Indian Democracy Undergoing a Stress Test

23 Aug 2011Shankar Venkateswaran

Image: AFP via sacbee.com

The past week has been, in many ways, a watershed in post-independent India, with millions of Indians – young and old – taking to the streets in a public demonstration against corruption. The crowds have been unprecedented – I certainly do not remember anything like this since the late 1970s – and has cut across geographies and classes. And the man who has galvanized this is a 74-year old Gandhian called Anna Hazare (pronounced Ha-zaa-ray), a retired army soldier whose public contributions started in his small village in western India but who gradually became a relentless crusader against corruption in public life. Will this be a defining moment in India’s democracy? Are there lessons to be learnt, including for corporations in democracies? But I am getting a bit ahead of myself…

Corruption without limits?

The past few years have seen corruption in public life in India reaching a new high (or is it a low?). Perhaps the biggest example has been what is popularly referred to as the 2G scam, where a minister has been arrested on corruption charges for arbitrary allocation of spectrum and licenses to a host of telecom companies at bargain prices, who in turn sold stakes to global companies for huge sums of money. A second scam has been around iron ore mining leases in one of India’s southern states, where the Chief Minister who has been indicted has had to resign. A third is around the Commonwealth Games, a sporting non-event involving the former British Colonies (US exempted but including Canada and Australia!), where a former minister from the ruling party and many others have been charged with corruption.

A non-violent people’s movement – Indian style!

With a government seemingly unwilling to do anything concrete about any of these, the scene seemed ripe for Anna Hazare to launch his campaign for a Lok Pal (or public ombudsman) Act, something that successive governments have been threatening to do for over 40 years. It was almost as if India was waiting for an Anna to come along. Anna and his advisors were invited in April 2011 to work with government representatives to draft a consensus document that could be presented to Parliament, but the consensus never happened. As a result, two bills were formulated – one by the government which was then presented to the Parliament as a Lok Pal Bill (which critics have termed a Joke Pal Bill for its extremely weak and non-serious provisions), while Anna and his advisors formulated what they called the Jan (or People’s) Lok Pal Bill which currently seems to be consigned to the official dustbin and which this people’s movement is trying to resurrect.

As a true Gandhian who believes in non-violence, Anna’s tactics are quintessentially Indian and inspired by the great man himself. His weapon – to fast until his demands are met – was something that Gandhi used very effectively time and time again against the British. And like the great man, Anna’s timing is impeccable – his fast began around August 15, 2011, the day India celebrated its 64th year of independence, and while he has continued to lose weight, his spirit seems intact. His demand is the presentation and passing of the Jan Lok Pal Bill by the Indian Parliament before August 30!

Anna Hazare’s tactics have come under considerable criticism, including from civil society, with many saying that he is weakening India’s democratic institutions by holding the government to ransom and forcing them to accept the Jan Lok Pal Bill. Some have even likened this to George W Bush’s famous lines before the Iraq war, “you are either with us or against us.” Others have called the movement a necessity but see the proposed Jan Lok Pal bill as completely impractical. Still others and have formulated alternatives which keep the principle demands intact but in a manner that they feel is more doable.

What are the implications?

While there is overwhelming support for a concerted fight against corruption, there are differences on Anna’s approach with arguments essentially focusing on the nature and form of representative democracy that India has chosen to follow. The main argument of those opposed to Anna is that as he is unelected, he has no right to represent anyone, and if he wants to change anything, he should stand for elections. But the emerging questions are far more complex. Is democracy just about winning or losing elections? Does the practice of democracy – especially on the first-past-the-post system that India has borrowed from the Westminster model – imply that the winner is given a blank cheque until the next election, and that the role of the people in democracy ends with the casting of a vote?

The Preamble to the Indian Constitution begins with the words “We, the people of India…”, and India seems to be saying that it is the people’s will and not that of Parliament that is supreme. There are already cries for referendums on crucial issues and much discussion on what rights people have between elections. Will this movement open these issues that have never really been a part of public discourse before in India?

And what are the implications for businesses operating in India? There is an increasing belief that there is a compact between business and politics which is at the root of corruption and needs to be addressed. The scams referred to earlier have involved businesses and political patronage. Many believe that the laws that regulate and allocate scarce natural resources – land, water, forests, biodiversity, spectrum, pollution, mining rights – have been kept deliberately weak to enable corruption. Thus, the Lok Pal can at best be a cure, but these laws that aid prevention need to be urgently addressed. Indian businesses that recognise this trend and build it into their DNA are more likely to succeed in the medium to long term.

Another interesting dimension to the protests has been the involvement of young middle-class Indians who have proactively joined these street protests. This class is where corporate India draws its talent from and I for one would not be surprised if they increasingly and actively question the ethics of the companies they work for, and perhaps even begin to use this as one of their criteria when applying for jobs.

Has India changed forever?

The outcome of this stand-off notwithstanding, is this an inflection point for India? I guess we will have to wait for events to unfold, but there is reason to believe that it can no longer be business-as-usual for Indian democracy or Indian businesses. For all those who participated in this protest, it can never be the same!

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