We are here, all of us, because like many others in this country we are concerned about the rampant corruption that is hollowing out the institutions of our democracy. Twenty years ago, when the era of “liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation” descended on us, we were told that public sector units and public infrastructure needed to be privatised because they were corrupt and inefficient.
We were told the problem was systemic. Now that nearly everything has been privatised, when our rivers, mountains, forests, minerals, water supply, electricity and communications systems have been sold to private corporations, we find that corruption has grown exponentially, the growth rate of corruption has surpassed everything we could possibly imagine. In scam after scam, the figures that are being siphoned away are completely off the charts. It is not surprising that this has enraged the people of this country. But that anger does not always show signs of being accompanied by clear thinking.
Among the millions of understandably furious people who thronged to Jantar Mantar to support Anna Hazare and his team, corruption was presented as a moral issue, not a political one, or a systemic one — not as a symptom of the disease but the disease itself. There were no calls to change or dismantle a system that was causing the corruption. Perhaps this was not surprising because many of those middle-class people who flocked to Jantar Mantar and much of the corporate-sponsored media who broadcast the gathering, calling it a “revolution” — India’s Tahrir Square — had benefited greatly from the economic reforms that have led to corruption on this scale. (The same media has in the past ignored rallies of hundreds of thousands of poor people who have gathered in Delhi in the past because their demands did not suit the corporate agenda). It was not surprising then, that several corporate CEOs generously donated lakhs of rupees to support the campaign, cellphone companies weighed in with free SMS messages — here was their chance to undo the beating the public image of the corporate sector and corporate media had taken when the 2G scam hit the news.
When corruption is viewed fuzzily, as just a touchy-feely “moral” problem then everybody can happily rally to the cause — fascists, democrats, anarchists, god-squadders, day-trippers, the right, the left and even the deeply corrupt, who are usually the most enthusiastic demonstrators. It’s a pot that is easy to make but much easier to break. Anna Hazare threw the first stone at his own pot when he shocked his supporters from the left by rolling Narendra Modi onto centre-stage, in his “Development Chief Minister” clothes. Leaving aside the debate on Modi’s extremely dubious achievements in the field of “development” — many of us were left to wonder whether we were being offered a supposedly incorruptible fascist as an alternative to hopelessly corrupt supposed democrats.
I am not against having a strong anti-corruption body, though I would like to be reassured that it in itself does not become an unaccountable, undemocratic institution accruing great powers to itself. However I do not believe that we can fight communal fascism or economic totalitarianism (that has led to us having more than 800 million people in this country living on less than 20 rupees a day) with only legal measures.
As long as we have these economic policies in place, the National Employment Guarantee Act will never be able to do away with hunger and malnutrition, anti-corruption laws will not do away with injustice, and criminal laws will not do away with communal fascism, the twin sibling of economic totalitarianism. They will, at best, be mitigating measures. As the historian Howard Zinn said “the rule of law does not do away with the unequal distribution of wealth and power, but reinforces that inequality with the authority of law. It allocates wealth and power in such complicated and indirect ways as to leave the victim bewildered.”
Will the Right to Information Bill or the Jan Lokpal Bill force the government to disclose the secret MoUs with private corporations it has signed in Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand for which it is prepared to wage war against its poorest citizens? If they do, then these MoUs will disclose the fact that the government is selling the country’s minerals to private corporations for a pittance, a small royalty. It’s not corruption. It’s completely above board, it’s legal plunder which is more scandalous, and has economic, environmental and human costs that will outstrip the 2G scam several times over. If we do get the information, what will we do with it? I do believe that if anyone present at the “revolution” at Jantar Mantar had raised the question of the secret MoUs, the adoring TV coverage and a good proportion of the crowd would have disappeared very quickly.
The lawyer Prashant Bhushan who is on the drafting committee for the Jan Lokpal Bill understands all of this very clearly. In his years as a public interest litigation lawyer he has consistently represented mass movements as well as individuals who have been fighting these policies with their backs to the wall. He is the counsel in the PIL in the 2G scam in which Tata and Reliance, the biggest corporations in the country, along with their allies in the government and the media, have been badly exposed. Yesterday in court he asked why only the paid employees of these corporations were being arrested and not their proprietors. Such a man must be targeted, taken down, right?
The viciousness of the smear campaign against him is proof of the threat he poses to vested interests. I have known Prashant Bhushan for years. First as a comrade and now as a close friend. We may disagree about some things, but I would vouch for his integrity anytime, anywhere. He is acutely aware of his family’s social and economic privilege. Even more so of the fact that that most of that privilege is derived from his father to whom is he is very close, but with whom he has major ideological differences. Like many of us who are privileged compared to the majority of the people in this country (some of us by birth, caste, race, gender, and/or by virtue of writing a best-selling novel), Prashant had to decide what to do with that privilege. He chose to use his training as a lawyer to create as much space as possible for those against whom the Powers are arraigned. This is why he has been at the barricades of almost every issue of social justice that is being fought in this country. This is what has been turned against him. And this is why he is being hunted down.
In a filthy battle such as this one, in which facts are made up, none of us can ever be pure enough or righteous enough. None of us can hope to emerge untainted. However, the fight will continue. Retreat is not an option.
From a presentation at the ‘Convention Against Corruption’ in New Delhi, April 29