The March of Virtue: Phase 4 in the Anna Hazare Crusade
Two constructions of virtue are in contention as Anna Hazare prepares for the fourth phase of his agitation. For team Anna, virtue is a closely held monopoly, embodied in its leader’s self-denial and moral resoluteness, consistently denied in the electoral fray and endangered by the ruthless competition between parties to extend their patronage networks. For team Manmohan Singh, virtue is just as rare an attribute, typically found in close proximity with extreme wealth, and worthy of special commendation since it could easily slip into its opposite. Corporate India though, still has unmet expectations and Manmohan Singh is their best assurance of securing these. Media loyalties in team Anna's fourth phase of campaign are therefore, likely to lie with the prime minister who sees wealth as the marker of virtue.
News from the world of corruption has been mixed since the last phase of the septuagenarian social campaigner, Anna Hazare’s mobilisation on the issue. Any manner of forecast requires great confidence, but in days of extreme uncertainty and livelihood anxiety, a prediction would be an act of great valour. Anna Hazare’s fourth phase of agitation demanding a law that empowers a powerful ombudsman to investigate and prosecute corruption at every level, due to kick off with an indefinite hunger fast in Delhi on July 25, could bring the believers out on the streets in droves, much like his first two rounds of righteous self-denial. It could just as well end in disarray and discord within his core campaign group, like Anna “Mark 3” did last December.
The uncertainty is further compounded by a pronounced tendency for eccentricity and squabbles in full media glare, shown by Anna’s core campaign group ever since the December bubble burst. Neither can unconditional media endorsement be taken for granted. That indeed was the happy and hospitable terrain on which “team Anna” fought its first two rounds, but December for reasons that still remain to be analysed, brought a change of media agenda.
Processes of prosecution and sanction for official malfeasance may have picked up a notch, showing an earlier absent sense of purpose. A definitive judgment on this would require deeper research, since the greater visibility of punishments being meted out to the corrupt, could well be an artifact of heightened media attention. Again, cases featured in the media have been a mixed bunch, which have not quite assuaged public anxieties about a political system seriously out of joint.
Bangaru Laxman, a former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) earned a four-year prison term for the extreme folly of promising special favours – for a fairly paltry sum -- to a shyster with a hidden camera, who posed as an arms dealer and skilfully played on the political insecurities of a dalit placed at the top of a sectarian caste-based party. Within the same league of high politics, a former chief minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, after thrashing about in a futile bid to deflect the blame onto his predecessors, was formally charged for complicity in the criminal expropriation of public land in one of the most expensive tracts of real estate in the country. On still another front, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati won an unlikely reprieve, when the Supreme Court decreed that investigations into her acquisition of assets, which have been by all accounts wildly disproportionate to known sources of income, had no basis in law. Questions have been raised by individuals with vast experience in corruption investigations, about the consistency and integrity of this order by the Supreme Court. The deeper point, not lost on the public, is that political expediency was determinant in both the launching of investigations in 2003 and their termination in 2012.
Within the lower links of the corruption chain, a clerk in the electricity department at Chandigarh was sentenced to two years in jail for taking a five-hundred rupee bribe to “correct” the electricity bill of a local resident. A policeman earned a like jail term after an auto-rickshaw driver reported him for extorting a thousand rupees to release a driving licence impounded without clear reason. And in a case that went right to the highest level of judicial appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of two hospital workers from Rajasthan, who had demanded a hundred rupee bribe from a patient. With 17 years having lapsed since the offence was committed, the Supreme Court found reason for leniency, commuting the term in prison from two years to one. A few days later, while pronouncing final judgment in a case involving a fifty rupee bribe and a jail sentence of six months, the Supreme Court observed:
The amount may be small but to curb and repress this kind of proclivity the legislature has prescribed the minimum sentence. It should be borne in mind that corruption at any level does not deserve either sympathy or leniency… (C)orruption corrodes the spine of a nation and in the ultimate eventuality makes the economy sterile.
