Democracy, Populism and the ‘Middle Class’: The Return of ‘Anna Hazare’

[This is a considerably expanded version of an article that was published in Himal May 2011. It is being re-published, elaborated and updated, in the context of the farcical draft of the Lokpal Bill roduced by parliament and the threatened round 2 of the movement. – AN]

Corruption – a Systemic Affair?

Let me start with an ’emperor’s new clothes’ kind of question: What is a systemic understanding of ‘corruption’? What is a political understanding about corruption as opposed to say, a touchy-feely ‘moral’ problem? Yes, some of these phrases are straight from Arundhati Roy’s ‘When Corruption is Viewed Fuzzily’, published in the Indian Express on 30 April. But my question is not directed only at her. She represents – at least on this issue – a much wider consensus among sections of the radical intelligentsia.

Roy herself has left nothing to the imagination as to what she means:

“Among the millions of understandably furious people who thronged to Jantar Mantar to support Anna Hazare and his team, corruption was presented as a moral issue, not a political one, or a systemic one — not as a symptom of the disease but the disease itself. There were no calls to change or dismantle a system that was causing the corruption. Perhaps this was not surprising because many of those middle-class people who flocked to Jantar Mantar and much of the corporate-sponsored media who broadcast the gathering, calling it a “revolution” — India’s Tahrir Square — had benefited greatly from the economic reforms that have led to corruption on this scale.”

To her, the system that lies at the root of corruption is embodied in the ‘economic reforms’, which have led to corruption on this scale. I have no way of measuring the scale – though I might be inclined to agree with her that in my living memory, I have not seen so much compressed into such little time-space – from CWG to l’affaire Niira Radia to Adarsh Housing scam and the Bellary brothers – not to speak of the daily corruption in land acquisitions that dot the landscape of the country. Nonetheless, I do remember that something like the Bofors scandal or the ‘irresistible rise’ of Dhirubhai Ambani – all predate the ‘economic reforms’. And of course, I will not even try to mention the innumerable cases of corruption from Nagarwala onwards – including political corruption that led to big mass movements in Gujarat and Bihar in the 1970s. Those were the days when Mrs G proclaimed that ‘corruption is a global phenomenon’. To me saying corruption is systemic and must be analyzed ‘politically’ (whatever that means), sounds pretty much the same.  So, if neo-liberalism is responsible for corruption, how do we explain the instances mentioned above? How do we understand the great socialist states which secreted corruption from every pore? What does a ‘systemic analysis’ of corruption really tell us?

However, Arundhati Roy was making this point, it seems to me, not in order to analyze the phenomenon of corruption but to comment on the Anna Hazare movement and its ‘character’:

“When corruption is viewed fuzzily, as just a touchy-feely “moral” problem then everybody can happily rally to the cause — fascists, democrats, anarchists, god-squadders, day-trippers, the right, the left and even the deeply corrupt, who are usually the most enthusiastic demonstrators.”

Now, this represents in my view, a pretty widespread opinion about the movement among left-wing radicals:  How can radicals ally themselves with this motley bunch of people? How can they even remotely be seen supporting these people of loose morals ? How difficult it is for radicals to relate to anything that is not immaculately dressed up in ‘class analysis’, ‘systemic analysis’ or  ‘political analysis’.

Let me clarify at this point what I mean by ‘corruption’ – in my non-systemic analysis. And maybe, it is better to explain my apolitical nonsense with some examples. Many years ago, when I did not have a phone (sometime in the mid-1990s), I used to go to the market to make all my phone calls at a PCO (a direct product of the ‘economic reforms’). My father had died waiting for his OYT (own-your-telephone) MTNL phone to materialize. The MTNL charge for a single phone call was Re 1/- but some of the PCOs charged Rs 2/-, leaving me fuming at their blatant corruption. And then, one day I was in Nirula’s restaurant and had to make an urgent call to a friend. I asked the reception if I could use their phone. I could, I was told, for a payment of Rs 14 per call. I paid up but from that day on, my understanding of corruption started changing. In the US or in Britain, it is common practice, I learnt, to tip the taxi drivers a couple of dollars or pounds. In fact, it is expected and we do it without batting an eyelid (on the rare occasion that you do have to take one). If the same thing were done as a bargain by a Delhi autowallah, we would find it atrocious.

I am not making a case for small, subaltern, corruption here but suggesting that maybe, there is something here that we need to think about. For one thing, it is worth studying how far the earnings of working class or lower middle class  (even middle-middle class) families with a single earner actually go in sustaining them. How do such families provide for occasions of sudden crises etc? My own hunch is that most incomes are woefully inadequate and need to be supplemented – sometimes by doing extra shifts, overtime, and in the event that no other option is available, small-time corruption. But all this is corruption only as long as it is not institutionalized as ‘profit’ (as in the case of Nirula’s) or a mandatory tip or service charge.

