooted in how capital seeks to maximise profits and not merely a product of corrupt civil servants or a grasping political class” [17]. While it might not be feasible for the Lokpal to monitor all NGOs and companies, in cases where a politician or bureaucrat has colluded with a company or NGO to rob the public (of land, revenue, etc), it makes no sense to nab the junior partner-in-crime (the politician or bureaucrat) while allowing the major beneficiary of corruption (the company or NGO) to get away with it. In such cases, as suggested by the NCPRI, the Lokpal or Lokayukta should have power to investigate and prosecute any other person who is co-accused in the case before it [18].

The involvement of the fifth member of the team, Prashant Bhushan, caused consternation among some of his former admirers, since he has been associated with social justice causes. But his fundamental similarity to the other members of the drafting team in terms of elitism and authoritarianism are evident in his vehement arguments that the issue of the JLB should be resolved by a referendum [19]. If a referendum were held on each and every clause of the bill, it would cost the earth and take forever, so that is clearly not feasible. Instead, the bill will be (in fact has been) drafted by ‘experts’, and the public will only have the right to vote for one bill or the other. Ironically, far from being an expansion of participatory democracy, as he claims, this constitutes a much less democratic procedure than pre-legislative public debate on a bill, with the possibility of feeding into the drafting process.

Apart from leaving out the people who will be affected by the bill from the deliberations on it, a referendum can be framed in a way that elicits the result that is desired. In this case, for example, Bhushan Jr made it clear that there would be only two options, the government Lokpal Bill or the JLB: no possibility of voting for the NCPRI or other proposals, and not even the option of rejecting both bills! (The hypocrisy of demanding the right to reject in elections while leaving it out in the proposed referendum is truly stunning!) Even if the intention is to get feedback on the JLB, there are two different ways in which a referendum could be framed. If the choice is between the government bill and JLB, as Bhushan wants, those who reject both would have to abstain; then it is possible that the majority of those who vote, knowing only that the latter is stronger, would vote for it. But if the choice is ‘the JLB: Yes or No’, many more are likely to vote, and the ‘No’ vote is likely to predominate, given the deep suspicion on the part of dalits, adivasis, minorities and workers that the JLB is designed to rob them of their rights [20]. No wonder referendums are favoured by dictators!

The JLB is marked by the elitist and authoritarian outlook of its drafters. While some of these features have been diluted since the first draft was put out, the marks of its parentage are still all too evident.

The followers

There has been a great deal of debate on the class composition of the crowds that came out in support of the JLB, but what is more relevant is the political character of the crowds; after all, there was a significant presence of plebeian elements in the mobs that brought down the Babri Masjid as well as the crowds that flocked to Hitler’s speeches, but this did not make them any less fascist.

Kiran Bedi’s slogan of ‘Anna is India and India is Anna’, with its disturbing echoes of the Emergency (‘Indira is India and India is Indira’) as well as Nazism (‘Adolf Hitler is Germany and Germany is Adolf Hitler’), was abandoned, but its spirit haunted the speeches of Team Anna, who repeatedly claimed that they spoke for ‘the people’ or ‘civil society’ as a whole. Equally revealing was the ubiquitous slogan ‘I am Anna’. What this conveyed was blind faith in Anna’s leadership, and a promise to follow wherever he went, do whatever he ordered. This abdication of the responsibility to think for oneself in favour of blind faith in a charismatic leader is typical of fascist movements. This does not mean that all those who wore ‘I am Anna’ caps or T-shirts were fascists, but that they could easily be manipulated by fascists.

If blind obedience to a leader is one side of the coin, the other side is intolerance of dissent or questioning of the stated goal. This too was very much in evidence. The good-natured and non-violent character of the assembly, noted by some who visited Ramlila Maidan, lasted only so long as questions were confined to ‘Where have you come from?’ and ‘What do you do?’As soon as even mildly probing questions were asked about the JLB, good nature vanished and the strong undercurrent of violence beneath the sanctimonious appearance of non-violence came to the surface [21]. The most horrifying report of such violence was that of a student who was chased into a river by fellow-students and pelted with stones until he drowned because he refused to participate in the anti-corruption protests [22].

