A cancer at the heart of democracy

A cancer at the heart of democracy

By M.J. Akbar | 28 August, 2011
A supporter of Anna Hazare during the protest against corruption at Ramlila Ground in New Delhi on Saturday. PTI

There is an eminently logical reason why the corruption debate reels like a drunk bounced out for being too disorderly even for a high-consumption bar. This is because everyone wants to end corruption but not end it completely. And so the BJP would like honesty everywhere, with a little margin for mine-diggers in Karnataka. The Congress wants a clean India down to every well in every village, but not so pure that it cannot feed the venal thirst of ministers or its holy cows — and these days the herd includes a holy bull. No political party is really free from this trap. A regional leader who postures as the epitome of simple, rumpled honesty sends a businessman whose blubber is not limited to his bank account to the Rajya Sabha.

There is a cancer at the heart of our democracy: our electoral system is fuelled by black money rather than white funds. The institutions who report to politicians know this, and make their own arrangements. The CBI can get ferocious when it wants about its preferred seasonal targets, but it has no interest in stopping fellow policemen from taking Rs 150 a month from each shanty in each Delhi slum in order to ensure that the water supply is not cut off. The poor are not forgiven simply because they are impoverished. Governance has become bloated, wherever you look, with Botox injections of hard cash.

The poor know that Anna Hazare is one of their own, in a way that his associates may or may not be. It does not matter to them who his advisers are.They have rallied behind him, and that is sufficient for them.  

The only person who wants to eradicate it completely is Anna Hazare. As he piquantly pointed out once, he could never afford to fight an election.

The debate has careened through a myriad prescriptions without concentrating on the root of our crisis, corruption in elections. Dr Manmohan Singh did checkpoint the need for electoral reform; but that was a tick mark which no one, including his own party, picked up with any conviction. The political class has gathered to check the corruption of businessmen, judges, bureaucrats [down to the district level] and anyone else you can think of. But when it comes to introspection, the assembled elite begins to dissemble. It would rather not discuss a Lokpal empowered to delve into the cash flow of politics.

The alibis are always there, most notably, the Election Commission, alleged guardian of probity. That is like saying that the judiciary exists. Police and judges were created to prevent crime. If they had done so there would be no debate. The Election Commission is transparently sincere in its intentions, but the challenge is far beyond its authorised capabilities. If you want even a vague idea of the levels of money involved in politics, all you have to do is read the published statements of politicians. The Congress chief in Andhra Pradesh claims that the MLAs who resigned from his party to join Jagan Reddy have been paid around Rs 10 cr each. Don't treat that as fact. If cash was the only insurance of loyalty, then the Congress has enough to buy out every Opposition party in the country. But what that claim does indicate is the range within which such offers are made.

I hope no one believes that the solution to electoral corruption lies in state funding; that would be feeding taxpayer's money into an insatiable trough. It would increase budgets, not decrease them.

Dropcap OnAnna Hazare's commitment and courage have unnerved the Congress, but not destabilised the ruling coalition. The Congress counterattack was led by Home Minister P. Chidambaram who threw Anna into Tihar jail, and then discovered that his "victim" had the alchemist's ability to turn dross into gold. It is a measure of Congress discomfiture that the loudest noise in the current debate is the sound of Chidambaram's silence. It took a surprising while for Congress to realise that this movement was deeper than the surface activity of twitters would suggest. The poor know that Anna Hazare is one of their own, in a way that his associates may or may not be. It does not matter to them who his advisers are. They have rallied behind him, and that is sufficient for them. The Congress lost more sympathy by trying to sully Anna's personal reputation than perhaps on any other count.

But, paradoxically, it is fear of the Anna effect on the electorate that ensures the survival of the ruling coalition. So Anna both rocks the government as well as ensures its continuity. As has been well said, nothing clears the mind like the sight of a noose, and the coalition parties are practical enough to see such a dismal future very clearly indeed.

The Prime Minister must address a different question: how long can he remain in office without being able to govern? He has fought his last election. He is free from electoral compromises; it is akin to an American President's second term, where he must keep the party in mind, but the much more compelling need for re-election is out of the way. Much of this opportunity has already been lost. Will the rest be frittered away as well?


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