Originally Published 2011-08-20 00:00:00 Published on Aug 20, 2011
Gandhiji would surely condemn the corruption that plagues India today. But unlike Anna Hazare, he would steer us towards the more preliminary question of, how did we get here?
Anna Hazare - Gandhi: Is the comparison right?
I do not claim to be a scholar of Mahatma Gandhi's life and works. Yet as his admirer I find the relentless comparisons of Anna Hazare with Gandhiji very troubling. Anna Hazare may have embraced Gandhian tactics, but his larger vision remains unaligned with Gandhiji's.

Let's begin with Anna Hazare's view that corruption results purely from personal greed: this is obvious from his statements to the press as well as the thrust of his Lokpal Bill. Gandhiji too stressed the importance of personal ethics: "Be the change you want to be," is one of his best-remembered sayings. But his vision was more profound; his diagnosis, more systemic. For Gandhiji, personal greed had a wider social context, and was also rooted in the unethical practices of the state.

Gandhiji would surely condemn the corruption that plagues India today. But unlike Anna Hazare, he would steer us towards the more preliminary question of, how did we get here?

In many ways, the character of corruption in India has not changed over time, though its scale certainly has. The middle class, which is the force behind Anna Hazare's movement, is quick to point out that corruption, prior to 1991, was due to the discretionary powers enjoyed by bureaucrats and politicians in our overly controlled economy. Liberalization was supposed to change this. When it did not, it was easiest to conclude that not enough liberalization had taken place, and that Indian public servants were especially morally depraved.

Neither assumption is true. Not only have we seen plenty of liberalization, some of the worst cases of corruption in recent years are spawns of the liberalization process - of deregulation, privatization and the proliferation of public-private partnerships. Our public servants are also not unusually greedy. The problem is not only one of personal avarice, but of the incentives and opportunities to be corrupt.

From a Gandhian perspective, liberalization did not transform the nature and objectives of the state, only its methods. We are still following what Gandhiji fundamentally opposed: a master-narrative of growth-at-all-cost that is at odds with the goal of a more equitable society and concern for the natural environment. We remain prisoners of a high modernist paradigm that pits us in a race to 'catch-up' with the West (and now, with China). So eager are we to compete in this global game of one-upmanship that we do not care what damage is done on the way.

The middle classes who have been galvanized by Anna Hazare - the businessmen who have poured money into his campaign - are particularly guilty of such deliberate blindness. Did they rally against the violation of environmental norms, the eviction of slumdwellers, and the early revelations of corruption that paved the way for the hastily built Commonwealth Games Village? No, because they were too captivated by the government's promise that the games would affirm India's 'world class' status. And for all their impassioned defence of civil society, did they support fellow civil society actors, such as the National Alliance for People's Movement, when it came to fighting against corruption related to the development of SEZs? No, because they were too seduced by the idea that SEZs will propel India into ever-higher orbits of growth.

The majority of Anna Hazare's supporters not only remain uncritical of the processes that generate corruption in our country, they actively endorse these processes. They consistently look the other way when confronted by evidence of corruption, either because they stand to gain materially, or because they are fired by an ill-founded sense of national pride. Gandhiji would have been against such shallow materialism and nationalism, as also against the arrogant refusal to acknowledge the work of others (Anna Hazare's supporters often behave as though they are independent India's first protestors - the only ones ever to raise the red flag of corruption).

If Anna Hazare's diagnosis of the problem of corruption is un-Gandhian, so is his prescription of a Leviathan-like Lokpal. While Gandhiji would probably not worry about the monitoring of elected officials by a 'Lokpal', he would surely oppose the creation of such a top-down monolithic institution, over which ordinary citizens appear to have very little control. An anti-corruption route more in keeping with Gandhian principles is that of the Right to Information campaign, which more genuinely empowers ordinary citizens, and creates space for the voicing of grassroots concerns through locally-grounded mechanisms such as Jan Sunwais (public hearings).

There are, however, aspects of Anna Hazare that are in fact Gandhian, such as his willingness to sacrifice himself for a cause. Given our country's history, labelling this as "suicide" is dishonest, if not offensive. The government's justification of Hazare's arrest in the interest of "law and order" and Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari's description of Team Anna as "armchair fascists, overground Maoists and closet anarchists" is also nothing short of reactionary. So its fast-unravelling attempt to portray Hazare as corrupt or the puppet of a "foreign hand." These are just the sorts of self-serving arguments the British used against Gandhiji.

The argument that Anna Hazare is a threat to parliamentary democracy is also disingenuous. Hazare is not calling for regime change, nor is he disputing the parliament's authority to make laws. Moreover, the concept of parliamentary supremacy is not absolute. What about popular sovereignty, the political principle that the legitimacy of the state is created by the will or consent of its people, who are ultimately the source of all political power? According to this principle, the foundational stone of democracy, distrust of government is healthy. Many important changes would have not occurred had we left it up to lawmakers to enact just laws. Women would not have had the right to vote. African-Americans would have still faced the indignities of segregation. We would have not had our freedom. People like Gandhiji, Martin Luther King and even Malcolm X had to kick open doors in order to make way for more routine reform.

Unlike Gandhiji, Anna Hazare does not bring with him a profound analysis of the problem of corruption. But through his charismatic personality and ability to inspire - which are reminiscent of Gandhiji - he may have succeeded in shocking us into beginning a rigorous, countrywide conversation on corruption. One can only hope that a more systemic analysis will follow.

I am not arguing that every protestor must be armed with an erudite analysis of national and global problems. Gandhiji would have resisted such banal elitism. But it is the responsibility of the leadership of the Anna Hazare movement, which now has an enviable upper hand over the government, to develop a clearly articulated ideology that battles not only the symptoms, but also the root causes of corruption. Only then will they endure beyond the one-man show they are today. Only then will Team Anna have the right to evoke the name of Mahatma Gandhi.

(Dr. Mitu Sengupta is the Director of the Centre for Development and Human Rights, which was founded by her father, the late Dr. Arjun Sengupta, former Advisor to Observer Research Foundation)
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