Finally, the aggressive waving of the national flag and frequent chants of ‘Vande Mataram!’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki jai!’ conveyed a great deal about the character of the movement. As one journalist said, “Never in India’s history, not even during the freedom movement or war-time, has such aggressively patriotic fervour been unleashed…Democratic plurality, ideological diversity and argumentativeness were integral to our freedom movement…So here is the quibble. Once you produce the national flag, and Bharat Mata, all arguments cease…A democratic movement has to give space for disagreement, argue with those who have a different point of view, not wave the national flag and shut them up” [23].

All these characteristics – blindly following a leader, crushing dissent, and ultra-nationalism – are characteristics of fascism. Mass organisations like workers’ unions could not be more different, with their openness to often heated argument and debate.

Some conclusions

Put together, these characteristics of the goal of the campaign, its leadership, and its mass following suggest that IAC, if it can be called a mass movement at all, is a populist movement which is similar in many ways to the völkisch (populist) movements that fed into the rise of Nazism. Norwegian right-wing mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik had advised the Sangh Parivar that instead of attacking Muslims, they should focus their attacks on those whom he bizarrely described as ‘the Indian cultural Marxists’ – namely the UPA government, with its commitment to the protection of minorities – and seek to overthrow it [24]. But it is the Sangh Parivar that could give some lessons to Breivik. It knew that the slaughter of Muslims, as in Gujarat in 2002, could gain votes for it; that this may be changing, hence their switch-over to carrying out terrorist attacks that are blamed on Muslims; and that a massacre of, say, young members of the Congress Party (analogous to the massacre carried out by Breivik) would simply backfire against it. Instead, its assault on the UPA is far more subtle, cashing in on the public revulsion that has built up over issues like rampant inflation and corruption. In the past, campaigns against corruption by JP and V P Singh have been used by the Sangh Parivar to boost its popularity and bring it to power, and it is entirely possible that the Anna Hazare campaign could have the same result.

Whether regime change will result depends to a great extent on the reaction of the UPA government. Harping on about the supremacy of parliament in order to discredit popular protest is simply not convincing, because the legitimacy of parliament depends on the degree to which it upholds the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. Why would the Constitution guarantee rights like freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly if democracy meant only the right to vote every five years? Obviously, these are also means by which citizens achieve some measure of control over their own lives, as well as communicate what they want their representatives to do. If the UPA had taken more trouble to listen, rather than ignoring protests or all too often crushing them, it would not be facing a crisis.

It is not too late to start listening, beginning with the issue of corruption in the narrow sense. Some action against it has been taken, but belatedly and not enough. The best features of all the Lokpal proposals should be brought together and a strong set of laws enacted and implemented. If the government demonstrates that it is serious about taking action – and not just against its enemies – some of the damage done in the last six months could be reversed.

However, it is far more important to tackle the underlying disease that results in corruption: untrammelled power and impunity. For example, Anna’s fast unintentionally drew attention to Irom Sharmila’s decade-long fast against AFSPA. Every time the repeal or even amendment of this law is mooted, Armed Forces chiefs (who seem to believe that the army cannot do its work without raping, torturing and killing innocents) objects. Yet this law is patently unconstitutional, since it violates the right to equal protection of the law (which is denied to the victims) and to equality before the law (since the perpetrators are effectively above the law). Armed insurgency is admittedly a serious problem, but impunity for state security forces only makes it worse by alienating civilians. AFSPA and other laws that allow security force personnel to commit crimes with impunity need to be repealed or radically amended if the most blatant and corrupt abuse of power is to be curbed.

There are other issues on which the UPA needs to listen to protesters rather than using its majority in parliament to ram through policies that are not only unpopular but also violate fundamental rights. The Aadhar programme and nuclear power programme come to mind. The former is being pushed through without a proper debate and in the face of powerful arguments against it. And with wind and solar energy already cheaper than nuclear power and rapidly getting cheaper, the argument for nuclear power, which is hazardous, expensive, and will leave a deadly legacy of nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years, is extremely questionable. These policies reek of corruption, because they benefit a tiny elite while the rest of the population pays the price, either as taxpayers or because their human rights are violated. Unless they are put on hold while an informed, transparent public debate on their pros and cons takes place, the UPA is likely to suffer in the next elections.

