Ending corruption not enough for aam admi
The media's daily search for a new scam, has created the misleading belief that corruption is the root of all evil; eradicate it and India will become a model of good governance, writes Mark Tully.
The rise of the Aam Aadmi party and the fall of Congress has made 2013 an exciting year in Indian politics, but will it mark a turning point in India's history? I rather doubt it. Whatever the results of next year's excitement over the general election, I fear it will be business as usual once a new government is installed.
To be fair to the UPA, they did take steps to curb corruption with the Right to Information Act and now they have been forced to create a Lokpal. But little or nothing has been done to prevent the follow-up action both these require, the investigation and punishment of the corrupt, getting tied up in Red Tape, bogged down in the lethargic legal system, and forgotten by the media.
The media's daily search for a new ghotala, or scam, has created the misleading belief that corruption is the root of all evil; eradicate it and India will become a model of good governance. The ghotalas have brought politicians' image so low that even a man as mild-mannered as Gopal Gandhi used very strong language about politicians in this newspaper, describing them as "ugly' and their practices as "revolting." So eradicating corruption will feature prominently in all the parties' manifestos.
But all this concentration on corruption cloaks the fact that it is only one symptom of the bad governance India suffers from. The American economist, Lant Prichett, coined a telling phrase, "India is not a failing state but a flailing state." Why? Because, "The capability of the Indian state to implement policies is weak…in police, tax collection, power, water supply - in nearly every routine service - there is rampant absenteeism, indifference, incompetence, and corruption." Note that corruption comes last in that list. It is not, therefore, necessarily even the most acute symptom.
There are those who take the simplistic view that bad governance will be cured by e-governance, and the Aadhar card. I remember hearing that suggestion put forward at a seminar in Chandigarh. There were roars of laughter when a young police officer said, "E-governance can be helpful. My policemen are now taking their hafta, or weekly cuts, by e-mail." That is unduly dismissive but e-governance alone will not give India good governance.
The uncovering of the ghotalas and the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party have served a purpose in creating a widespread awareness, particularly among young people that things can't go on as they are. Jayaprakash Narayan showed the power of India's youth but his movement ended in the disillusionment of the Janata Party government. To avoid that happening the youth of today need to realise that their campaign should go far further than the present narrow anti-corruption agenda of the Aam Aadmi Party. They should campaign to complete the revolution their great grandparents started in the freedom movement, to free India of its lingering colonial legacy.
The crumbling institutions of the Raj, and the outdated laws, still surviving today are the most obvious colonial legacy. Just as important is the mindset of those who manage the institutions and administer the laws, the so-called civil-servants who are neither civil nor servants, but like their colonial predecessors rulers. From the lordly collector in his colonial bungalow to the lowly block development officer, regarded by villagers as the official who blocks development, from the high and mighty IPS officer flying his quasi-military flag on his car to the unhelpful thanadar routinely refusing to file FIRs, they all symbolise not swaraj but state raj.
This is just what Nehru feared. In his Discovery of India, he wrote of wanting "no change of masters from white to brown, but a real people's rule, by the people and for the people, and an ending to our poverty and misery". In saying so, he was repeating what Gandhi had said. I dare say that if those two stalwarts returned to India today they would be dismayed to see how their fear about the future has come true, and how far the country is from realising their ambition of ending poverty and misery.
Both Nehru and Gandhi realised that colonialism had left an even deeper wound than a system of governance which ruled rather than served, it had undermined India's respect for its past. In her remarkable book, Righteous Republic, the young Indian scholar, Ananya Vajpayee, writes, "What makes India worth preserving is not just its modern political form as a plural, secular, egalitarian democracy, but its legacy of centuries of reflection on the avenues available to the human mind to transcend the suffering inherent in the human condition." Today's India seems to regard that legacy as antiquated, and is afraid of the religious element in it. But Ananya points out that five of the most influential figures of the independence were inspired by the past. Nehru searched for India's "old strength" in his Discovery of India, and chose the Ashokan lions and the Buddhist wheel of law as symbols of the new nation. Gandhi's swaraj and ahimsa had a long history.
The legacy of centuries of reflection Ananya talked of could give young people a vision of India which would appeal to their imagination, reclaim their loyalty to the state, and inspire their care for the common good. It could provide an Indian identity to be proud of, and a realisation that they need not be content with business as usual. But what are young voters being offered?
One of the runners in the electoral race provides the vision of more a dynastic flailing government and more handouts as a substitute for providing the means for self-support. Another offers a narrow vision of India's past which divides rather than unites, and personalised, autocratic, government of the sort that led to disaster when Indira Gandhi concentrated power in her hands during the Emergency. The outside has a simplistic vision of a corruption-free India without the realisation of the changes needed to achieve that. But the response to Kejriwal's vision shows the appetite for change, so maybe I'm being too pessimistic. Perhaps he or some other leader will realise that corruption can't be ended without removing those relics of the Raj, and providing a vision of a new India looking to the future and yet also rooted in the past.
(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.)