July 05, 2020
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Use Argument, Not Stones

Why civil society must not let key democratic reforms drown in cynicism

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Use Argument, Not Stones
Illustration by Sorit
Use Argument, Not Stones

Less than three months ago, after the best monsoon in living memory and a resoundingly successful CWG, the future of the UPA government had looked assured. But in two short months, the roof has fallenon its head. The Congress is in a blue funk; the PM’s integrity is under attack; ‘Drawing Room Delhi’ is placing bets on how long his government will last. This has happened not because the Maoists have ‘liberated’ one-tenth of the country, or because Kashmir is sliding towards revolt, or even because food inflation is crushing the poor. It has happened because, after decades of living, even prospering, with corruption, the middle class has suddenly revolted against it.

Two spectacular scams have triggered the revolt: kickbacks unearthed in contracts awarded for the CWG, and the brazen award of 2G telecom licences at a fraction of their true value by A. Raja of the DMK, a former UPA minister, now under arrest.

The furore these two scams have caused has taken the country’s political and industrial elite by surprise. But a closer examination shows that it has been triggered not by the scams as such, but the disclosure of cronyism in the highest reaches of the “establishment”. For these exposures have pitilessly highlighted the rot eating into the core of India’s democracy.

Over the last 40 years, Indians have seen the legislature criminalised and the executive corrupted. But till last year, they had not lost faith in the democratic system because the two other pillars of democracy—a socially conscious judiciary and a vigilant Fourth Estate— had stepped in to fill the breach. With the constant prodding of a rapidly maturing civil society, the higher courts and the media had been using pils, laws requiring declaration of assets and criminal records and the Right to Information to impose a degree of accountability upon the executive and the legislature.

What the post-scam disclosures have done is to strike a body blow at the credibility of both institutions. Lobbyists are not new, even in recently liberalised India. But what has come as an unwelcome surprise is the use to which their employers have been  putting them. The Niira Radia tapes showed that India Inc was employing lobbyists not only to persuade decision-makers that “what is good for General Motors is also good for America”, but also to get specific persons into specific ministerial berths. The tapes also showed that the media had been coopted into the power-broking game. In sum, the middle class has woken up to the rude realisation that their heroes have feet of clay.

The Radia tapes set off an epidemic. Central Vigilance Commissioner P.J. Thomas was found implicated in a case involving palmolein import during his tenure as bureaucrat in Kerala and also being a secretary in the telecom department when the 2G scam took place. The brother and son-in-law of K.G. Balakrishnan, former chief justice of India, were found to have vastly increased their assets and earnings during his tenure. Nothing these eminences or the government have said in defence has cut any ice. The collapse of trust has been completed by the government’s refusal to release the names of the 23 account-holders in a Liechtenstein bank and the CBI’s inability to frame cases against Suresh Kalmadi’s three aides in the cwg organising committee despite having held them for 60 days.

But the rage that now consumes the middle class poses a grave threat to India’s future, for it could destroy the first attempt at a genuine reform of democracy any government has made in the last 20 years. In the wake of four directives from Congress president Sonia Gandhi to the party at its 83rd plenary session last month, a Group of Ministers headed by  Pranab Mukherjee is trying to chart out structural reforms aimed at cleansing Indian democracy.

It has not taken the members long to realise that the roots of corruption lie in the reliance of the political system upon black money to fight elections, and of extortion by the bureaucracy in the blanket protection against prosecution it has under Article 311 of the Constitution. But its members are only too aware of the immense resistance that any proposal to establish a system for state funding of elections, or to annul or drastically modify Article 311 will meet.

Its initial proposals have therefore been tentative, designed essentially to test public reaction. So far, the response has been disappointing. Civil society therefore faces a choice: it can join the chorus and dismiss everything the GoM is contemplating as an eyewash, or it can initiate a vigorous discussion to make them workable. Experience makes the first seem safer, but puts the country more firmly on the road to disaster. The second admittedly risks not only disappointment but also accusations of naivety. But being naive is infinitely preferable to being cynical.

The print edition had a typo in the initials of the CVC which was mentioned as K.V. Thomas

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