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INDIA: Civil Society Shows Its Muscle

Sujoy Dhar

NEW DELHI, Aug 22 2011 (IPS) - In his Independence Day address to the nation on Aug. 15 Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh vowed to fight corruption, but nationwide agitations since then demanding an effective ombudsman to check graft showed an unconvinced public.

Singh’s government appeared to have underestimated the public mood by arresting, the next day, Anna Hazare, 74, the face of a growing anti-graft movement focused currently on getting a strong Lokpal (ombudsman) Bill passed through Parliament.

By the evening of Aug. 16, with crowds swelling around Tihar jail, the capital’s main prison, the government was compelled to release Hazare and concede to his demand to be allowed to sit on a fast at a public venue.

It was after a first round of fasting by Hazare in April that the government set up a joint law drafting panel consisting of ministers and civil society members.

However, when the government was seen to be pushing its own watered-down version of the draft, quickly dubbed the ‘Jokepal Bill’ by Hazare and his supporters, that a fresh and even more vigorous season of protest began.

Hazare’s Jan Lokpal Bill (People’s Lokpal Bill) would bring even the powerful prime minister’s office and the judiciary under the purview of the proposed ombudsman law.


On Sunday, an estimated 100,000 people gathered in the capital’s Ramlila Grounds, where Hazare is sitting on his fast, in a show of solidarity that reminded many of the days of India’s independence movement which peacefully ended the British colonial rule in 1947.

“We are here to support the only true Gandhian left in India,” said Rajkumar Goel, who left his drugstore to join the rally. “They have siphoned away large amounts of money in the name of liberalisation so that the gap between rich and poor is widening faster than ever before.”

As people across Indian cities and towns and villages rallied in support of Hazare, it was a warning to not just the centrally ruling Congress party but the entire political class that India’s civil society was truly fed up with their corrupt ways.

The conflict between the government and civil society is taking place as Asia’s third largest economy grapples with unprecedented levels of corruption that is said to be undermining the liberalisation-led growth of this nation of 1.21 billion people.

According to the estimates released last year by the Indian government’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), a single financial scam involving issuance of second generation telecom licenses cost the exchequer about 39 billion dollars.

Former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja, who presided over the award of the telecom licenses, was sacked and sent to Tihar jail after a preliminary probe.

The telecom scam was followed by a huge financial scandal over award of contracts and purchases during the organisation of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in the national capital, confirmed by the CAG.

Investigations have traced proceeds from such scams to offshore accounts and tax havens, suggesting that large amounts of money being generated illegally were siphoned away abroad.

Indeed, a report released last year by the Washington-based Global Financial Integrity said India could be losing at least 19.3 billion dollars annually in illegal flows out of the country.

Protests from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appeared feeble as the party was itself bogged down by massive financial scandals in southern Karnataka state where it runs the provincial government.

With political parties of all shades losing credibility, the field opened up for civil society to move in and Hazare’s campaign for a strong ombudsman gained extra power.

“In recent years political opposition has become weak. The BJP’s attack on the Congress party-led coalition government was blunted by a major mining scandal in Karnataka that forced the resignation of chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a prominent commentator on political and economic affairs.

“That vacuum is now being filled up by a section of civil society,” said Thakurta. “This is Indian democracy evolving.”

Opinion surveys showed the Congress party losing popularity and the BJP not gaining from it. The results of a poll released last week by Nielsen, the internationally reputed research group, showed a 5.6 percent drop in electoral support for the Congress party over the last year.

While that has prompted the BJP to call for fresh elections, another poll conducted by the New Delhi- based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed that 38 percent of Indians would still vote for the Congress-led ruling coalition, rather than the BJP.

Thakurta added that rising food prices may have added to public ire. “India has a huge food inflation on top of corruption scandals. So naturally there is popular discontent that we see surfacing as mass support for Hazare’s movement.”

Kalikesh Singh Deo, one of India’s younger lawmakers representing the regional Biju Janata Dal party that rules eastern Orissa state, admits that people are losing faith in politicians. “Perhaps the churning will bring better democracy,” he observed.

According to T.R. Raghunandan, activist and founder of the Bangalore-based anti-corruption website Ipaidabribe.com, the battle-lines are now clearly drawn between a Gandhian-style peaceful, non- cooperation movement led by Hazare and a fidgety and insecure government.

“Anna Hazare-led group is right in wanting a strong Lokpal bill. Yet, politicians, however despicable they might be, are right, too. We have a parliament and a draft bill is now before our elected representatives.

“It is for them to decide, and beyond a point they ought not to be pressured by fasts-unto-death. But then persuading Parliament is not an easy task,” said Raghunandan.

However, bolstered by people power, Hazare served an Aug. 30 ultimatum to the government on Sunday. “The government will have to accept the Jan Lokpal Bil because the people have awakened. If not, you (government) will have to go.”

 
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