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 highly 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 of days before the beginning 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.