Fighting Corruption: The Pitfalls of Populism

The Indian youth are out in the streets, in car and bike rallies, to support an aging activist’s fight against corruption. Anna Hazare and Anil Ambani may be on two sides of the spectrum, but even as the inquisition is going on into the 2G scam, we are witnessing a populist version of people’s activism.

Anna Hazare's fast-unto-death started on April 5 to push for the anti-graft Lok Pal Bill. He has called it the second Satyagraha, which is an erroneous usage. Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha was battling against British might, not against corruption that involves people right down to the lowest level, including some who may participate in the ‘movement’. I understand that one would like to see it as a practical solution to an idealistic idea, but whose idealism is it?

Hazare’s work through the years has been commendable, but the moment he needs a banner – in this case ‘India Against Corruption’ – the idea becomes a brand. Within three days there are already fissures among certain organisations. Besides, it is not as simple as it appears.

He says:

"We want representation from civil society in drafting the Lok Pal Bill, 50 percent from civil society and 50 percent from the government.”
This is to check on corruption in public life, so it obviously refers to those holding office. The alternative Jan Lok Pal Bill drafted by leading legal experts and personalities, including Arvind Kejriwal, former Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde and Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan calls for setting up of ombudsmen independent of government control. Those found guilty would be awarded a jail term of minimum five years and maximum of life imprisonment; the investigation would have to completed within one year.

The government has its own version of a prison term of minimum six months and maximum seven years as punishment for corruption.

Who will foot the bill for the 50 per cent lok ayuktas that come from civil society? Are not politicians also from civil society? We would need a system to proceed against those being tried.

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Corruption is more often a silent crime. There are enough scapegoats who will be made to shoulder the blame in another concept of people’s responsibility, where lok shakti means taking on the master’s problems. It is an ingrained aspect of Indian culture.

We are witnessing this farce as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), while not yet giving a clean chit to Ratan Tata and Anil Ambani, has been talking about their honesty and how candid they have been. Niira Radia has been called “evasive”.

Ratan Tata, when asked about his letter to the Tamil Nadu chief minister praising Raja’s work in the telecom ministry, with some gumption said, “We had a chemistry problem with (his predecessor Dayanidhi) Maran.” Yet, he claimed, “I didn’t manipulate the system for 2G licence allocation.” Did not Mr Tata file a petition regarding breach of privacy about the leaked tapes? The political machinery does not wish to completely alienate the corporate lobby, so it accused Radia of being anti-national and an agent of foreign intelligence agencies.

Both sides are getting trapped in quick sand and they need to prop each other up without being seen to ostensibly do so. Why did they not produce records of the Rs. 300 crore that Radia had accumulated? Of course, there is every possibility of impropriety, but for whom and for what?

If foreign agencies were involved, how did they pay her so that the authorities would know the amount? Have the finance and other departments tapped those calls from foreign agencies? What foreign agencies have interests in seeing to it that the Ambanis and Tatas get the prime deals? Which foreign agency would be interested in what portfolio Raja got? It might be important to examine how these players then can be indicted for such foreign connections as well as anti-national activities, including the governments, past and present, for accommodating them.

* * *

How would the Lok Pal bill work in such a situation? There is a trickle-down effect where the tricking is actually going up. Many of those enthusiastic about Hazare’s rally would not have the courage to convict the beneficiaries of those in public office, which defeats the whole purpose. A politician getting kickbacks is one part of the deal – the other is the sneaking in of major players who through corruption will find space to promote their elitist products and ideas.

Hazare is for now being anointed with a Gandhian aura, but most of the Facebook fans of the movement won’t push the envelope. The fact that the mainstream media is giving it importance is precisely because it has the youth quotient. This translates into a larger audience.

Some sample quotes are rather revealing:

“I joined the cause as I feel that corruption can't be stopped till the youth takes part in such a movement. Anna Hazare has been fighting this evil for a long time, but he should be supported by people like us.”

“I realised that it is about time people like me come out and stand up to eradicate corruption. I am going to fast like Anna Hazare and I am even prepared to go to jail for the cause.”

“It is not only for activists and media to keep exposing scams.”

People like us, jail yatra, scams are the buzzwords, not to speak of our own Tahrir Square.

One also wonders what happens if the celebrity activists move out. There will be the chosen ones who will be nominated for the posts to look into corruption. It would work not too differently from an established system.

