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Anna Movement: Other Facets

September 6, 2011

In the media frenzy, it has been forgotten that corruption has many variants that no single law can end

Much has been written about Anna’s pals (Team Anna), people (the “movement”) and people’s pal (civil society) — as also a semi-translation of the last: Lokpal. However, some facets have not evoked the depth of attention that they deserve. Certainly, Anna was little-known outside his home state when his protest began at Jantar Mantar; nor is he a particularly charismatic leader or a great orator. What, then, accounts for his — or the movement’s — appeal? Corruption itself — especially the type that affects the “common man” on a day-to-day basis — is, after all, not a new phenomenon in India. So, was it the timing: the fact that “nothing can stop an idea whose time has come”?

Many have looked at the sociopolitical and economic factors that triggered the movement, and these are undoubtedly major contributors; but, was there also an underlying psychological element? For many years now, across divides of caste, class and community, the commonest “other” — disliked, distrusted and perceived as being corrupt, if not criminal — has been the politician.

So, an agitation directed primarily against the political class, was bound to evoke support. Also, to a vast number of people — possibly a majority — the State (identified mainly as politicians in or out of government, and the administration) is perceived as being exploitative and often oppressive. This image of politicians and officialdom, even if it is an exaggerated caricature, is probably the conducive psychological soil within which the agitation took easy root and flourished. Ominously, this is also a nurturing environment for both anarchism and fascism.

Arguably, this was India’s first media-fuelled movement, through wall-to-wall 24×7 coverage (one estimate was that it made for over 80% of content on TV news channels). The known (but little discussed) agenda-setting power of the media was amplified by the positive feedback cycle between coverage (drawing crowds) and crowds (getting coverage). The mindset of the TV editors, in an intensely competitive media market, ensures that most channels cover the same issue, enforcing a common agenda on a very diverse audience. If the issue to be covered has visual dimensions, that seems to immediately add to its news-worthiness; and, if it is easily accessible, so much the better.

Avisual spectacle in the cities was certainly a god-send for TV. The key players making statements that could be from the pen of a Bollywood dialoguewriter not only added to the audio dimension, but provided grist for the shouting matches (outdoing Parliament) that masquerade as “panel discussions”. The media was, clearly, amajor factor and an amplifier. In fairness to TV, despite some anchors being blatantly partisan — participant, rather than moderator — almost all channels gave a fair airing to different shades of opinion. Yet, one pined for a genuine public-service broadcaster, as counterpoint to the all-powerful market-driven media.

Unfortunately, the issue of corruption itself received short shrift. In the now-standard knee-jerk reaction to any transgression, a new law with harsher punishment — overseen by a saintly big brother super-cop — is the prescription. There is little focus on systemic issues, on better investigation or on ways of speeding up the justice system, and no attempt to differentiate between coercive corruption and collusive corruption. Coercive or extortionist corruption — a common experience in daily life — is what affects and irks most people, especially the poor and powerless. Faulting the bribegiver in such cases is akin to punishing the victim of a crime.

Reducing this form of corruption requires tighter supervision, automation, transparency and overhaul of procedures, more competition in goods and services, and certainty of quick punishment for the bribe-taker.

Collusive corruption, on the other hand, is a “joint venture” between bribegiver and bribe-taker; a transaction in which both benefit, at the cost of the public exchequer or of third parties. This can extend from petty corruption (bribing the ticket-checker when you do not have a ticket) to really big-ticket items (multicrore procurement deals, or sanctioning mining rights). These are inevitably difficult to prove — especially in a court of law — as neither giver nor taker is likely to complain, Such instances, therefore, require intelligent and painstaking investigation; something for which the agencies concerned will require considerable training, especially in understanding complex financial transactions and tracking money trails.

There is a third form of corruption: a variant of coercive corruption, with the roles reversed. In this, “don’t-youknow-who-I-am” mode, power —not money — is used, and the law-breaker (or queue-jumper) uses his position or contacts to have his way. Asymmetry of power and a feudal mindset (“the king can do no wrong”) facilitate such corruption. For both forms of coercive corruption, greater social and economic equity are the best longterm preventive.

Choking the supply-side of corruption necessitates high standards of corporate governance and tight auditing. A tough stance on corruption by industry associations will add peer pressure. Strangely, the Anna movement chose not to take on the major source of bribe-giving: the corrupt corporate. The next movement may not be so kind.

India’s statute books are full of laws for practically everything. The problems lie in their strict and fair enforcement, preceded by good investigation. The popular perception is that the powerful — politicians, top officials and the rich — are able to subvert the law. Another law and another agency may only be marginally more effective; worse, it may paralyse governmental decision-making while driving up the cost of corruption. The gains of public awakening should not be frittered away through tokenisms.

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