Can Indian authorities afford not to tackle corruption?
- 18 August 2012
- From the section India
Two anti-corruption hunger strikes in India this summer have been largely ignored by the authorities and the public but the anti-graft movement does seem to be worrying politicians and civil servants.
Last summer, the government was rattled by evidence of corruption, including massive sums of money mis-spent on preparations for the Commonwealth Games and the exchequer losing perhaps as much as £24bn ($40bn) by selling mobile-phone frequencies cheaply to favoured operators. So when the campaigners fasted in protest against these and other scandals, ministers lost their nerve.
In April last year, crowds poured into the streets of Delhi in support of the fast by Anna Hazare, a social worker who has emerged from the obscurity of rural western India to become the figurehead of a national movement against corruption.
Mr Hazare demanded the establishment of an ombudsman.
Seeing the public support for him and fearing that - at the age of 74 - he might die, ministers hurriedly agreed to set up a committee to establish an independent body to investigate misappropriation of government funds.
Hardly had the fast ended before the saffron-robed yoga guru Baba Ramdev came to Delhi to protest against corruption.
Knowing of the popularity of his televised yoga classes, four ministers rushed to the airport to greet him but they failed to persuade him to call off his fast.
Alarmed by the crowds Baba Ramdev attracted, the home minister sent the police in the middle of the night to disperse them.
This they did with considerable brutality, arresting Baba Ramdev as he tried to escape dressed as a woman.
When Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev returned to Delhi to fast this year, the government decided that the steam had gone out of their movements and the best policy was to ignore them.
Mr Hazare was protesting because there was still no agreement on the ombudsman he wanted.
This time Delhi did not turn out to support him.
After three days, he called off his fast amidst confusion about whether he had asked his colleagues to form a political party or not.
When I visited the camp in the middle of Delhi which Baba Ramdev established this year for his fast demanding the recovery of all the illegal Indian funds deposited in foreign banks, police officers were relaxing in chairs and constables leaning on their lead-tipped lathis or staves.
I found very little evidence of support from the general public. The only backing I could find was among his dedicated disciples.
The government ignored Baba Ramdev until, seeing that his fast was going nowhere, he called on his supporters to march on parliament.
He managed to turn his temporary arrest into a drama which brought traffic in central Delhi to a halt.
The police treated him with kid gloves.
With the fasts over, can the government revert to the Indian tradition of accepting corruption as a part of life?
That tradition goes back 3,000 years to the political theorist Chanakya, known as the Indian Machiavelli.
He said: "Just as it's impossible not to taste honey or poison when it's on the tip of the tongue, so it's impossible for a government servant not to eat up at least a bit of the king's revenue."
Bringing it nearer to our time, Indira Gandhi dismissed corruption as "a global phenomenon" and, the other day, a minister in the government of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, told officials it was alright to steal but not to loot.
The limited support for Mr Hazare's fast indicates that middle-class anger against corruption is not the potent force that it was said to be at the height of his popularity last year. Although Baba Ramdev can rally his own supporters, there is little evidence that his movement enjoys mass support.
But during this fast by the Baba, the main opposition party - the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party - and some of its allies came out in his support.
They clearly believe he wields a big enough stick to help them defeat the governing coalition in the 2014 elections.
It is not just the politics of the anti-corruption campaign which worry the government.
Businessmen openly - and officials privately - say the whole administration has slowed down perceptibly because, in the present feverish atmosphere, civil servants are reluctant to take decisions for fear of being accused of corruption by the opposition or indeed the media.
But there seems little the ruling Congress party can do. As one senior congressman put it to me: "Baba Ramdev and Anna have brought corruption centre-stage and it's likely to stay there."
Doubtless the Baba will produce more dramas to keep himself in the frame.
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