People have gathered in 400 cities to fight a demon. This is modern-day mythology. Hazare states

“I am not waiting for government, the government will have to bow to the wish of the people.”

The government bows every five years and politicians are known to ‘serve’ the junta. The fact that the Lok Pal will be like the Election Commission is no guarantee that it will be “completely immune to government’s influences”. Prosecuting ministers will not require the permission of the governor or the president. Will it ensure transparency? There won’t be “yes men” of the government, but what of other organisations? Or politicians from non-ruling parties?

Uma Bharti and Om Prakash Chautala may be booted out, but Sharad Yadav, Janata Dal (United) chief, has already offered support. He said:

“Just as Election Commission and Supreme Court are effective bodies, similarly an institution which is to fight corruption has to be equally powerful. I approve of the draft prepared by Hazareji and others. I am willing to back it in Parliament.”

That among the civil society members there could be those with personal interests who would be pushed in as concerned citizens is not an improbability. Or the lure of known names. During the appointment of the person to head the Right to Information Act panel, there was just such a scramble by celebrities to promote their concept of the appropriate person.

Despite his intentions, even Mr. Hazare mentioned the names of Justice (Retd) Santosh Hegde, lawyer Prashant Bhushan and Agnivesh who he felt “were not considered important by the government”.

It is possible that the government might intervene to make him give up his fast, but let us not begin to believe that the fight against corruption is a people’s movement yet. It had already started before the rally and there have been several exposes, public interest litigations filed. It would be prudent to ask whether the youth would boycott the goods and services of those the government has propped up. Or will this be just another ‘Rang De Basanti’ moment where power props up those with testosterone and the impetus is all about hitting the bull’s eye?

(c) Farzana Versey

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Updated on new post


  1. V. P. Singh was repeatedly transferred from one portfolio to another and he kept uncovering skeletons buried all over. Then they tried to smear him (of all the people, our dear reformer PM Narasimha Rao) with that St. Kitts Scandal. He famously took on the Ambanis.

    I have much more grey (aka realist/skeptic) compared to the events of those days but I still believe for all his foibles, V. P. Singh did try to tackle this problem head-on but because he was a professional politician (and that too a politician who supported reservation, autonomy for Kashmir, Secularism all the wrong things in short) so it didn't have Gandhian Aura.

  2. Hi Farzana,
    ‘Populism’ is a rather silly term, referring to the advocacy of commonsense solutions, shorn of intellectual pretensions. So why do you fault this Hazare chap? He strikes me as a well meaning peasant activist, a grassroots democrat appealing to the common man to rally behind him. What else would you have him do?
    Next you fault his slogan ‘India against corruption’. Can you run a campaign without some sort of slogan? Why confuse the issue calling it banner or brand?
    According to Tehelka online, the Lok Pal Bill is seriously flawed in that it lets off the masters of corruption (the politicians and cronies) off the hook. It seems Hazare’s supporters have noted that
    “1. The government Bill has no provisions for recovering ill-gotten wealth. A corrupt politician or bureaucrat can come out of jail and enjoy the money.
    2. It requires complaints to be routed through the Speaker and the Upper House Head..
    3. The LokPal has no more than advisory status. Only the PM can act on its reports against cabinet ministers and Parliament against the Prime Minister and MPs. “

    How shameless can a government be?
    Clearly this bill should be dropped forthwith and the alternative one you mention adopted.

  3. Anna is doing a Great job and as we Indians not only in India but also all over the world should support for the cause Anna Hazare has started, we live in a Democracy of... for the people, of the people and the people, but this government is completely gone out of of its context...and has stuck to their decision... I strongly support the cause that this man Mr. Anna Hazare has taken up and we as youth will support until the last breath.

  4. Hitesh:

    We are indeed dealing with a different aspect and the aura factor works in different ways. I do believe you need to root out corruption at several levels, which no one is interested in doing.


    Populism is political idea that clearly demarcates between those who have it and those who don't. As popular usage it turns the tables and craves acceptability. The fact that it has become about "this Hazare chap" is precisely the problem. I have nothing against him. But is this about the common man at all? Can the common man afford to bribe?

    The slogan is not his; it is the name of an organisation, and I feel it amounts to 'branding'. A people's movement cannot afford it.