More generally, the disease of untrammelled power, of which corruption is merely a symptom, needs to be tackled. If bureaucrats have the power to formulate or interpret legislation in a manner that deprives people of their rights or entitlements, then it is that power that must be curbed, not just the bribes they take from desperate people who have no other way of obtaining those rights or entitlements. If police have the power to torture innocents and threaten to kill them unless they confess to crimes they have not committed, then it is that power that must be curbed, not just the fact that they routinely use it to extort bribes. Responding to social movements by enacting legislation and carrying out measures that empower ordinary working people would be one way of tackling corruption at its roots; a massive increase in transparency, which is already mandated by the RTI Act, would be another.

The Left – both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary – also has an important role to play. Most sections of the Left in India have little or no understanding of fascism; they do not seem to know, for example, that fascism is a mass movement before it seizes power. These sections are so intent on training their guns on the centre that they are often oblivious of the fact that they are doing it in a manner that strengthens the extreme right. They have yet to develop the political skill of being critical of the government when it violates human rights or colludes in corruption, without providing support to right-wing forces engaged in subverting democracy.


If the IAC and the Sangh Parivar won the first round of this struggle, the second round was won by the legal experts, Left intellectuals and social justice activists who stayed out of the campaign and criticised both the government’s Lokpal Bill and the JLB. The third round has now been launched by Team Anna. In their press conference on September 11, there was no mention of Modi’s attempt to appoint a Lokayukta in Gujarat in violation of the core principles of the JLB, no mention of the murder of RTI activist Shehla Masood in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh; but Anna did promise to campaign in forthcoming elections against candidates who oppose the JLB [26]. In a subsequent interview, he said that he would not be campaigning for any party, and suggested that Advani should ensure that all BJP Chief Ministers appoint Lokayuktas before starting his yatra. However, given that the BJP has pledged support to the JLB, it has already gained from Anna’s campaign and would undoubtedly gain more in future. It remains to be seen who will win the third round.

(Rohini Hensman is an activist and independent scholar working on issues of workers’ rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities in India and Sri Lanka, and globalisation. She has written extensively on these issues, her most recent book being Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism: Lessons From India. Her publications include two novels)


[1] http://www.tehelka.com/story_main50.asp?filename=Ws180811PROTESTIII.asp

[2] http://www.rediff.com/news/column/what-anna-hazares-new-plans-mean-for-democracy-

[3] http://www.ap7am.com/ap7am_show_detail_videos.php?newsid=41004

[4] http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_anna-hazare-praises-narendra-modi-nitish-kumar-asks-cms-to-emulate-them_1530483

[5] http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/mallika-sarabhais-letter-to-warning-to-anna-hazare-98125

[6] http://www.sacw.net/article2266.html

[7] http://zeenews.india.com/news/nation/advani-plans-rath-yatra-against-corruption_730524.html

[8] http://twocircles.net/2011sep05/why_did_modi_prefer_justice_retd_j_r_vora_lokayukta_post.html?utm

[9] http://www.tehelka.com/story_main50.asp?filename=Ws010911This_why.asp

[10] http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/karnataka-lokayukta-santosh-hegde-withdraws-resignation-35364

[11] http://www.tehelka.com/story_main50.asp?filename=Ne100911Art.asp

[12] http://spicyipindia.blogspot.com/2010/07/novartis-bayer-appeals-to-be-heard-by.html

[13] http://www.dnaindia.com/money/report_novartis-changes-tack-in-patent-law-challenge_1083157

[14] http://hrln.org/hrln/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=78:nelson-fernandes-

[15] http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Default/Scripting/ArticleWin.asp?From=Archive&Source=Page&Skin=

[17] http://ntui.org.in/media/item/ntui-statement-on-the-fight-against-corruption/

[18] http://www.prajnya.in/mkss%20measures.pdf

[19] http://ibnlive.in.com/news/team-anna-seeks-referendum-on-lokpal-bill/157732-3.html http://spicyipindia.blogspot.com/2010/07/novartis-bayer-appeals-to-be-heard-by.html http://www.dnaindia.com/money/report_novartis-changes-tack-in-patent

[20] http://jantantra.com/2011/08/25/why-the-ramlila-surge-worries-minorities-and-those-on-margins/

[21] http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/nation/everybody-loves-a-good-protest

[22] http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-08-31/chennai/29949127_1_adyar-river-college-

[23] http://www.indianexpress.com/news/annationalism/840907/0

[24] http://www.sify.com/news/norwegian-mass-killer-breivik-s-manifesto-hails-hindutva

[25] http://ibnlive.in.com/generalnewsfeed/news/hazare-asks-people-not-to-elect-mps-who-


Wolfowitz and Hazare (by Jawed Naqvi)

In Uncategorized on September 8, 2011 at 6:05 pm

From: Dawn.com

Wolfowitz and Hazare

By Jawed Naqvi

On September 8, 2011 @ 1:53 am

ON April 15, 2008, India’s most televised anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare received the World Bank’s Jit Gill memorial award for ‘outstanding public service’.

