Corruption, Lokpal, Strikes & Aam Janta

India is unique and so is our reactivity to similar situations albeit packed differently and so does the media. If two major mass movements in the recent weeks were to be considered a representative sample, there is enough cause for concern.

On one hand, there was a carefully orchestrated fast by a self-styled Gandhian and ‘cap’ped crusader Anna Hazare that fit into the slot between India’s World Cup win and the domestic cricket mela, read IPL. On the other had, were Air India’s pilots striking work to demand a probe into allegations of corruption in the national carrier.

Head-to-head, a lone septuagenarian going on a fast against almighty Government to get them to bring in a supposed panacea evokes more public sympathy than a bunch of well-paid and high-flying folk striking work. It didn’t matter that the two were fighting or at least claimed to fight the same devil, ‘Corruption’!

Thanks to email, SMS, facebook, twitter et al, Anna Hazare was propelled from being the reformer of his village in Maharashtra to the national stage. To the regular educated, internet literate middle class that is hassled by sundry bribes on streets to news about big scams, what Anna promised was a dream-come-true; especially since it suited our laid-back mindset where all we had to do is click ‘like’ on facebook.

One need not elaborate on the evils of corruption or the pains that one has to go through for simple things that people in developed nations can access so easily. It could be a ration card, a driving license, a minor traffic offense, shipping or receiving a parcel at a train station, verification for a passport, just to name a few. One has to have ‘jugaad’ at the right places or push a few bucks to walk away from any of these situations.

But, why does this worry the middle class alone? The rich have tons of money that gives them power to change ministers and governments. The poor are regular voters and can change political fortunes. It’s the middle class that pays bribes with a sense of helplessness but is ever ready to criticize politics without bothering to vote.

Nearly everyone was carried away by the hysteria that surrounded Anna’s fast and that the results came out so soon. But, a bit of digging around this topic, about the man behind it and racking one’s grey cells brings up a lot of issues. While I have relied on the internet to gather facts, let the naysayer not discount it; for he/she has been relying on the very same media to eulogize Anna and the panacea he peddled.

Firstly, we are a democracy. Before we call our politicians evil, we must remember Aristotle’s famous words “Every country gets the government it deserves”. If one alleges that the wrong bunch is in power here, it is because we Indians voted themto power.

If one were to extend Aristotle’s logic further, only a corrupt set of voters can elect corrupt governments. So, what do voters accept as bribes? It could be free liquor, few currency notes, cheap rice, free electricity and sometimes televisions or laptops! Phew! Would the Lokpal register cases against such voters? Anna, do you have an answer?

There’s another bunch that prefers to use the polling day as a holiday or an extended weekend. When one does that, the moral right to question electoral results is lost. Also, it is up to us to ensure that our names are in the electoral rolls. It takes a bit of effort, yes; but it is surely worth it. Better still, if someone feels one can do better, go on and get your hands dirty and contest the polls. To change the system, get into the system first!

Secondly, continuing on the principles of democracy, the idea of a super-government consisting of self certified good guys who have been ratified by elite intelligentsia that is unconnected with common man’s issues is ludicrous. This, in itself undermines the power of the people and their ability to govern themselves effectively.

If Bharat Ratnas and Nobel Laureates of Indian origin are to be the jury, how could we rely on a Lata Mangeshkar or an Amartya Sen or VS Naipaul being keen to help or being able to choose the right guy? How can we be sure that this elite bunch has the welfare of ‘aam janta’ as their mission? Remember Lata Mangeshkar’s reported opposition to the proposed Peddar Road flyover just because it would disturb her elite abode?

And what about the credibility of the self-elected err self-nominated members of the civil society? More than a decade ago, Anna Hazare was sentenced to 3 months in prison for defaming a minister and none is clear about the legal process that was followed to pardon him. Coming to the Bhushans, having two members of the same family is in itself dubious. The CD controversy is the icing on the cake. What do these guys really want?