    I have not denied that the government Bill is flawed, but the Jan Lok Pal bill needs to be re-examined. Since I am not interested in covering myself with any tinsel from the crowd, I can afford to ask these questions!

    Many of Hazare's supporters would not know a Lok Pal if it hit them on their Gandhi-topi-ed heads.

    Surely, there ought to be some semblance to make ministers and people in power answerable. Why don;t we do it during elections?

    And you seem to have missed my point about who really influences the government - why is there no noise about that?

    I am hardly a proponent of any establishment - and by any I mean ANY. But we cannot just wallow in a 'wave'.


    I am glad you speak for the youth and there is still time, so we can take a raincheck on that. Meanwhile, are you also boycotting the media and the stuff from business houses that are tainted?

    Democracy is not only about a handful of people telling us what they barf about in their TV channels.

    Keep up the enthusisam, though. Jai ho and all that...

  5. The people who create FUD - like yourself - about this movement fascinate me.
    In any change, you people seem to see only negative aspects, and even those are rarely objective but mostly extrapolations of some what-ifs.
    The problem is, every change, including ones drafted by you, would have some problem.
    So I'm interested to know exactly what kind of perfect change would make you happy. Can you give me an essay on what your perfect system would be like? Or are you happy with things as they are and want no change at all?

  6. I think I will take this one on:

    (1) Corruption has been around from before these countries in South Asia existed. Never before was it an issue as long as it affected the invisible masses. Now, the problem is that noose is getting tighter. With IMF watching, only a few oligarchs can be cared for. Rest will have to fend for themselves.

    (2) Just like the rich like their money, so do poor (in fact, much more because it is a matter of survival). So, let's have property rights and equality before law that is verifiable. Existing laws are adequate (In fact, we went shopping around the world to buy us the best constitution we can). Do you think the shopper B. R. Ambedkar will be happy to see how things turned out for his lot?

    (3) Change is something even rich can't prevent but they can attempt to ride it. Mayawati and Lalu start winning and Election Commission suddenly remembers all the rules.

    (4) Pranabda (who just finished installing his son and sister-in-law in right place and has been in politics forever) is going to head this LokPal thing (and everything else these days, because Manmohan Singh delegates everything to GoM and Pranab the Regent is always around to chair it. Government refuses to carry out caste census because they are not suppose to exist; eventually settling to a GoM.

    (5) So, my imperfect solution is that we need truly representative democracy (where composition of both houses of parliament actually reflect the population). If necessary, we need to go to proportional representation like Germany so all segments of society (esp. minorities and disadvantaged) are guaranteed representation regardless of political machinations.

    (6) Similarly, other machinery of Government need to have broad-based participation. Bureaucracy and business also currently reflect tiny top 5% of the population.

    Once wolves are not guarding the hen house, fewer hens will die.

    Does that answer it?

  7. I do believe you need to root out corruption at several levels, which no one is interested in doing.

    In these western wealthy countries, there is plenty of corruption in their sacred money temples. But, they can always raid the brown, yellow and lesser white people to keep their own fed so no one complains. It is the same for upper crust of Asian regimes (From Mubarak and Qaddafi and China's Princelings to our own Bureau/Autocrats)

    All we need is for these rich to fight each other and crowds to enjoy the drama. Money will rain and crowds will rejoice...

  8. Think Different:

    Given your ID, I thought you'd understand FUD as a valid counter-idea to anything.

    While I most certainly do not count myself in the group of change-makers, one would then consider all revolutions (tangible ones) as negative because they asked questions not based on objectivity but their own belief in things. Isn't corruption too based on one's value system? How objective are values?

    I am glad to put the 'what-ifs' in my arguments because as we watch the events unfold this is precisely what is happening. And I promise I am not sending out ESP signals.

    Change cannot be perfect, and I have not suggested as much. More than the specifics of the Bill, I was and am interested in how it will unfold and what is validity of the modus operandi used.

    I cannot give a perfect essay because change by its nature will render it imperfect. Don't I want change? Of course, I do. But not because of a group of people on prime time TV. Change happens every single day, invisibly. And as I have already stated, we need to know which other group is replacing the system.

    I think the other comment has made some sensible points.


    True on all counts. And thank you for putting it so cogently.

    Welcome to the world of FUD-dy duddies :)


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