Political Agenda in Legal Actions
Assuming that the uptick in legal actions represents actual forward movement, it is difficult to assess if they are yet an assurance of growing institutional integrity. A political agenda is evident in some of the actions, and an impression persists that for every person hauled up for corruption and other misdemeanours, there are several who get away. A strong suggestion of institutional infirmity moreover, arises from fifty and hundred rupee bribes becoming matters that the highest court in the land has to render judgment on. In a functioning judicial system, matters of such triviality would not have progressed, if at all, beyond a first appeal. A widespread public impression that the judicial system is not anchored in consistent principles leaves those accused of wrongdoing with an incentive to try their luck with the appeals process, in the hope of ultimate exculpation, or at the very least, indefinitely delaying the process of accountability. Supreme Court judges have as a consequence, to deal with cluttered and confused dockets, when they should really attend to only more weighty matters of constitutional law and jurisprudence.
A viable division of labour within the Indian justice system remains a remote prospect, for reasons underlined by the arrest of three judges of the Andhra Pradesh sessions judiciary in a “cash for bail scandal”. The issue was the grant of bail to the mining magnate from Karnataka’s Bellary district, G. Janardhan Reddy, widely known to have despoiled a vast expanse of land, ruined lives and livelihoods, and established an apparatus of coercion in his fief that trumps all the accumulated powers of the Indian state. A political notable with enormous clout within the BJP, Karnataka’s ruling party, Janardhan Reddy was swept up in the dragnet spread by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) after preliminary inquiries revealed gross illegalities by him and his two brothers in Bellary and the neighbouring district of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh.
Janardhan’s operations symbolise the cross-partisan and borderless world of racketeering in natural resources. He and his family are assured of immunity in Karnataka, and his trail of illicit payoffs has spread to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, where it has seemingly contributed to the vast aggrandisement in the fortunes of Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, son of the former chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy. Janardhan’s moment of accountability came after Rajasekhar’s death in a helicopter crash, when Jagan Mohan staked a claim to the succession that seemed just too much like an unseemly power grab, even by the cynical standards of the Congress. Unsettled and greatly discomfited, the satraps of the Congress invoked the state government’s power to call in the CBI to pursue designated cases. Janardhan is today being prosecuted in a case lodged by Andhra Pradesh with a police agency controlled by the central government, for crimes committed in the main, in Karnataka.
Jagan Mohan, taken into custody a few months later, is facing tough questions about his pathway to fabulous wealth. Investigations have especially focused on his rapid accumulation of media assets, in both the print and broadcast sectors, in the space of a mere four years. But he has since his arrest, continued in a figurative sense, the triumphal political processions that deeply unnerved the state leadership of the Congress, inducing criminal proceedings almost as a panic reaction. Swatting down Jagan Mohan’s dynastic claims to chief ministership has proved politically expensive. The thwarted heir has since kept the Congress leadership continually off-balance with very visible and noisy political rallies across the state, finally breaking off from the party. In a number of byelections held in June, Jagan Mohan’s newly constituted YSR Congress won the one Lok Sabha seat at stake in Andhra Pradesh and 15 of 18 assembly constituencies. The Congress party’s fortunes in the state, in the ascendant since 2004, are rapidly waning and the accustomed model of bipolar politics in Andhra Pradesh, is being upended by the play of money power on an unprecedented scale.
When asked about the sources of his wealth, Jagan Mohan and his acolytes are prone to change the subject and refer to the onerous responsibilities they have taken on, to mitigate the suffering of the poor. Corruption as an issue is glossed over or portrayed as an inescapable part of the process of attending to public welfare. For the more acute political observers, this is "patronage democracy" in all its absolute starkness. And since it is the accepted mode of politics, Jagan Mohan’s clinching argument is simply that there has to be some sinister reason why he alone is beginning to attract censure or sanction. To put things very simply, even at the slight risk of caricature: his corruption is in the interests of the poverty stricken masses, while all those others are just enriching themselves.