On April 12, 2006, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz had claimed in Jakarta that corruption was “one of the biggest threats to development” in the Third World.

A neo-con author of America’s invasion of Iraq, which he justified to the world with a lie, was explaining in his new avatar how his brand of development was threatened by corruption. It “weakens fundamental systems, it distorts markets, and it encourages people to apply their skills and energies in non-productive ways”, Wolfowitz proclaimed.

“Civil society, the private sector, borrowing countries and other multilateral banks all have key interests and responsibilities to tackle corruption,” he said. What is this civil society that the World Bank leans on and how does Anna Hazare fit in?

It is well known that the neoliberal worldview and old fashioned democracy in the Third World do not go together. The prescribed preference is for a free-market democracy. Populist idealism of a Nehru or a Bhutto is required to be filtered out.

Pakistan had previously barred the poor from getting into parliament by a harmless sounding fiat — only graduates are allowed in. Did the state first make provisions for everyone to try and be a graduate so as to get an equal chance? A similar demand to exclude India’s poor for their lack of education came from Hazare’s platform last month. But India in any case offers a good glimpse into how the filtering is done more artfully and virtually overnight.

The project began in early 1990s and the first step was to exorcise India’s decision-making institutions from the ghosts and spirits of past populists and idealists. The Indian parliament would be a challenge here. It has a majority of MPs voted by the most marginalised. And though the country boasts of the world’s largest billionaires, parliament in its current form is in no position to wish away the 800 million people who live on less than $0.30 a day. Adding to the malaise is a debilitating caste system that seeks to court social exclusion to keep political power from being fairly distributed. Anna Hazare’s movement is shored up by fans of Manu, the mythical king regarded as the first proponent of the caste arrangement.

Ambedkar, the Dalit icon and author of India’s constitution, had warned against equality in politics in the form of one-person one-vote and inequalities in social and economic life. For political democracy to succeed, it needed to be founded on the fibres of social and economic equality, he said. Nehru and Gandhi shared Ambedkar’s fear.

How were they to be dealt with in the new Indian order? Two teams were created as make-believe rivals — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress.

WikiLeaks documents have exposed how both were sworn to outdo the other before their patrons at the US embassy in Delhi.

A left-backed third alternative was tried but was subverted.

Even with the subterfuge, parliament continued to be at least verbally deferential to the poor and to their less than polished representatives mostly from rural constituencies.

The urban elite remained incensed. The hoi polloi could still stall their agenda — the nuclear bill, for example, which the United States and the Indian prime minister had made into a prestige issue. An interim arrangement was made to circumvent the ordeal. The Congress had used the ploy previously. It used it again.

In 1992, it had bribed a clutch of vulnerable tribal MPs to win a crucial trust vote. They were jailed but that is how then finance minister Manmohan Singh’s IMF-brokered policies survived the test of democracy. (Wolfowitz would perhaps not be interested.)

The BJP formed the next government equally immorally. It was aware that it did not have the majority in the Lok Sabha, and yet it used a mere 13 days in power to sign a scandalous deal with Enron.

What we are witnessing today is an unending bout of mud wrestling between the two teams parliament is split into.

MPs and ministers on both sides have been accused of colluding in shady corporate deals. Some have been dispatched to prison. Inter-corporate rivalry, fuelled by a sibling feud in India’s biggest business house had begun to reveal serious names.

The media took the credit though its own leading representatives were found complicit in the game of power peddling.

With parliament loaded against them on both sides of the fence, the people would normally take to the streets. Wolfowitz and his successors would have none of that. The fear was not misplaced. What if the people’s anger against unbridled corruption turned left? What if people go back to populism or worse? What if they begin to rally support for a structural change, which in India’s case would be nothing short of a revolution, the kind the people of Egypt had started to expect before they were reined in by the military?

