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Rough patch for anti-graft movement

by Ipsita Sapra


In recent years, India witnessed some multi-million dollar scams, involving politicians and private businesses. People increasingly see the state as an active conniver, ever-willing to respond to private interests for sufficient returns of favour. In huge street protests, masses expressed their outrage at rampant corruption in all walks of life in 2011. Filmstars supported the anti-graft movement, and so did other influential names from public life, from yoga gurus to retired police officers. The media joined in and, to judge by the coverage, India was having its “Tahrir Square moment” or even its own “Jasmine Revolution”.

One and a half years on, the mood is somber. The movement has hit a rough patch. High-profile cases are increasingly seen as battlegrounds between prominent personalities, while they really are test cases of systemic failure. The movement took extreme anti-politician positions, which made it susceptible to charges of undermining democracy. At the same time, it created a new public space that attracted persons with political aspirations. After a while, the mass movement began to lose its sheen and people got tired of constant mobilisation.

It is one thing to raise anti-corruption slogans and mobilise people. It is quite another to sustain the interest over long-drawn legal negotiations around setting up anti-corruption authorities and debating the nitty-gritty of roles and responsibilities. The political class was initially shocked by the mass uprising and amenable to proposals, but in view of dwindling public pressure, it soon began to reject most demands. 

The movement has recently split in two – into an apolitical body and a political outfit called Aam Aadmi Party (party of the common man). The dilemma is that it is impossible to tackle a deeply political problem by apolitical means. At the same time, running a political party can sometimes take attention away from the core issue. Also, the compulsions of electoral politics is such that people often get entangled in the graft phenomenon.

Perhaps the way ahead is to balance systemic changes with means to empower people directly. In this regard, the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 matters very much. It is a powerful instrument to promote transparency and accountability as it entitles people to seek information from public agencies. Citizens can demand to be told why a loan is rejected or a pension disbursement delayed. Government bodies must respond within a stipulated period. If people use RTI well, the result will be greater accountability.

Surely there are challenges. Only 13 % of India’s rural population and 33 % of urban population are aware of the RTI Act. RTI activists, moreover, have faced harassment by politicians. Some whistle-blowers were even killed. But nonetheless, civil society organisations can make systematic use of this law, and if they do so in a coordinated and mutually-supportive manner, they can not only give one another protection, but also make RTI a game-changer in public adminstration.

No doubt, anti-corruption efforts need broad popular support. They need to be rooted in people’s everyday lives. Civil society has an important role to ensure that government bodies become accountable. Exhilarating rallies, however, will not do the job.