India needs a new anti-corruption movement

India needs a new anti-corruption movement

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Supporters of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare during his three-day fast at the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) grounds, Mumbai, Dec. 28, 2011. (Reuters)

How times change. At the start of this decade, most Indians, when asked about the greatest problem confronting the nation, would have said corruption.
At the time, a series of scams, mostly to do with the allocation of natural resources by Manmohan Singh’s center-left United Progressive Alliance government, had incensed the Indian public. Corruption and crony capitalism, it was thought, were draining the prosperity of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and undermining Indian democracy.
In 2011, anti-corruption protests, which were led by veteran social activist Anna Hazare and used familiar Gandhian tools such as mass demonstrations and hunger strikes, attracted huge public support and widespread coverage in international media.
Across India, millions took to the streets to participate in a “citizens’ movement” calling for greater transparency in public life and a crackdown on graft. For many middle class Indians, this was a thrilling initiation in a realm of politics that was more active and expressive (including the use of the newly emerging channels of social media) than voting in a secret ballot.
Coming together to oppose corruption made people aware of the interconnectedness of their lives across the boundaries of caste, class and religion. To join the fight against a noxious culture that had become so deeply ingrained in the everyday life of India, it was felt, was a sign of patriotism.
Perhaps the greatest political beneficiary of this was the main opposition party at the time, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Out of power since 2004 — and politically unpalatable to much of the intelligentsia, as well as a majority of Indians, because of its narrow-minded ideology and obsession with identity politics — the party was quick to exploit the mood of the nation. Led by Narendra Modi, a state chief minister new to national politics, the party changed tack in the national elections of 2014 to a plank of development and corruption-free governance.
The strategy was effective. A mix of first-time voters (due to India’s “demographic dividend,” this class has typically exceeded 10 percent of the electorate in this century) and older voters switching to the BJP for the first time was enough to top up the party’s traditional upper-caste Hindu “vote bank” and thereby swing the election.
Modi became the first prime minister in 30 years to secure a clear majority in parliament — with a corresponding increase in power, it was felt, to push through tough legislation, enact far-reaching economic reforms, and root out the old culture of red tape, nepotism and corruption.
Six years (and a second election victory in 2019) later, it is time to contrast those exuberant expectations with the dismal realities of India today. True, for several years big-ticket financial corruption has not reared its head. But it has been replaced by another kind of corruption that threatens to break up the nation and undo many decades of slow progress: The corruption of democratic norms, civil liberties, constitutional principles, institutional integrity and a secular state.
Carried out cautiously at first, but ever-more openly since 2019, this is a corruption that is all the more dangerous because it can be justified and rationalized — as financial corruption could not — by political ideology, the rhetoric of nationalism, the targeting of minorities and the use of state violence. It is a corruption that actually feeds on opposition.
The evidence is mounting and impossible to ignore. In the past year, the central government has revoked the special constitutional status long enjoyed by the border state of Jammu and Kashmir. In doing so it implemented, as a way of muffling public opinion in that state, the longest-ever internet shutdown by a democracy.
It has passed in parliament the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which makes a religion-based distinction between the rights of potential refugees — and potentially also citizens, thereby violating one of the core principles of the constitution.
This prejudice in legislative matters has naturally also infected the executive branch of government. In February, the BJP’s party cadre openly fomented sectarian violence in riots that claimed more than 50 lives in the capital, New Delhi. Yet the legal investigation into the violence, entrusted to a police force controlled by the central government, has refused to consider that government’s role in the violence, even as it named students and civil rights activists.
In several opposition-ruled states — including, this month, the large state of Rajasthan — the BJP stands accused of bringing down elected governments by offering financial incentives and other perks for legislators to defect. The longstanding tension between the party’s core ideology and the Indian constitution, now combined with a brazen use of political power that was won by democratic means but is being used to destroy democracy from within, has produced a polarization of society and an inversion of truth and lies.
In short, the world’s largest democracy, like the democracies of Russia and Brazil, is going rogue. And the world is taking note. Between 2018 and 2019, India slipped 10 places (from a ranking of 41 to 51) on the Democracy Index, a widely cited list compiled by the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit. The report cited “the erosion of civil liberties” as the main reason for the slide.
In its latest report, published in April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom downgraded India to its lowest rating.

Rising economic growth within a democratic political framework had, at the turn of the century, put India on course to become one of the world’s major powers. Twenty years on, economic recession and state-led institutional capture has diminished India’s international reputation.

Chandrahas Choudhury

Rising economic growth within a democratic political framework had, at the turn of the century, put India on course to become one of the world’s major powers. Twenty years on, economic recession and state-led institutional capture has diminished India’s international reputation.
Indian democracy had many flaws even before 2014. But at home and abroad, there is regret and resistance to the way in which a slowly advancing culture of rights and freedoms, justice and empowerment, religious accommodation and democratic dialogue has been sabotaged by a coercive and constraint-free, openly majoritarian political dispensation that sees in today’s anarchy tomorrow’s complete control of power.
The time is ripe for a new anti-corruption movement in India. But it will be much more perilous and demanding than the one of a decade ago.

  • Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and The National. Twitter: @Hashestweets
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