Anna Hazare stepped in as a guarantor against the feared upheaval. He was shored by a combination of leftists, liberals and most prominently of all by the Hindu equivalent of Iranian mullahs, the more vocal being those supported by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Prashant Bhushan is a widely respected campaigner against corporate corruption. He and the various communist parties that lent support to Anna Hazare are all reminiscent of the liberals and the leftists who thought they would live in a clean corruption-free Iran after the Shah’s exit. They had failed to anticipate the conspiracy between Iran’s clergy and Ronald Reagan’s White House.

The movement we just witnessed in India was neatly timed to allow for unprecedented corporate-backed TV coverage.

Hazare’s first fast in Delhi started the day after India won the cricket World Cup. Nationalist adrenalin was in full cry. It ended a day before the high stakes IPL cricket series was to begin.

The latest round of his campaign happened at the end of a widely televised Test series against England, which Indians for some reason were hoping to win. The fast ended a few days before the beginnings of the shorter version of the game. Between the outings Hazare bowled his googly. Wolfowitz should have given a standing ovation.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

The discreet charm of civil society (P. Sainath)

In Perspective on August 22, 2011 at 5:47 pm

From: The Hindu, June 17, 2011

by P. Sainath

There is nothing wrong in having advisory groups. But there is a problem when groups not constituted legally cross the line of demands, advice and rights-based, democratic agitation.

The 1990s saw marketing whiz kids at the largest English daily in the world steal a term then in vogue among sexually discriminated minorities: PLUs — or People Like Us. Media content would henceforth be for People Like Us. This served advertisers’ needs and also helped shut out unwanted content. As the daily advised its reporters: dying farmers don’t buy newspapers. South Mumbaikars do. So the suicide deaths of a couple of fashion models in that city grabbed more space in days than those of over 40,000 farmers in Maharashtra did in a decade.

February 2011 saw one of the largest rallies staged in Delhi in years. Lakhs of workers from nine central trade unions — including the Congress party’s INTUC — hit the streets to protest against rising food prices and unemployment. This was many times bigger than the very modest numbers at Anna Hazare’s fast and larger than Ramdev’s rollicking ‘yoga camp.’ These were workers and unions not linked to the state. Not market-driven. Not corporate-funded. And expressing clearly the interests and values of their members. In fact, fitting some classic definitions of ‘civil society.’ The rally was covered by the BBC, Reuters and AFP but was mostly invisible in mainstream Indian media except when attacked for creating traffic jams.

Perhaps the whizz kids were on to something larger than even they knew. At least one dictionary has since added this entry under People Like Us: “A subtle reference to people of the same socio-economic class.” Only, there was nothing subtle here. The Indian elite play the PLU game like few others do. Entry into the club is by birth or invitation only. And getting certification from the classes that matter takes some work. Your own background can be surmounted however, even turned to advantage, if there are enough strong PLUs around you. Anna Hazare had this. Baba Ramdev did not have it. Both claimed to speak for ‘civil society.’ A media applying that word with reverence to those around Anna Hazare, denied it with scorn to those they saw as Ramdev’s rabble.

Sections of the media embarrassed by Ramdev point, in contrast, to the ‘many fine people’ around Hazare. Most of them part of the Delhi elite with indeed impeccable records of service. Yet, how did their approach differ in principle from Ramdev’s?

Both were self-selected groups claiming primacy over the elected government. Both asserted they knew what was best for the nation. (Rather than an electorate they scorned as sold on a bottle of liquor or a hundred-rupee note). Both had no qualms about breaking down the walls between the institutions of state. Never mind the Constitution, they sought a body whose members they would largely appoint. A super organ above the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Take the government notification on the drafting body for the Lokpal bill. It uses the words: “The five nominees of Anna Hazare [including himself] are as under…” When have such vital national appointments been made by and in the name of one individual, however noble?

Both felt they had the best solutions for fighting corruption, which is fair enough. Both, however, demanded that their fatwas be written into law. That their will prevail in the writing of the bill. That the Constitution assigns this right to the legislature mattered little. Both saw themselves as more representative of the nation than its people. In months, they would succeed where “in 62 years” the nation had failed.

Electoral democracy drew special contempt. In this, they were at one with the top tier of PLUs. “Who takes all that stuff seriously?” asked one celeb on a television panel discussion. Well, it seems people do. Voting in Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu crossed 75 per cent in May 2011. In West Bengal and Puducherry, it edged towards 85 per cent. Tamil Nadu in May 2011 saw its highest turnout in 44 years. And voters there showed how vital the issue of corruption was to them. Money power has surely corrupted the electoral process severely. But does the electorate deserve the scorn poured on it by ‘civil society?’ If the latter has struck a chord at all, it is because of the deep concerns of the former.