Public Accountability in Electoral Democracy
Public accountability versus the power to mobilise numbers in the electoral arena: this conflict that Indian democracy has confronted all through its career, is now emerging full-blown to undermine the integrity of its institutions. The electoral arena is in a certain narrative, the ultimate repository of democratic legitimacy. Designated custodians of constitutional propriety and financial probity, would have to yield to the compelling forces mobilised in the electoral arena. Aside from Jagan Mohan’s sweep of the Andhra Pradesh by-elections, Andipatti Raja – prime accused and in many ways the public face of the scandal of the telecom spectrum sale at bargain basement prices – illustrates this facet. Released on bail after 15 months in detention while a criminal chargesheet was filed for the collusive sale of the telecom spectrum to chosen favourites in the corporate sector, Raja was soon calling forth the power of the street in his defence, to trump strictures placed by even the highest judicial body. When his criminal trial resumes in Delhi, he has vowed to call the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India (CAG) to the witness stand, to explain the grounds on which his office arrived at an astronomical estimate of the loss caused to the public exchequer by the sale of telecom spectrum for second-generation (2G) services.
Meanwhile, the office of the CAG after what it called rigorous self-appraisal, concluded that its report on the spectrum under-pricing which triggered a political storm and took Raja to jail, had been soundly based and well-judged. This does not mitigate certain questions about methodology, which are now coming into the public spotlight. A certain difficulty with handling dynamic realities, with estimating the long term consequences of pricing decisions, has been characteristic of the CAG’s recent exertions. Its estimate of the loss from the spectrum sale, in some part, conflates a company’s stockmarket valuation with the true worth of a resource held. The simple fact that it chose to overlook, is that stockmarket values are highly speculative and the investment by foreign entities in Indian companies granted spectrum allocations for 2G services, was determined not so much by the underlying value of the resource, as by current capital investment needs and future expectations of profit. There is also the aspect of the pricing of services which the CAG consistently – and rather strangely -- ignores, since the value of the spectrum is part of a chain in which the price charged the telecom subscriber is the final outcome. India has among the lowest telecom tariffs in the world and yet these are not a variable in the CAG’s estimate of the under-pricing of the spectrum.
It is only now, after a Supreme Court intervention to cancel the bargain sale of 2G spectrum that the telecom industry and the regulatory authority are entering into a debate on the implications of the pricing of airwaves for subscriber tariffs. It is by all accounts, a tense confrontation with neither side willing to yield and the telecom regulator accusing the telecom companies of "scare-mongering" and blaming all their current anxieties on bad decisions in the recent past.
“Coal-gate” after 2G
Methodological disputes were nowhere on the horizon as the Anna Hazare movement kicked off in April last year, with the 2G revelations hovering in the background to create just the right climate of public outrage. And as it prepares for the next round, team Anna has been delivered another potent propaganda weapon by the CAG’s estimate of losses to the public exchequer from discretionary allotment of coal blocks to a number of corporate entities in the public and private sectors. In March, media reports based on a leak from the CAG’s office put this figure at over Rs 10 lakh crore (or Rs 10 trillion), a whole order of magnitude more than the 2G losses. In a hasty public clarification, the CAG then explained that the figures were provisional. The figure quoted by the media, indeed, could be "misleading”, since the benefit reckoned to have accrued to the coal block allotees could not be considered as an equivalent loss to the public exchequer.
The storm though, had already been unleashed. “Coal-gate” is how the scandal was promptly named by the media and late in May, that was where team Anna focused as it began gearing up for a fourth phase of agitation. Few delicacies were involved this time around, as in the past when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was exculpated from personal involvement in corruption and only pilloried for sins of omission. Inaugurating the new season of uncivility, team Anna first compared the prime minister to a transgendered character from the epics who served as a decoy, confusing the enemy as the real warriors prepared their strategies of attack on the battlefield. Then came the comparison with a blind king from the epic, who remained oblivious to all around him as his kingdom descended into bitter sectarian warfare.
