Has The Anti-Corruption Movement Lost Its Wind?

Anna Hazare (Image: AbhiSuryawanshi/ Creative Commons)
Corruption in India has outlived governments and every effort taken to tackle it.

In 1948, while India and Pakistan fought their first war against each other, the Indian High Commissioner to the UK signed an order for the delivery of 2,000 refurbished Jeeps to aid in the war effort. Most of the payment for this was made upfront. But what finally arrived was 155 Jeeps in defunct condition. By the time the Army realized that they had received duds, the war was already over – and £172,000 had been given to the Jeep manufacturers.

The Ananthasayanam Iyengar Committee was set up to investigate the deal. Their report, submitted in 1951, painted a poor picture of the procurement process. The report was not made public and had little to no consequence. For six years later, the man responsible for the deal, V.K. Krishna Menon, was made India’s Defence Minister.

The Jeep Scandal, as it was called, was an early sign of how corruption would play out in the affairs of independent India. It showed how nepotism, breaches of protocol, and a lack of accountability would all come at the cost of the nation. Menon enjoyed the patronage of the most powerful figure in the country, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and was thus able to escape accountability for what was a cleanly botched job. It was the first name-scandal in India and was far from being the last.

In 70 years of Indian independence, the country has yet to learn how to tackle the menace of corruption – which has only grown in power, quantity and reach. India’s neighbours, both in the region and across East Asia, have performed better in indices that measure corruption. The menace has persisted through subsequent governments, economic systems and in-numerous ‘drives’ to abolish it. From scams worth millions of dollars, the numbers soon turned to billions.

What has remained constant, is a bureaucratic unwillingness to relinquish the power to obstruct anti-corruption measures. Thus, the Central Vigilance Commission, the apex agency tasked with highlighting government corruption, remains an advisory body. The Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI), oft tasked with investigating corruption, remains under the thumb of the Executive, who decide the appointment of its directors. At the height of the corruption scandals that plagued the UPA-II administration, the Supreme Court called the CBI a “caged parrot that speaks in its master’s voice.”

Barring the media and the fourth estate, there has been an absence of an independent body that could investigate and prosecute on charges of corruption – irrespective of political power. Nearly 50 years in the making, the Lokpal bill promised one anti-corruption ombudsman to rule them all.

First introduced by senior advocate Shanti Bhushan in the 1960s, it was intended to combat corruption with a free hand. But as we are reminded by Audrey Lorde, the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house. Since its first appearance in 1968 all the way to 2011, the Lokpal Bill has been introduced and dissolved in Parliament a grand total of eight times.

After a point, faith in the establishment to set up an anti-corruption bill collapsed. In 2011, while the Arab Spring raged in the Middle East, a resolute Gandhian named Anna Hazare, led nationwide hunger strikes, protests and dharnas in the cause of enacting the Lokpal. He called his battle the second freedom struggle of the country. Like the first freedom struggle, the ‘rebels’ were beaten and arrested by the police, in a controversial incident at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar.

In response, the BJP’s then up-and-coming prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, called it:

…one of the worst days of Indian history. The Prime Minister had said during the elections that he would bring back black money stashed in Swiss banks within 100 days of coming into power. But today, it is two years and nothing has happened.

Quick to capitalize on this rising sentiment, the BJP, then in opposition, also made corruption a major plank of their electoral claims. In 2014, they swept the general elections to place Modi as the prime minister with a comfortable majority.

Two years into power and the Central Information Commission was asking Modi the same question he had asked earlier – what happened to your promise to bring back black money? More specifically, the CIC asked Modi to respond to a Right To Information (RTI) request on a prominent BJP campaign claim – to restore black money stored in Swiss banks to the tune of 1.5 million rupees per Indian.

Indeed, the BJP has no shown signs of embracing an independent anti-corruption ombudsman. In Gujarat, they diluted the role of the Lok Ayukta by keeping its appointment under state control. When it was reported that a company run by Jay Shah  (son of BJP president Amit Shah) had raised its revenues by 16,000 percent after the BJP came to power, the party went after the organisation reporting this.

The tale of the Lokpal did not end there. In 2014, the newly incumbent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) tried and failed to push a state-level version of the bill through a coalition government in the Delhi parliament. In frustration, its top convenors resigned and fresh elections were held. AAP returned to power in the nation’s capital with a full majority and passed their own version of the Jan Lokpal Bill in December 2016. But that bill, too, still awaits the Central Government’s approval as of October 2017.

Anna Hazare has since accused AAP’s founder, Arvind Kejriwal, of forgetting the Lokpal since coming to power. But neither Hazare nor Kejriwal are clean-handed crusaders against corruption anymore. Harish Khare, the editor in chief of the Hindustan Times, wrote that Hazare’s movement prepared the ground for ‘a carnival of resentful nationalism’. Since coming to power, Arvind Kejriwal has removed key members from his party in a controversial manner – including Prashant Bhushan, son of the man who first introduced the Lokpal to India.

The overall effect is that any attempt to root out corruption in India is destined to fail, be they long-winded attempts like the Lokpal or shock treatments like demonetisation. Anti-corruption movements are seen as fizzling out wherever they occur.

Today, websites like ipaidabribe.com allow researchers to crowdsource and quantify reports of corruption. Taking user-submitted complaints, the site records 145966 total reports across 1071 cities, to the tune of 2875 crore rupees ($443 million).

The anti-corruption movement has to recapture the imagination of the masses if it is to undo the damage that has been done since independence. This damage, if you account for interest, is to the tune of half a trillion dollars worth of losses since 1948. In the future, Anna Hazare promises another movement. Arvind Kejriwal promises another attempt to pass a Lokpal. Narendra Modi promises to end the circulation of black money. Ultimately, we have reached a point where these promises fall on deaf ears.

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