Vinod Daniel is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute and CEO of IndHeritage.
Now that Anna Hazare has ended his twelve day fast, and his version of the Jan Lokpal bill has been agreed to as the basis by both houses of the Indian Parliament, we all should be delighted. Any one promoting anti–corruption measures in India is worthy of support, and it is often difficult to be critical when the moral stakes are so high.
However, watching the intense media coverage and hype around his public fast, as well as seeing team Hazare in action, raises a number of questions (while still hoping that something good comes out of this exercise).
In a vibrant democracy such as India, I think it is a dangerous precedent to have the parliamentary process rail–roaded by an independent campaign. This bypasses the consensus that should be achieved within the constitutional framework. Otherwise, why have such a massive and expensive election every five years?
A campaign such as this will provide a precedent for every major national and state political movement in India, including the current call for a separate Telengana State in the South and the Maoist movement in the East. This is not a healthy outcome for democracy. It would make more sense for people to lobby democratically–elected members of parliament to press their cases through the robust Indian parliamentary system.
In Australia, even if a majority opposes a carbon tax, a decision would not be taken through a mass movement but through the parliamentary process. If the people disagree with the outcome, they get a chance to have their say at the next election.
Is Hazare's effort a fight just against high–level corruption, or also against corruption in the grass roots? I am nervous that Lok Pal at a national level, together with Lok Ayukta at the state level, will become one more bureaucratic system exposed to the same temptations as the existing systems.
It is good to see the current government already acting strongly in two high profile corruption cases — the Commonwealth games and 2G spectrum case — with a Minister and a Member of the Upper House behind bars in Tihar jail and another Minister asked to resign.
Strengthening processes at that level of decision–making makes sense, but drawing in every clerk accused of taking a ten rupee bribe would make justice unworkable (and would create its own parallel pathways), given the already busy and protracted Indian judicial process.
Conversations with a colleagues and friends last week in India highlighted a skepticism about what might be achieved through Lokpal, though anyone watching the Indian media might have a different view on public reactions within India.
Most people I have spoken with are keen for government to minimise the factors that lead to corruption by implementing a few practical measures. These include increasing the election allowance and spending limit, currently about AU$90,000 for a federal constituency and about AU$35,000 for a state constituency, while the actual costs are ten to a hundred times more. Salaries for senior public servants also need to be increased to a reasonable level.
Finally, I am impressed by team Hazare's well–structured and resourced campaign. It is also interesting to see Bharatiya Janata, the major opposition party in India, actively participating and getting political mileage out of this (although of course there was much they could have done while in government). Steps need to be taken to minimise corruption in a vibrant democracy like India. However, we should go in with our eyes wide open.
Photo of Anna Hazare at a rally, courtesy of Flickr user vm2827.