Anna transformed his village and became its presiding deity. While this piece good work gets the publicity it deserves, another piece of information reported less often is that his village doesn’t have elections! So, how do they pick their village headman? Answer: consensus. But, how can sentient beings not have even an iota of dissent unless such dissenters are snubbed by ‘someone’ who doesn’t believe in democracy?

Third, protests like these are acceptable in a dictatorial regime or under severe oppression. It worked wonders when Mahatma Gandhi did it to liberate India from foreign forces. But, in a well functioning democracy, fast unto death is black-mail.

Comparing him with Mahatma Gandhi is weird in itself. In fact his style of authorizing goons to beat up drunkards who fail to heed his diktat as his way of curbing alcoholism in his village is questionable. If that were to be true, one can only wonder what he could do to urban folk to visit pubs. This would make the ‘Ram Sene’ guys look like toddlers!

The biggest problem with Anna’s campaign was his “my way or the highway” approach. His solution to the problem is clearly flawed and will create a mess bigger than any democracy can handle. But, there was no room for dissent or an exchange of ideas. In the absence of a debate about Jan Lokpal Bill’s efficacy, his protest itself didn’t have the principles of democracy at its heart. Wonder what more goof-ups the Bill has in store.

Now, let’s talk about our ill fated national carrier. The questions that Air India's striking pilots are asking are very pertinent. But, they're unlucky that they don't have the media backing them, unlike Anna’s. Barring an odd piece of coverage or a debate, nobody is talking about the issues. The only thing everyone talks of is to privatize it! And, in all 10 days of the strike, why didn’t any of the anti-corruption crusaders even speak a word?

Is Air India really so bad? In my opinion, there isn’t much that the other airlines are offering that is better than what Air India does. In fact, the latter has better food, keeps its schedules and its flights are mostly full too. But, guess what, for some strange reason, it is unglamorous to fly this as compared to Kingfisher or Jet Airways.

Even if Air India’s pilots had not raised the issue this way, some of its commercial actions definitely looked fishy. Good time-slots and routes that Air India flew on were cancelled. Those were promptly taken up by its competitors. The merger of erstwhile Air India and Indian Airlines itself didn’t look convincing.

But, why didn’t any crusader raise a voice against this? Was it not worth their time or was it too trivial? If it was not worth their time, then they aren’t fighting the cause. And if the allegations were too trivial, then how can they ask common people to trust them?

And why didn’t people bother to react to the issues that were raised? Well, it’s again our typical middle class Indian mindset of not being bothered by anything that doesn’t affect us directly. In fact, these were just two events that were drawn out for illustration and there could be many related events. The point is that as long as selective apathy exists in the system, we cannot really expect a paradigm shift in the political system.

For an endnote, we should be happy that India, despite all its flaws is not a Libya or Egypt or some banana republic ruled by drug-lords. We are far away from the Scandinavian standards of clean governance or human development; but we need to get there sooner or later. But the million dollar question is: ‘how?’

A nation like ours that is overpopulated and battered by invasions and plundering over centuries has not only lost its material wealth but also its culture. In our nation, we have got used throwing garbage on streets, urinating and defecating and expecting the government to clean it up. We don’t care about traffic lights until there is a cop there.

So, what our nation needs is loads of self discipline. We need to find an ideal mix between our ancient values and scientific ways and discipline of the west to move forward. People must be awakened and empowered enough not to accept cash to exercise their right to vote as citizens or to pay bribes to get things done. Only such an awakened populace can produce leaders that reflect the same ethos and energy.

This must begin with small steps, i.e. through a change of heart. I’d rather wish that those backing movements such as these inspire and educate people to do their bit in actual service rather than asking people to show solidarity by fasting at home. If joining politics sounds difficult, common folk could start by contributing by working in the public sector or working to bring about a change in one’s own surroundings.

Can India do it? Can we help ourselves? Or do we need another avatar of Buddha or Christ or Vivekananda to awaken us from our slumber?