Having delivered the best rhetorical insults it could summon up, team Anna came down to its core demand: that the prime minister having held the relevant portfolio all through the time that the impugned decisions had been made, a criminal investigation into his conduct by a specially empowered team was an absolute necessity. “Coal-gate” was propaganda manna for team Anna since it once again spotlighted the dilemma that debates on corruption have foundered on: how can an investigation into prime ministerial conduct be halfway credible when, as head of the executive branch of governance, he holds all the levers in his hands? This in turn translated, in team Anna’s worldview, into an argument about the absolute indispensability of an ombudsman that would hold all the levers in any similar situation: to initiate and oversee investigations into corruption, bring cases to prosecution and ensure the integrity of the judicial process. Till the time that such a body is established by law, the centrality of the prime minister as head of the executive arm of the state, puts him beyond scrutiny. Parliament, which is otherwise the only mechanism of scrutiny he could be subject to, remains dysfunctional, unable to awaken from its torpor and initiate a debate that goes beyond partisanship, into realms of objectivity.
Predictably, Parliament failed the test once again, allowing the frisson occasioned by numbers beyond ordinary human comprehension -- and the passing opportunity to fling a few barbs at the prime minister -- to overwhelm any serious engagement with policy. Spokesmen for the ruling party soon launched their counter-attack, as the prime minister himself reacted with offended hauteur. A minister in the prime minister’s office tossed out the old and clichéd accusation of "anti-national" activity, and another senior minister who obviously still carries a great deal of 1970s vintage rhetorical baggage, purported to find clinching evidence that team Anna was the pliant tool of a "foreign hand" with nefarious intent.
Invective aside, the prime minister’s team soon had ready an aggressive defence of the economic rationale of granting coal-blocks at a concessional price to hand-picked corporate entities. Expectedly, this defence focused on the dimension of the value chain that the CAG had proved relatively inattentive to: final user price. Coal block allocation at a low rate relative to potential yield and prevalent market prices, did not amount to any serious irregularity, since the coal that is extracted is meant for captive use in such vital sectors as power, steel and cement. Keeping the price of raw energy inputs low in turn, would yield the benign result of lower user prices for such vital industrial intermediates as electricity, cement and steel. Far from being a loss of public revenue, the allocation of coal blocks to major users of the resource – many of them in the public sector – was a measure designed with explicit intent to promote growth and improve the competitive status of the Indian economy.
The CAG had in its draft report, partially preempted this rejoinder, drawing on a Supreme Court ruling that “the State legally owns the natural resources on behalf of its citizens” and when assigning these to private hands, was under obligation to ensure that “the benefit of the low cost of the natural resources would be passed on to the citizens”. This was not to be taken for granted; rather, it had to be proved that the prices at which these corporate entities rendered their service to the public reflected the economy of resource access they enjoyed. Neither the regulatory mechanisms in power, steel and cement, the CAG pointed out, nor the market mechanisms could ensure that corporate entities allocated coal blocks at bargain basement prices “would pass on the benefit of low cost of natural resources to the citizens”.
The CAG report has since the initial flurry of public excitement, fallen into a zone of obscurity, with no clear indication yet available of when it will emerge with the full imprimatur of the financial custodian’s authority. Team Anna meanwhile, has continued with its scattershot strategy, calling just at the moment that Pranab Mukherjee was granted the Congress nomination for the presidential election of July 19, for investigations into his recent and distant decisions as a minister in the union cabinet. Once ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mukherjee would have constitutional immunity, said team Anna. The time to get to the bottom of all accusations against him was just when he was about to cross that constitutional threshold.
As with the prime minister, Mukherjee’s reaction was again, all injured innocence. An official communique from his office, rich in adjectives and moral outrage, gave away the key fact that all issues raised by team Anna were the subject matter of a public interest petition filed before the Delhi High Court. The unavoidable inference of this admission, perhaps unwitting, was simply that the public interest in discovering the truth about such sensitive matters as possible irregularities in the acquisition of submarines for the Indian Navy and the leak of sensitive information about naval operations planning, would have to fade away for the duration of Mukherjee’s tenancy in Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Team Anna continues to dream of a world free of vice, when it would hold all the levers and mete out summary justice to those of lesser virtue. Meanwhile, an existing legal authority that has been tasked with overseeing the integrity of administrative processes, was sufficiently interested in “Coal-gate”, to sanction an investigation of its own. The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) was once devoid of real authority, because it had to depend on specific instances of wrongdoing being brought to its attention, and then had no powers of investigation of its own. Under an administrative arrangement put together in the mid-1990s when hearings of the “Jain Hawala diaries” in the Supreme Court revealed a glimpse into the cosy cohabitation of politicians and businessmen in the ideology-free world of sleaze, the CVC was given the power of oversight and superintendence over the CBI, including a decisive voice in the choice of its head. That was then regarded as an extraordinary policy intervention by the judiciary. In later years, J.S. Verma, who decreed this arrangement as a puisne judge in the Supreme Court and later ascended to the post of Chief Justice of India, has very candidly admitted that this extraordinary judicial intrusion into the policy domain, as it seemed then, had not quite brought about the positive changes he thought possible.
That sense of disappointed expectations is best represented in the state of the CBI: flabby, effete, and corrupt. This police agency controlled by the central government has jurisdiction all over India, subject to the explicit consent of state authorities. In recent times, the CBI has functioned as a steam valve, releasing pressure on state authorities when heinous crimes take place and questions are raised about the competence and commitment of local police forces. Administrative control of the agency still vests with the department of personnel in the Union Government, which is in turn directly under the prime minister’s charge. Despite the process of autonomy designed by justice Verma being in operation for over 15 years, the reputation of the CBI has been reduced to tatters.
The CBI is yet to reveal the direction in which its “Coal-gate” inquiries are proceeding. With its finely tuned political nose and individual officers’ appreciation of where best chances lie, obfuscation and indefinite delay are the most likely outcomes. Fundamentally, the CBI cannot be a credible investigator when it is controlled by a prime minister who has a stake in ensuring that his reputation and his cabinet colleagues’, is not damaged by any public revelation of wrongdoing. The public is uneasily aware that enormous deeds of financial deceit have been occurring behind walls of executive privilege and governmental secrecy. It is a state of anxiety that feeds into the deeper agenda behind team Anna’s very conspicuous targeting of a prospective head of state and the head of the executive machinery: that no office should be spared the scrutiny of the wider public who have been repeatedly betrayed by their elected representatives. In turn, this translates into the message that older principles of the separation of power between legislature, executive and judiciary, are no longer valid. All three elements within this distribution of powers, should be subject to the scrutiny of a fourth, which for team Anna would translate roughly as “the virtuous” and in the wider media discourse, as “civil society”.
Representation of Elite Disgruntlement
This effort to coerce the institutions of the Indian state into compliance is different from A Raja’s or Jagan Mohan Reddy’s in being inspired by the quality of virtue, which team Anna possesses and few others in active politics do. The Anna Hazare movement, indeed, is a powerful representation of elite disgruntlement at the state of governance. Its dominant motif is a forthright sense of disdain, loudly proclaimed, at the functioning of the institutions of representative democracy. And its programme is to secure democracy against a reign of iniquity by endowing the virtuous few with powers that trump all others.
This construction of virtue is now set on a collision course with another, which sees policy decisions and administrative arrangements exclusively through the prism of economic growth. Manmohan Singh won accolades for his five-year tenure as finance minister beginning in 1991, when India confronted an acute international payments crisis, and the economy seemed to be plunging headlong into a quagmire of inflation and stagnancy. Though his five-year tenure as finance minister brought no miracles, he has retrospectively been credited with the enormous spurt in India’s aggregate rate of economic growth, which began as a rebound from the disastrous drought year of 2002. Fortune’s child, he enjoyed through his first tenure as prime minister, the good favour of economic growth rates that persisted at unprecedentedly high levels. As the growth momentum began to flag, beginning end-2008, worshipping acolytes were inclined to put the blame on the unimaginative Congress party apparatchik, Pranab Mukherjee, who assumed charge at the finance ministry in January 2009. Manmohan Singh was still regarded as the miracle worker whose long absence from the pivotal ministry had put the Indian economy at risk.
Now directly in charge of the finance ministry, Manmohan Singh has signalled that his priority is to tackle the continuing slump in economic growth by boosting investment. Icons of Indian entrepreneurship in the age of globalisation, Azim Premji and N.R. Narayanamurthy, after public expressions of disappointment at his failure to deliver leadership when most needed, have since been holding their counsel, evidently waiting for some action. Mukesh Ambani was another captain of industry who chose to be very vocal about his concern at the policy drift, but his emotions could not have been unmixed with growing alarm over the CAG's indictment of his company, Reliance Industries Ltd., for a conspicuous failure to deliver after securing the right to exploit the Krishna-Godavari gas fields at what many thought, was a derisory rate.
It was yet another case of natural resources being gift-wrapped for private aggrandisement and Ambani’s meeting early in July with Montek Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, has led to a predictable buzz about new pricing norms for gas extracted from the Krishna-Godavari fields and a possible bid by Reliance for a part of the telecom spectrum when fresh auctions decreed by the Supreme Court are held. It has also not passed comment that since Manmohan Singh took over charge at the finance ministry, Ahluwalia as his most trusted economic aide, has been receiving a number of high-profile corporate chieftains, including Vijay Mallya of the beleaguered UB group, whose Kingfisher Airlines could, despite some collusive credit arrangements with public sector banks, soon become the most spectacular bankruptcy in India’s business history.
Ahluwalia himself is clear about the course ahead if India is to pull itself out of the slough of economic despond: tinkering with interest rates was just no option since “growth is supply constrained”. Energy was one of the main drags and the private sector had the key responsibility here. As he puts it in a recent interview:
It was our policy that we must allow the private sector to grow. What we’ve now seen is that on the supply side it is not so easy for the fuel supply guys to catch up and what have we done? .. We have allowed captive coal to be bid. There is a bit of a controversy that it was not done via auction but we will take care of that as the new system is in place. The nationalised Coal Supplier, Coal India Ltd., has not come up to target, (and) that is a problem..
A former media adviser has in this time written an elaborate apologia, crediting Manmohan Singh with having fostered a wide public understanding of the need for unfettered “animal spirits” to uplift the national mood and bring the best instincts of entrepreneurship to fruition. The Prime Minister is in the words of his former adviser, invoking the spirit of John Maynard Keynes, a pioneering economist of the first half of the last century, who has left a “lasting intellectual impact” on him. To quote this excursus into the mind of the Prime Minister, published early in July:
An important behavioural idea that Keynes introduced to modern macroeconomics was that sentiment plays as important a role as rational calculus in shaping investor behaviour. His now famous quote on ‘animal spirits’ (that many in India have discovered after last week’s use of that phrase by Prime Minister Singh), is in fact a fine exposition of the idea.
For those of somewhat longer memory, Manmohan Singh’s invocation of “animal spirits” in this time of economic uncertainty, should be cause not for celebration but for deep concern. It shows in effect, that his thinking has changed little since the 1990s tenure in the Finance Ministry. “Animal spirits” was a term that he often tossed around then as the basis of his belief that restraints on entrepreneurial behaviour needed to be removed, that indeed, the spirit of personal aggrandisement should be unfettered so that the economy as a whole could grow. His economic philosophy – then as now – is simply that the rich hold the keys and should be pampered with greater favours since in their benevolence and their innovative abilities, lies salvation for all others. His purported ability to quote the entire text from Keynes’ work where he celebrates this spirit of benevolence of the rich – while omitting much else from the same source which says the opposite – speaks of a troubling selectivity and an inability to look at the larger picture:
If the rich had spent their new wealth on their own enjoyments, the world would long ago have found such a regime intolerable. But like bees they saved and accumulated, not less to the advantage of the whole community ... [they] were allowed to call the best part of the cake theirs and were theoretically free to consume it, on the tacit underlying condition that they consumed very little of it in practice. The duty of ‘saving’ became nine-tenths of virtue and the growth of the cake the object of true religion.
Two constructions of virtue are in contention as Anna Hazare prepares for the fourth phase of his agitation. For team Anna, virtue is a closely held monopoly, embodied in its leader’s self-denial and moral resoluteness, consistently denied in the electoral fray and endangered by the ruthless competition between parties to extend their patronage networks. For team Manmohan Singh, virtue is just as rare an attribute, typically found in close proximity with extreme wealth, and worthy of special commendation since it could easily slip into its opposite. The rich could well squander their wealth in self-indulgence, but are driven by inherent benevolence and a vision of the larger social good, to save and invest. What those of lesser vision call corruption – the use of public resources for the aggrandisement of private entities -- involves a larger social good, since the rich also create a rising tide that lifts those less fortunate to a state of greater economic well-being.
Which notion of virtue is likely to capture the public imagination? Much of that would depend upon media agendas. Anna Hazare had during his first two mobilisations, virtually unconditional media approval, with breathless news anchors competing to project him as the messianic saviour who had magically conjured up the Lok Pal as the ultimate weapon to slay all demons. By the time of the third mobilisation, with Manmohan Singh looking distinctly beleaguered, the consequence of another elite referendum orchestrated by team Anna, with the media turning in a negative verdict, could potentially have been a catastrophic implosion of the regime. A key moment may have been November 2011, when the government, flailing desperately to extricate itself from a parliamentary logjam, notified a policy of allowing foreign direct investment in the retail sector. It was a quite brazen affront to parliament which was then in session, and the withdrawal when a chorus of condemnation arose, was abject.
The entry of big capital in the retail sector was seen as a benefit by powerful elements within the Indian elite. Farm lobbies in states of such consequence as Punjab and Maharashtra endorsed it with little reserve. And India’s largest English language newspaper spoke for large sections of the global Indian elite when it commented editorially that opening up the retail sector was the government’s “first big-ticket reform initiative in a long time”. It had the potential, “when implemented” to “transform India’s chaotic and predominantly unorganised retail sector, while hugely benefiting agriculture as well as the inflation-hit consumer”. With the assurance of all these riches lying ahead, it was regrettable that political parties, “even outside the staunchly anti-reform Left brigade have ganged up to disrupt Parliament”.
The Anna Hazare bubble-burst of December occurred on the back of visible signals of distress from the elected government. And Parliament, though still far from convincing in its response, did -- while Anna Hazare floundered in quest of an audience for his December spectacle -- put up a halfway credible spectacle of debating a tough new law to ensure the probity of all government agencies. And at a certain point, a vital component of the civil society coalition that provided Hazare with his momentum – the business lobbies (and derivatively, the corporate media which they control) – perhaps realised that the costs of success would be too steep.
Since Anna Hazare’s December fiasco, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries has become a major shareholder in Network 18, a news and current affairs broadcaster in English, Hindi and several other languages. Another industrial conglomerate, the Aditya Birla group, has acquired a stake in the India Today group of publications. The drift towards corporate control has clearly accelerated as the media deals with the economic downturn, which has led to a sharp contraction of advertising spending and cast a long shadow over the viability of several among the media platforms created in the boom years post-2003. For the rest, media ownership tends to be as opaque as ever and their agendas, unpredictable for the most part. Corporate India though, still has unmet expectations and Manmohan Singh is their best assurance of securing these. Anna Hazare could count on a degree of indulgence as he begins the fourth phase of his campaign, but media loyalties perhaps are likely to lie, with less equivocation than ever before, with the prime minister who sees wealth as the marker of virtue.
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