By: Cyril Pereira

A sustained campaign of sniping at the leaders of the anti-corruption movement by senior members of India’s Congress Party speaks of policy confusion and lack of leadership. What is it designed to achieve?

Two members of corruption protest activist Anna Hazare’s campaign team — Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal — were found to have allegedly fiddled expenses and diverting donations . That gave the Congress Party opportunity to ridicule the anti-corruption campaigners.

Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, another key member of Hazare’s team, delivered the opinion that people of Kashmir should decide whether they wished to stay in India, be independent or switch to Pakistan. That is a ‘sacred-cow’ issue with most Indians. He was assaulted in his office by thugs believed to be members of an extreme Hindu fundamentalist organization.

Thus Team Anna are on the back foot and divided. But that doesn’t absolve the Congress Party of accountability for corruption in government. A corrupt government smearing anti-corruption campaigners does not win it sympathy from a public fed up with civil servants and politicians who abuse their positions.

Manmohan Singh, a weak prime minister out-maneuvered by powerful political warlords, signals administrative dysfunction to voters. There is no one in the driver’s seat. This is a lame-duck government that will in all likelihood be turfed out at the next general election.

Corruption works for everyone except the dispossessed. The victims of India’s systemic corruption are the powerless masses who can’t get relief from policemen, government clerks or elected representatives with their hands out for bribes. The middle classes are annoyed that they have to grease palms at every turn. The rich leverage it to bend the system to their benefit.

State legislators and parliamentarians see election to the government as their ticket to amassing wealth by exerting influence on government contracts. Corruption works for everyone except the dispossessed. So what incentive is there for Parliament to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill, also known as the citizens’ ombudsman will, which seeks to pass restrictive laws dealing with political corruption?

None. About 25 percent of sitting parliamentarians are convicted of crimes or pending charges. A larger proportion manage to benefit without legal trace. Indian ‘black money’ estimated at more than US$1.4 trillion is stashed in Swiss banks. It has been estimated that up to 40 percent of India’s gross domestic product disappears from the economy, stolen by politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats. The last thing India’s political class wants is public scrutiny of its methods of enrichment from public finances.

Thanks to the Right to Information Act which was forced on the government in 2005 by an earlier public campaign, activists can request sight of documents, memos and contracts which were previously inaccessible. That data can be quickly distributed through social networks to name and shame the guilty. The politicians deeply regret passing the information act. Manmohan Singh recently floated a trial balloon saying the RTI needs to be reviewed as it inhibits civil servants from appending notes and comments to proposed bills and projects and that it slows down the normal functioning of government.

That brought a torrent of protest from social activists, amply magnified through TV talk shows and press commentary.

Taking lessons from the effect of the information act, the political class is in no rush to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill despite lobbying by Anna Hazare which has brought thousands to the streets. It is a severe tool designed to rid India of its Neta-Babu (bureaucrat-politician) nexus through swift justice meted out by a citizen’s Ombudsman and his avenging angels. It gives corrupt judges, ministers, civil servants and legislators little legal privilege. It is punitive and extreme to a political class used to distorting legal process to escape responsibility.

Election risk

Anna Hazare has warned that if a strong Jan Lokpal Bill is not passed into law by the winter session of parliament, he will tour all the states where by-elections are due and re-ignite public anger against Congress Party candidates. That is no idle threat.

The public fury that was triggered across the nation by Anna Hazare’s fast in August has not gone away. India’s voters are restive. And the game has gone well past the stage for the government to invoke security as a cover to lock him up.

Congress Party strategists are toying with the parliamentary process and legal punditry to water down the Lokpal bill and starve budget allocations for the ambitious central and state anti-corruption machinery. By a clever combination of toothless legislation and budgetary under-provision, politicians of all parties hope to escape dismissal, seizure of assets and jail.

After all, what’s the point of getting elected if you cannot leverage your position to become a millionaire?

(Cyril Pereira is a senior journalist who comments regularly on Asian affairs.)