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SUDHIR KRISHNASWAMY
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Dr Sudhir Krishnaswamy is Professor of Law, West Bengal National University of ­Juridical Sciences

Will Jantar Mantar prove to be India’s Tahrir Square?

Students hold placards to support social activist Anna Hazare, who was sitting on an indefinite fast for the "Jan Lokpal Bill" at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on 8 April. PTI

nna Hazare ended his fast in Jantar Mantar last Saturday, when the government appointed a civil society-government joint committee to finalise a Lok Pal Bill. With each passing day the supporting crowds swelled and the list of high profile celebrity and political endorsements grew. While the government initially held firm, its resolve was tested by Hazare's failing health and the growing popular buzz around the country. By most accounts this is a weak government, so it is no surprise to see it buckle. While tackling corruption is urgent, the proposed Lok Pal Bill is unlikely to contribute significantly to this cause.

The proposal for a Lok Pal is not new. In 1969 legislation for it was passed by the Lok Sabha but not by the Rajya Sabha. In the 1970s the Jayaprakash Narayan movement for a "total revolution" identified fighting corruption and creating the Lok Pal as a significant aim. It is significant that the political formations that arose out of the movement did not paint themselves in glory as they quickly adapted and devised corruption strategies that were both ingenious and spectacular in scale. Since that time corruption has remained a potent weapon in political battles, but there are rarely popular movements or protests which identify corruption as their primary target.

It is against this background that the campaign around Anna Hazare's fast gains significance. It is the first large popular campaign against corruption that has not emanated from a political party. The organisers have tried to keep their distance from the political parties, albeit unsuccessfully. For the Opposition parties, this is simply another opportunity to embarrass the government, as none of them have committed themselves to the Lok Pal or the draft Bill proposed by the campaign. However, unlike the mobilisation patterns of the JP movement, this campaign has relied extensively on social media: Twitter and Facebook have been utilised by the campaign to bring out a new constituency of actors with little or no prior political experience. The emergence of a significant youth protest invites comparisons to Tahrir Square, though the democratic and liberal character of the Indian state is in sharp contrast to the North African or West Asian protests.

Notably, the core of this campaign against corruption relied on the low-technology technique of fasting unto death. By putting his health and possibly his life on the line, Anna Hazare has raised the stakes of this campaign. This form of political brinkmanship is fast becoming the standard idiom of Indian politics. The Opposition parties hold Parliament hostage for a Joint Parliamentary Committee; the students of Osmania University immolate themselves for a new Telengana State; and now this campaign against corruption. While the goals of these campaigns are disparate and incommensurable, they are united in their mode of protest. Confront political authority with unbearable moral, political and economic costs and it will fall in line.

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By restoring moral disapprobation to corruption in India the campaign has set up the ground from which a serious challenge to these practices may become possible.

The considerable popular anger and frustration about corruption in India has reached fever pitch. So long as our complaint against corruption is formless and nameless there is great popular support. Even Pappu Yadav and B.S. Yeddyurappa are strong supporters of this campaign. At this level of generality one cannot discern what this campaign stands for besides asserting that we all support it. The campaign seeks to canalise this social ferment to seek the enactment of a Lok Pal bill. However, the focus on the draft Lok Pal bill suggests that the campaign has not worked through the problem of corruption in India carefully. Corruption is a complex problem, one that cannot be resolved by a single hydra-headed institution that combines executive and judicial power. Moreover, even the existing templates for Lok Ayukta institutions in the States have not been very effective at fighting corruption. So the proposed Lok Pal bill is an unworthy focus for the virtuous and timely goals of this Campaign.

Ignoring the institutional solutions proposed by the Campaign for the moment, one anticipates that there are subtle subterranean shifts in our cultural common sense. Over the last three decades, the ubiquity of corruption in our everyday life has normalised it in both academic and everyday discourse. We had very successfully explained corruption and had come to celebrate it in some measure. To the extent that this campaign has any long lasting impact, it will be because it has subtly shifted the normative values that we use to understand and analyse corruption. By restoring moral disapprobation to corruption in India the campaign has set up the ground from which a serious challenge to these practices may become possible.

However, for such a challenge to emerge, far greater intellectual effort needs to be invested in our understanding of corruption and the legal and institutional means of tackling it.

 
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