Vinod Mubayi


The issue of corruption has caused an unprecedented upheaval among the middle classes in India.  Is an unelected all-powerful Lokpal the answer?


The media and most of middle-class India seem to have literally gone berserk on the issue of corruption.  One  does not doubt that they had good reasons to do so, given the astonishing range of scandals from Commonwealth Games to 2G to illegal mining in Karnataka involving, literally, thousands of crores (1 crore= 10 million; 1 lakh=100,000) along with a whole host of other scandals involving lesser amounts, that suddenly erupted over the last year or two.  While the actions and emotions directed at unearthing the truth about corruption and punishing the guilty are quite understandable and, to an extent, admirable, one has to simultaneously be on guard against “solutions” that may have sufficiently deleterious side-effects to lead to the syndrome colorfully described in Hindustani as “goli andar, dum bahar” (medicine that kills the patient).


A common saying has it that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.  Of course one has to be concerned about the actions of the government and the elites in issues such as corruption, which function as an unjust tax on society.  However, one has to ensure that measures taken in the name of curbing corruption do not turn out to be a cure worse than the disease.  Bypassing constitutional norms through the creation of all-powerful unelected Lokpal can ultimately lead to a violation of important legal safeguards and a restriction on the democratic space available.


Many commentators have pointed out the feet of clay borne by Anna Hazare the anointed Gandhian hero of the anti-corruption movement.  His most un-Gandhian desire to hang corrupt officials, his authoritarian tendencies manifested in the campaigns against alcoholism in his native village of Ralegan Siddhi, and his embrace of pro-Hindutva figures such as Baba Ramdev as well as praise for Narendra Modi, the butcher of Gujarati Muslims, all point to the dangers involved in investing large amounts of unchecked authority in such figures.  While acknowledging the huge amount of response sparked among the generally apolitical middle class Indians by his hunger strike on the issue of corruption, it would be utter folly to ignore his limitations and grant him and the movement he is leading a kind of blank check to assume the powers of an anti-corruption Czar based on the hype being generated by the mindless media in India. 


The issues of corruption and anti-corruption campaigns to root it out have a long history in the Indian bureaucracy.  It is well-known, for example, that the Railways had created an Anti-Corruption Department to check, inter alia, on the petty corruption among reservation clerks, when the supply of passenger berths was much smaller than the demand.  Soon afterwards, the Railways had to create a Vigilance Bureau to check on the corrupt practices in the Anti-Corruption Department!  Examples of this nature are legion within the Central and State governmental bureaucracies.   There is no guarantee that the Lokpal type of organization will be somehow divinely constituted and remain immune to temptation.


Ultimately, the issue of corruption devolves on privileged and unfair access to public resources and goods that should, in theory, be available to everyone in exchange for a rent collected by office-holders who are in position to grant such access.  In a transforming capitalist society where technology is rapidly evolving, there is bound to be a level of unequal access created by structural inequality as well as resources that suddenly acquire value because of technology development.  The “huge” 2G scandal, where the alleged scale of corruption runs into all kinds of figures ranging from thousands to lakhs of crores, was made possible only when communication technology developed to a point that made certain portions of the broadband spectrum extremely valuable.  Before these developments, the spectrum itself had little value, as much perhaps as the air one breathes.  Like all such public goods that need to be allocated by public authorities, its value could only be valuable to those who had the technology to utilize it, many of them foreign telecom operators.  The basis on which various portions of the spectrum should be allocated to ensure the highest return to the public exchequer is a complex issue on which there can be differing opinions. 


It is no use pretending that a Lokpal will magically have all the answers to such issues.  On the other hand, almost all of the petty corruption that plagues society can be dealt within existing laws; corruption of the political system that permits outrageous excesses may be brought within the new bill, but the role of the existing judiciary should not be excessively downgraded or abandoned.


In short, like any other institution, the Lokpal should also be subject to various checks and balances; democracy, with all its limitations, has given the Indian people some manner of voice, no matter how limited and manipulated it may be, in deciding their future.  There is no need to create new institutions with unelected leadership that is not subject, at some level, to the wishes of the people.   

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