Home > Uncategorized > Anna’s Satyagraha: Where will it lead us to?

Anna’s Satyagraha: Where will it lead us to?

Civil disobedience, of which Satyagraha is a manifestation, succeeds by appealing to a higher normative principle than the laws it defies.  For it to succeed as a mass struggle against established authority, certain objective conditions have to be met.  It is perhaps appropriate to examine Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in this framework in order to understand it and assess how far it can run in order to achieve its goals.

That corruption is a cancer eating into the vitals of our republic is well known.  After having receded somewhat with the first blush of reforms in the 90s, corruption returned with a vengeance as the politicians and bureaucrats perfected new methods of rent seeking to replace those that had been eliminated by reforms.  In the current outcry against corruption, we ignore the fact that the new corruption that we see is not based on the old methods of rent seeking such as industrial licenses,  cornering of import licenses, black marketing of imported raw materials or smuggling of gold and electronic goods and the crimes that went with them.  Reforms closed off these avenues of corruption for good and they remain closed. Instead what we are seeing is corruption, still gargantuan no doubt, but in areas such as land acquisition, distribution of Government owned scarce resources like telecom spectrum, or illegal mining that were untouched by reforms.

The distinction between old corruption that ended with reforms and new corruption that still continues in those areas untouched by reforms is important.  Opposition to corruption is a normative principle has the potential to transcend the current ruling dispensation in order to mobilize the masses into protest.  But that opposition needs careful channeling in order not to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Reforms have been successful in ending or mitigating corruption in vast swathes of our economy.  They are a cause for celebration. Instead some in the Anna movement have blamed these very reforms for corruption which is ridiculous.  In time, if the movement fails to make a distinction between old ways and new ways of rent seeking, it will lose focus and support.  In a still largely unreformed economy, it will risk proposing solutions that lead to more corruption rather than less of it.  Perhaps Anna can still win over far more support from the aspirational youth if it were to clearly state that reforms, having been successful in the past, are the best way to reduce corruption if not end it. Does anybody even remember the crime syndicates that gold smuggling spawned and the extent to which they corrupted everything in their way?  Under no circumstances should the solutions we propose permit a return to the old ways.

Corruption begins at the top. Nothing emboldens rent seekers more than the knowledge that the man at the top in their department, corporation or organization is also on the take.  Human ingenuity being essentially limitless, once an atmosphere of permissiveness is created, people will find ways to use whatever discretionary power is at their command to create opportunities for rent seeking.  The recent rule in Maharashtra to increase the age limit for buying a drink in a bar to 25 years is an example.  It accomplishes no social purpose but merely increases the opportunity for graft.  One suspects that the revulsion that powers mass participation in the Anna movement is this sort of petty corruption that ordinary people see in their day to day lives.  We who focus on reforms as the only valid basis for reducing and eliminating corruption forget the demonstration effect of scandalous corruption at the top. This petty corruption is so obvious now that is has obscured the good work done by reforms in eliminating that stemming from the license-permit raj of the pre-reform era.  Merely better policing will not eliminate this petty corruption that dogs people; but it will help. Anna’s solution of an omniscient and omnipresent super cop has it’s genesis in this notion. Until this is adequately addressed, reforms as means to end corruption argument will continue to ring hollow to the man in the street.  That has been the weakness in the counter-narrative of those who support Anna’s cause but baulk at his methods and/or proposed solution.

Anna’s anti-corruption theme resonates well precisely because it embodies a higher principle, the need for honesty at the top, with the ubiquity of petty corruption that harasses ordinary people in their daily lives. The power of this theme is obvious even if one discounts for the organizational sinews lent to it by various quarters. Anna’s capacity to mobilize masses and to gain new political adherents should not be underestimated. Satyagraha works by de-legitimatizing the existing order because the truth of its transcending principle, or central proposition, is so obvious that no further examination is necessary.   That is Satyagraha’s strength as well as its drawback.  Gandhi used Satyagraha to demonstrate that freedom was our birthright by picking up a handful of salt after the Dandi March.  In that very act he at one stroke de-legitimatized British Rule in India once for all.  Satyagraha is not just a means of coercing a reluctant authority into concessions.  If that were so Anna’s movement would have no downside. The sad fact is that Anna’s supporters have sought to tar everybody opposed to them as uncaring, corrupt exploiters of the people, be they Government, Parliament, courts, police or ordinary people who think differently.  That across the board condemnation of legitimate authority, especially an elected one, when combined with mass mobilization posses risks to our young democracy.  Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough evidence in the movement to suggest that it’s organizers are as aware of the downsides as Gandhi himself clearly was.

Clearly not all corruption in our system is just rent seeking by individuals and politicians for personal gain. Elections are horribly expensive affairs demanding a lot of money, not for buying votes, but for legitimate expenses like travel, publicity and the like. Yet we have not made adequate provision for funding of the same.  This is not an excuse for corruption.  But not addressing it properly sets up a self-perpetuating vicious circle in which we are now caught up.  Firstly, without funding a honest politician is at a tremendous disadvantage compared to an unscrupulous one.  It is amazing that we still manage to elect a few honest politicians despite the prohibitive handicap that this imposes.  Anna himself is on record saying he couldn’t hope to get elected given the above handicap and has used this to denigrate the electoral process itself.  Secondly, once dishonest money is to be used, it sets up a competitive dynamic of its own. The more money you have the better the probability of you or your party getting elected and so on and so forth.  As a result of this dynamic, each successive crop of politicians is more criminal, more venal, more corruptible than the one before.  What better way to ensure that we produce the worst leaders we can?  So election funding is important, not because it is the root cause of corruption, but for the Darwinian property that naturally selects the most ugliest of politicians that the system can find.  Most of us forget this dimension to election funding.  Again, this is the key to how we de-legitimatize our electoral process.  Anna has correctly laid his finger on it and has used it in his rhetoric though the solutions his supporters offer do not even attempt to address the problem.

