This hasn’t been the beginning of a Middle East style jasmine revolution, and Tahrir Square has not come to central Delhi, but protests against corruption that spread across more than a dozen cities in India this week showed how people are tiring of the fraud, extortion and crime-ridden politics that dominate the way the country is run.
The protests mushroomed over four days in support of a hunger strike by a 73-year old publicity-conscious social activist, Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare, who wants to wrest control from the government for drafting Lok Pal (ombudsman) anti-corruption legislation that has been talked about since the 1960s.
[APRIL 9: Hazare ended his fast this morning after the government gave in to his demands by formally notifying creation of the committee drafting the Lok Pal legislation with co-chairmen and equal representation from civil society and politicians. These events have been widely welcomed though there is concern about the Lok Pal’s potentially undemocratic role giving undue power to unaccountable activists that would undermine parliament and the judiciary.]
The basic problem is that politicians and bureaucrats are not seen as being accountable and frighteningly few are seen as being “clean”, while corruption is endemic in the police and has spread alarmingly in the judiciary over the past decade or so.
Last night I heard from bankers and others how young professionals were going after work from their offices to the Jantar Mantar site to add their voices to the complaints, as also happened in other cities. Extensive television coverage, plus messages on Twitter, Facebook and mobile phone texts, have helped to build support and spread information across the country about the cause and protest meetings.
The demonstrators know that corruption goes right to the top of the government and political parties. While no-one accuses prime minister Manmohan Singh of gaining financially from corruption, he has benefited because his acceptance of what is happening in his government means that he remains in his job. Kapil Sibal, the government’s negotiator with Hazare, has been drawn in because, as telecom minister, he recently tried unsuccessfully, for political reasons, to excuse Andimuthu Raja, the disgraced former telecoms minister (pictured below) who led the country’s biggest ever corruption scandal.
Even the Congress Party leadership under Sonia Gandhi, who also heads the governing coalition and appealed unsuccessfully earlier today to Hazare to end his fast, is not exempt. Rumours and gossip are gathering momentum behind the scenes about where bribes paid on last the Commonwealth Games and other major scandals finish up in Delhi, and where that money is then invested.
In a rare and unexpected example of someone almost admitting guilt, Sharad Pawar (pictured left), the veteran agriculture minister and leader of the Maharashtra-based Nationalist Congress Party, resigned this week from a committee on the Lok Pal legislation. He had just been named by Hazare as a politician who “is known for possessing large amounts of land in Maharashtra” – a wordy euphemism that neatly encapsulated years of rumours.
The flow of corruption stories is seemingly never-ending, as are reports suggesting that the government is trying to shield leading politicians in the telecoms and Commonwealth Games scandals.
For several weeks, a series of revelations have shown how unsafe the countries airlines have become because of fraudulent licences given to unqualified pilots. There have been stories about illicit land deals involving Muslim charities and an army golf course, and about Karnataka politicians misusing a student bicycle scheme. WikiLeaks tapes on a 2008 parliamentary vote-buying scandal have embarrassed Singh and the government.
The head of India’s Central Vigilance Commission – appointed inexplicably by Singh – had to resign from his job last month because of old unresolved corruption allegations. Accusations of insider dealing in the US (and other allegations) against Indian-born Rajat Gupta, the former world-wide head of McKinsey who has resigned from several top posts in recent weeks, has added to the image of a society in trouble.
The moment was therefore ripe for Hazare’s protests, which were well timed because the Congress Party is in the middle of assembly elections in five states where voting could be affected by the publicity.
Especially significant has been the involvement of young professionals. The protests came just a few days after young India celebrated the country’s cricket World Cup victory until the early hours last Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Those public revels would have been unthinkable for their parents’ generation, such is the change that has swept across India in the past 20 years. But what is clear today is that this is not just a generation that parties, it is also a generation that is impatient with the way that the country is run.
By the middle of this afternoon when I visited the main Delhi protest area adjacent to the traditional Jantar Mantar meeting ground, what started as a dedicated anti-corruption movement had developed into a jumble of professional protestors, banner-carrying youth jumping and chanting for cameras, with speeches from the saffron clad gurus, actors, lawyers and others who flock to be seen at such events. Later it swelled into several thousands and spread to India Gate on Delhi’s processional Raj Path. Support also came from leading businessmen assembled at the CII business federation’s annual meeting in Delhi.
A few weeks ago, I argued in this blog that the sort of protests that unseated governments in the Middle East could not do the same in India. I said that, while corruption was a potential issue for such protests, millions of people enjoyed the spoils right down through the system to village level, so it arouses condemnation and protest demonstrations, but not potential revolt.
The demonstrators that I saw this afternoon were not out to expel the government, and many will not even really want to change how it operates. But what is significant is the involvement of young professionals, who do not generally share in the gravy train and who are saying that corruption must end.
The politicians need to listen, clean up their act and give a lead. The government’s concessions tonight show that they are worried, and vulnerable.