So who do these versions of Indian ‘civil society’ represent? Do we take the World Bank’s definition? Civil society would then be: “a wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organisations that have a presence in public life.” And which express “the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations.” The European Commission states flatly that there is “no commonly accepted or legal definition” of the term. It also “does not make a distinction between civil society organisations or other forms of interest groups.”

The U.S.-based Civil Society International raises the question of whether the media should be included in ‘civil society.’ More so when they are privately-owned and hyper-commercial in character. It points out that some notions could render both the League of Women Voters and the Ku Klux Klan part of civil society. In India, the RSS is a large voluntary organisation claiming to be cultural and non-political in character. Ergo, civil society?

Theory aside, civil society in India seems defined by exclusion. It is crowded with human rights lawyers and activists, NGO leaders, academics and intellectuals, high-profile journalists, celebrities and think tank-hirelings. Mass media debates never see landless labourers, displaced people, nurses, trade union workers, bus conductors being asked to speak for ‘civil society.’ Though, indeed they should.

Marketing minds would define civil society more clearly as a prime PLU platform. They’d be right, too. Who else do we see out there? The PLU syndrome goes way beyond the Lokpal bill. When Kaushik Basu, chief economic adviser to the Finance Ministry, called for a certain class of bribes to be legalised, ‘civil society’ simply shut its eyes and brain. The National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information — a flag bearer of civil society — maintained a studied, shameful silence. Professor Basu was not pushing this idea in his private blog. He put it up on a Government of India website. Yet, thundering anchors who ‘skewer’ politicians in television interviews uttered not a squeak. Had this insane idea come from a Ramdev, or even a Lalu Prasad, and not from a certified PLU member, imagine the fun the media would have had trashing it. As for the NCPRI, it might have begun a special desk to campaign on the issue. True, an individual associated with it did write a mild critique of the economics of Prof. Basu’s folly — evading its moral degeneracy. But the NCPRI let itself down (and all those who support the RTI movement) with its craven silence.

The same media now trashing Ramdev came out snarling in his defence when he clashed with Brinda Karat in 2006. That was over the exploitation of 113 workers thrown out of the pharmacy controlled by Ramdev’s Trust and facing false cases. The media brushed that aside and slammed Ms Karat. In the PLU food chain, workers are a low form of pond life. (Oh yes, the PLU syndrome has a strong caste component, too. But that’s another story.)

Ramdev had carved out a base in sections of the elite. He also counts some media owners amongst his followers. Though not, perhaps the more anglicised anchors of television. He even has a following in Bollywood. He had attained the celebrity status so vital to gain any media attention at all. And had done so by using television itself for his ‘brand’ of yoga. But he overplayed his hand when the desired ‘A-level’ certification from the south Delhi elite was still pending. Otherwise, his claim to represent ‘civil society’ is no weaker than that of the group around Mr. Hazare. The ‘my-civil-society-is-more-civil-than-yours’ squabble has begun. And both groups have failed to pin down a corrupt, bungling government that made such a pig’s breakfast of the Ramlila event.

There is nothing wrong in having advisory groups. Not a thing wrong in governments consulting them and also listening to people, particularly those affected by its decisions. There is a problem when groups not constituted legally cross the line of demands, advice and rights-based, democratic agitation. When they seek to run the government and legislation — no matter how well-intentioned they are. Pushing a coherent vision is a good thing to do. So is demanding that the government do its job. Beyond that lies trouble.

Meanwhile, a section of Platinum tier PLUs have become champions of the parliamentary democracy they actively helped undermine during the past two decades. They cheered loudly for giant economic and financial decisions taken outside the budget, bypassing Parliament. So long as the destruction of institutions favoured corporate power, they welcomed it, collaborating with corrupt governments such as this one wholeheartedly. The Ramdev route would have done much the same in time — the Baba himself is a spiritual corporation. But he just wasn’t one of us. These new champions of parliamentary democracy have no qualms when the groups dictating terms to the government are CII, FICCI, ASSOCHAM or their ilk. They didn’t like it when the bypassing of institutions came from Mr. Hazare. They hated it when it came from Ramdev. Dumping democracy is, after all, the privilege of the Platinum PLUs.

%d bloggers like this: