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Corruption and Representative Democracy

The anti-corruption campaign has shown that a desperate public demands an immediate solution. Citizens have got a taste of direct democracy which is frightening for the privileged manipulators of the system, but liberating for the poor who are usually manipulated. While what the future holds cannot be predicted, the prize at this juncture of the history of Indian democracy is indeed so great that the compulsion in favour of the Jan Lokpal Bill is overwhelming.


Corruption and Representative Democracy feel uncomfortable. After all representation is their business! Yet the rules of the game of representation begin to change. Men and women, little known before, emerge as leaders in cir
cumstances in which people are desperate
Amit Bhaduri for some immediate remedy. One could

The anti-corruption campaign has shown that a desperate public demands an immediate solution. Citizens have got a taste of direct democracy which is frightening for the privileged manipulators of the system, but liberating for the poor who are usually manipulated. While what the future holds cannot be predicted, the prize at this juncture of the history of Indian democracy is indeed so great that the compulsion in favour of the Jan Lokpal Bill is overwhelming.

Amit Bhaduri ( is professor emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

september 3, 2011

t is the theme of great many literary works. The hero is caught in a raging plague, like the doctor in Albert Camus’ novel of the same name, and knows fully well that he has no chance of winning. Yet he stays on to treat patients until he falls a victim himself. In Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, the fight takes a curious turn when the hero understands that the epidemic is waterborne and preventable only if the community realises. The drama begins when the hero feels he cannot forgive himself unless he acts, and also realises that he would become an enemy of the people if he acts against popular prejudice. “A society that needs heroes is unfortunate”, is how Galileo sums it up in Bertolt Brecht’s play, Life of Galileo.

Most of us are not meant to be heroes. This also would have been the natural thing under more fortunate circumstances. Indeed a main attraction of representative political democracy is to let ordinary citizens carry on with their lives, restricting political participation to choosing representatives in elections. A functioning representative democracy is in effect a call to political inaction rather than action by ordinary citizens. However, this is something which the politicians have to earn by keeping democracy functional and legitimate in the eyes of its people. It is by no means their natural right for five years because they somehow managed to get elected.

Direct Action

The pressure for direct popular action that goes beyond the confines of representative democracy gathers momentum and ultimately erupts when elected representatives in Parliament lose all legitimacy in the eyes of the people. However, when and under what leadership the eruption takes place is the unknown variable in this equation. All political parties with a stake in a system that requires representation exclusively through Parliament begin to

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reiterate Plekhanov: “Men make history but not under circumstances of their own making”. Our feeling as individuals paralysed by isolation begins to evaporate and a new collective energy is generated. Nevertheless, this collective power born out of rage that seems capable of moving mountains is like an unpredictable earthquake, raising hope that it can change the bleak political landscape. And, yet, the fault lines remain unpredictable.

Paradoxically, the force that led to vast participation of the poor in our parliamentary democracy in recent years today drives one of the largest popular upsurges witnessed in independent India under the leadership of Anna Hazare. Our political class has benefited from the hollow show of “the largest democracy in the world” that is driven more by popular anger than the hope of the poor. They vote negatively in elections to register their protest rather than show their acceptance of the anti-poor, pro-corporate policies and performance of the government. A majority opinion that registers unacceptability has been ruled out by design. As long as public rage could be controlled in one way or another by the political managers of different party colours, they could pretend it was business as usual.

Extensive poverty, corruption on an ever increasing scale, corporate plunder of natural resources aided by state terror for acquiring land could continue under platitudinous moralising about the supremacy of Parliament and the essentiality of timeconsuming legislative “processes”. Exceptions were made whenever convenient and important laws like the Special Economic Zone Act or decisions like increasing the monthly salaries of Members of Parliament (MPs) were passed in more or less a day without recourse to lengthy processes. At the same time, the government in power considered it had discharged its responsibility adequately by declaring that it had no “magic wand” to solve problems like inflation or corruption. The leader of a majority party in the government and her


closest confidants can maintain a regal silence as if their nominated civil society representatives are good enough to represent the people’s mood.

“Corruption”, “civil society”, “people” or, for that matter “democracy” or “supremacy of Parliament” are ambiguous catch words. They mean different things to different people and like empty vessels they have to be given content. Every mass movement in which a vast number of people coalesce around an issue requires formulating the issue in those terms, both to inspire and to leave enough room for differences in interpretation of the issue according to their class, caste, religious or social positions. Those speaking English and those without English, those for whom religion is all important and those for whom religion is unimportant, those who maintain legality is sufficient and those who profess scepticism about it. However, when so many people at least temporarily join the ranks to fight for a cause which each might even interpret differently they deserve our understanding and not dismissal as “unlawful blackmail”.

Procedural Rationality and Rationality of Outcomes

We must learn to distinguish between “procedural rationality” (or, the correct way of doing things) and “rationality of outcomes” (arriving at the correct solution). The Constitution, the legal system, the bureaucracy and other institutions as well as political democracy itself are the products of procedural rationality. Procedures have to be taken seriously in any functioning society, but the respect for procedures is also conditional. Procedures are respected by the people when they provide good solutions. They are tolerated when they provide tolerable solutions. They are resented when they lead to bad solutions. They are jettisoned when they are constantly manipulated to benefit a few in full view of the public.

“Fight corruption” could become such a powerful rallying slogan only when the public was convinced that the purpose of procedural rationality and the stated need to follow time-consuming “processes” was just another round of manipulation. The impatience, the “now or never” mood of the movement is propelled not merely by a history of more than 40 years of deliberate inaction, but open manipulation of procedures to protect the corrupt. The “cash for vote” scandal, 2G or Common Wealth Games scam, the manipulation in the appointment of the chief of the Central Vigilance Commission, all of them now in full public view, have left little for this government to hide. The latest is a desperate attempt by the government, again in the name of procedures, to stop a Supreme Court-sponsored investigation by a special investigation team into black money.

The public has drawn the obvious inference that this government is paralysed, not by its adherence to procedures because it violates them whenever it suits it but because the government itself is neck-deep in corruption. The movement has also helped ordinary people, urban and now increasingly rural to connect corruption they face in their daily life to this corruption in high places.

Procedural quibbles apart, the achievement of the Jan Lokpal Bill movement was to complete this circle of popular understanding of corruption. Ironically, corruption is also a double-edged sword. We wield it to hurt others and, in the process wound ourselves. The patwari in the village who takes bribes also gives bribes to get his children admitted in school or his wife into hospital. The corrupt peon in a government office makes a little money through corruption, and pays bribes for getting his work done elsewhere. This is how a corrupt system catches us all, and yet the extent of vested interest is not the same for all. As a general rule, the poor are at the receiving end and this is why increasingly they rather than the middle class are participating and providing the backbone as the anticorruption struggle spreads from cities to smaller towns to villages, particularly those affected by forcible land acquisition. Anna Hazare realises this better than anyone else in his team, and has insisted all along that the lower bureaucracy must be included in the legislation.

Corruption in the provision and delivery of social services like basic education, health or the public distribution system confronts ordinary supporters of the movement in the most visible way. However, in a different way the land question is lurking in the background and will become prominent if the movement gathers momentum outside cities to make it an irresistible force. The land question has always been important, land rights and land reforms have never ceased to be a crucial issue in Indian politics. Nevertheless, earlier it was primarily a question of inequality and class stratification in agriculture. Now it has become a question of destroying agriculture-based livelihoods on a massive scale. Using the prerogative of acquiring land under the “eminent domain” clause, the State has arrogantly gone about dispossessing its own citizens. The law of land acquisition was meant for public purpose, in actuality it has become private

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Economic & Political Weekly


purpose almost invariably through corrupt practices. Enhancing the interests of private corporations became public purpose for a government driven by the ideology of corporate-led growth. Over the last couple of decades India’s much celebrated growth trajectory tells in a nutshell the story of how our politicians have done their job. The number of dollar billionaires in this poor country increased from 8 in 2005 to over 50 within five years. This massive increase in private wealth against the background of extensive and growing subhuman poverty of millions is celebrated by the political class as a spectacular achievement of the world’s largest democracy.

At the end of some two decades of corporate-led growth that promoted massive scams, the corporate sector is now rich and powerful enough to manipulate at will the political class. The Radia tapes gave a glimpse of the close link between big money and high politics. While Ratan Tata tries to hide behind some privacy law, Mukesh Ambani is reported to have said, “Congress to apni dukan hai” (Congress is our own shop). Allowing Warren Anderson of Union Carbide to flee the country after the Bhopal gas tragedy under government protection, another Congress prime minister more than a quarter century ago established the unwritten unconstitutional bottom line for this democracy which placed corporate profits way above citizens’ lives, all for a better foreign investment climate.

Politicians and their economic experts expounding old slogans of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation have under the cloud of massive scams clearly lost their ability to fool even the middle class, as the one-time sagacious economic gurus are fast losing their audience. It is gradually sinking in that the mother of all scams is an ideological scam perpetrated by the neoliberal policies of this government. High sounding speeches from the rooftop (more exactly Red Fort) about India’s national interest, emergence as an emerging global power began to sound like jokes in bad taste coming from politicians who are seen as facilitating scams and massive corruptions through their economic and other policies.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights provided recently some useful statistics collated from the annual reports of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Despite a

Economic & Political Weekly

september 3, 2011

sharp increase in corruption, the CBI reported a steady decline in the number of cases registered from around the time of economic liberalisation. The number of cases registered during 1991-93 was an average of 1,231, and then 892 (1994-96), 885 (1997-99), 845 (2000-02), 763 (2003-05), and 694 (2006-08) and thereafter increased slightly as scams began to draw the Supreme Court’s attention (731 in 2010, the year of the Common Wealth Games and 2G scams). Despite the Supreme Court’s numerous judgments that prior sanction is not necessary, less than 2% of the cases registered by the Central Vigilance Commission were sanctioned for prosecution by the central government. The complete collapse of confidence in the government’s intention and ability to contain corruption should not be surprising, and procedural wrangles hardly hide what this government and more generally the political class wants.

As the movement spreads, many arerightly concerned that it leaves out the media, large corporations, caste, religious leaders and minority issues. Is there a method in this madness of targeting only the lawmakers, law enforcers and government servants? Are the others less corrupt? The logic needs spelling out. With its economic and social policies, the government in power like most of the media has become the main instrument for pushing corporate friendly and people unfriendly policies. In that sense it is not the source, but the instrumentality essential for spreading corruption.

The prime minister might be quite right when he said he should not be seen as the fountainhead of corruption. He is right, and this applies to some but not many politicians. And yet the central issue is not personal integrity, but the policies they pursue for a fee either for themselves or for the party’s fund, usually both. It cuts across the political parties. The Congress in the centre and in Andhra Pradesh, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, Lalu Prasad in Bihar, the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) in Chhattisgarh and Karnataka, and even the Communist Party of India (Marxist) over Nandigram and Singur showed how they promote corporate interest in the name of governance. They have to be corrupt if they play this high stake monetary game of elections. People find it difficult to accept the supremacy of

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Parliament precisely because this movement is making clear every day for whom governments in the centre and in the states are supposed to govern (the people) and for whom they actually govern (the corporations). Not surprisingly, people find this unacceptable, and are also beginning to see the connection between government policies induced by corruption and corporate loot of land and natural resources of forests, rivers, mountains, coast lines, and minerals, all in the name of development, national interest and prestige. This is what the thunder of the public voice is saying and it will get louder if these policies continue.

Principles of Jan Lokpal Bill

Details apart, the main principles of the Jan Lokpal Bill need reiterating in this context:

(1) It should treat all citizens (including the prime minister, MPs and other elected representatives) as equal before law, irrespective of the place (Parliament) where the corrupt act is committed. (2) Conflict of interest must be avoided. So the Lokpal has to be independent, chosen by a group where government nominated politicians are not in a majority and, in particular, the anticorruption investigative wing of the CBI has to be under the independent Lokpal. (3) Jan Lokpal must be able to reach the lower levels of bureaucracy, elected representatives, police, etc, through a citizen’s charter, and state-level Lokayuktas along similar lines.

A desperate public demands an immediate solution. But it has unleashed a more sweeping force. Our citizens have got a taste of direct democracy. This is frightening for the privileged manipulators of the system, but it is liberating for the poor who are usually manipulated. What the future holds cannot be predicted. However, we can evoke the reasoning of the great 17th century mathematician Pascal who co-founded probability theory with his contemporary great mathematician Fermat. He justified his deep religiosity with the logic that the prize of infinite bliss is so great that even a small positive probability justifies faith. The prize at this juncture of the history of Indian democracy is indeed so great that the compulsion in favour of the Jan Lokpal Bill is overwhelming.

Or, to put in the words of a Civil Rights song of the 1960s, “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on”.

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