All policing works by first reducing the incidence of crime to an exception.  If everybody is a thief there would be nobody to catch a thief and robbery wouldn’t be a crime. This in not a trivial issue.  It is our moral training in early life that turns us against thievery and that teaching persists in most of us.  The first line of defense against wrong doing is always embedded in our culture.  How many of us are taught to be honest and how many are taught to be practical? Be honest in your reply to yourself. The State or its instruments such as the police come into the act only to deter using exceptions to the rule.  And they deter by making an example of those caught.  The police cannot catch every thief despite all this. The system still works because it is usually sufficient to keep the honest honest by demonstrating deterrence.  The same holds true for corruption.  You cannot catch all the corrupt simply by setting up a large enough police force. There will never be enough resources for the same.  Instead you attack the problem by first reducing the scope for corruption as we have successfully done in case of gold smuggling or industrial and import licensing. Once you whittle down the problem to manageable proportions you can use police methods of deterrence by making an example of those who get caught at it.  Again you cannot possibly catch all the corrupt.  So the best policy is to focus at the top rather than the bottom of the pyramid.  Which is why Anna’s proposed coverage of lower bureaucracy is of dubious merit.  Corruption has to be fought top down, not bottoms up. A honest departmental head is usually enough to keep all others below him honest.

Anna has done a singular service to the nation by putting the issue of corruption center stage.  He has also put the insouciant politicians on the mat.  He has a popular mandate that can, with some more effort, be converted into an unstoppable force for change.  But what of the change itself?  Reforms have worked far more than anybody could have hoped to end corruption in the areas they have been applied to. Anna and his supporters need to acknowledge that.  Further, the areas in our economy that remain untouched by reforms remains vast.  In the absence of reforms these unplugged areas will provide fertile hunting grounds for the corrupt no matter what we do.  Lack of election funding has already got our polity in its vice like vicious grip that will be extremely difficult to break.  That self-perpetuating vicious cycle needs to be dismantled through electoral reforms to given honest politicians a way to gain access to leadership positions.  Last but not the least, team-Anna needs to recognize the limitations within which their movement needs to work.  It will not do to de-legitimatize and de-bunk all our institutions indiscriminately.  That leads to anarchy which will be exploited by fascists waiting in the sidelines for an opportunity.  Anna can and must lead us to a better and more honest future. It is perhaps an opportune time for him to heed his critics and win them over by reaffirming his faith in what we have accomplished so far in eliminating corruption.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 28, 2011 at 10:53 am


  2. August 28, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Interesting read. People largely supported Anna’s movement because they believed that the Jan Lokpal bill will help eliminate corruption at the lower bureaucracy which people face on a daily basis. I for one, refuse to believe that corruption will go away from that level. The Parliament has decided to endorse the bill, let’s see how effective it will be in tackling corruption.

  3. The Wabbster
    August 28, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Extremely well written. I like the fact that there are sane voices in the midst of it all that support Anna for the cause and not necessarily his methods. Kudos. 🙂

  4. Monesh Bhansali
    August 28, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Very well written. Superb.

  5. Sewah
    August 31, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Anna is not for me the authentic voice of the Indian people or nation. He and his followers are claiming to be a ‘guru’ movement but yet all the rhetoric coming from those who voiced indignation are prepared to flout the democratic institutions such as the Police, elected MP’s and anti-government (Congress). This does seems to smack of some kind of jealousy. Worst of all there is reported division and strife among the movement’s very vocal leaders. Mahatma Gandhi was supported in the freedom struggle by the Congress Party, now this self same party is the subject of ridicule and scorn by those who claim that they and they alone are the only ones among the billion plus Indian population who are committed and concerned about the issue of ‘corruption’. This as an assertion is completely absurd and does not accord with the massive support from all sections of the nation Christian, Muslim, rich or poor who sincerely want India free of the sickness of corruption. It was the Congress Party that mainly achieved freedom of India from the slavery of Empire. To assert that only Anna and his followers are the only people in India who are concerned about corruption is as daft as saying the Government does not want to see the Indian economy grow and thrive. We don’t need a drift towards anarchy, but a move towards a united front against the issues raised by corruption. Anything else is just a luxury the poor working people cannot afford or benefits from, the only gain seems to be the media attention the movement’s leaders are enjoying.

  6. January 11, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Brilliant Article Sonali, I always asked this Team Anna “What reason do you give to people when you turn against a single party when the people know that corruption permeates almost every political party?” Even his own Associates are asking “Is Anna a Gandhi? No. Is he democratic? No,” Mapari said, adding that the Mumbai flop was no surprise. “Maharashtra knows Anna better than any other state.” Ranjit Hoskote’s commented that “Anna Hazare’s agitation is not a triumph of democracy but a triumph of demagoguery” Hazare believes in one-man authority, and the idea of an all-powerful Lokpal fits in well with that, a former associate said. It’s as if the Lokpal is an extension of the crusader himself in the national context. The problem with Anna say his former aides, is that when it comes to Anna, it’s my way or the highway. “He has no vested agenda but his style is dictatorial,” says social activist Baba Adhao. That’s why the idea of powerful Lokpal is so appealing to him… I Salute You Sonali, Really I have No word Extremely Well written Article.

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