That is why I will leave such everyday acts of ‘corruption’ out of the purview of the discussion here. What we are interested in here is the fleecing of the public, the loot of public resources with the active connivance of government officials. Corporate fraud, fraudulent land acquisitions, fraudulently provided mining permissions, fixing of ministers in order to loot the public exchequer or to raid the commons and loot natural gas – all these are issues that concern us. And these are precisely the issues that form the backdrop of the anti-corruption movement. Touchy-feely? Is there one instance here about which we can say that there is not a ‘class angle’ to it? On the contrary, every single instance here is one of corporate loot. So why, in order to rail against the ‘Anna Hazare’ movement, do we have to say that these are simply being posed as ‘moral’ issues? And maybe for some of the people who joined the movement (including say Anna Hazare himself), the issue is a moral one. So? Is that to be dubbed invalid or illegitimate? Even if this ‘middle class’ that flocked to Jantar Mantar “had benefited greatly from the economic reforms that have led to corruption on this scale” (a link that is not so clear) their desire for a less corrupt public life cannot be mocked at. Incidentally, as the story above will illustrate, I too have been a beneficiary of the ‘economic reforms’ – I now have two telephones and an internet connection at home and a mobile phone that I carry with me. Indeed, my vegetable vendor actually beat me to it, since he had acquired the cell phone before me, which he uses to do business – take orders and deliver vegetables home. He too is a beneficiary of the economic reforms!

My point here is not that economic reforms have benefitted everybody. On the contrary, I believe that has been unprecedented violence at the core of neo-liberal reforms: violence as cities are cleared of poorer populations, slums demolished, master plans imposed forcibly on people trying to earn a livelihood; violence unleashed on peasants and tribal communities as their lands are forcibly taken over for the corporations to earn profits. But, even while acknowledging all this, there is little possibility of denying that in certain other respects, lives of ordinary people have changed – not just in metropolises but also in small towns. And a lot of that also has to do with ‘economic reforms’ – a lazy term that allows us to get away without any concrete analysis.

The Middle Class and the Media

The last fast-unto-death undertaken by Anna Hazare in April raised a serious public debate and brought up issues that have far-reaching implications for democracy as well as the fate of radical politics inIndia. Before his fast began on 5 April 2011, Hazare was well-known only within a certain public – that of the environmental and social movements in the country, although in his home state of Maharashtra, he was more widely known. Suddenly, in the run up to the fast, Hazare emerged as a popular figure crusading against corruption. Virtually overnight, he was being talked about as a new messiah – a figure on whom a whole new section of middle class youth vested their hopes. The Internet was abuzz with support for the him and within days, the number of those who supported ‘his cause’ (through Facebook and Twitter) was being counted in millions!

Hazare was an unlikely youth icon. Apart from his fulsome 73 years, he is also an idiosyncratic moralist of the Gandhian kind. In Ralegan Siddhi, the village where he has worked for a long time now, he has combined a host of authoritarian methods with a pervasive Hindu symbolism, in order to put an end to once rampant alcoholism, theft and other maladies. Drinking alcohol in Ralegan Siddhi is rewarded with public flogging. This is certainly not a picture of someone on whom one would expect the upwardly mobile urban middle class youth to repose their faith. And yet they did! True, awe-inspiring tales of the environmental and economic regeneration of Ralegan Siddhi – a village that was once a picture of despair – have also long been in circulation. But even these hardly come anywhere near the concerns of the Facebook generation of urban youth most of whom could not care less about politics of any kind.

Soon after the fast began television channels stepped in to give Anna and his movement a huge build-up. That, in my opinion, was the kiss of death. Support from television channels like Times Now and CNN-IBN was the worst thing that could have happened to the fledgling movement. These channels have distinguished themselves, over the years, by presenting themselves as the self-appointed guardians of ‘probity’ in public life. Shrill in the rhetoric they deploy against politicians and intellectuals, they (and their noisy anchors) have reduced public debate in India to a farce. No wonder the moment they stepped in, in support of Anna Hazare and the anti-corruption movement, a certain polarization of debate was bound to occur. I too squirmed at the thought of Arnab Goswami as an ally! In what has become the hallmark of television ‘news’, hysterics and histrionics take over from reporting. With characteristically misplaced hyperbole, New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar – the venue of Hazare’s fast – began to be referred to as India’s ‘Tahrir square’.

To many well meaning people who had only seen the movement through the screen of the television channels, it probably seemed like a media-created event. Added to this was the suspicion that the radical, left-leaning intelligentsia has traditionally nurtured, of any movement that speaks in an idiom that is not recognizably ‘radical’.

Here was a movement that comprised largely of people who normally do not participate in politics and do not even have a language to talk about politics – including Hazare himself. And judging by the huge support that was manifesting itself on Facebook and Twitter, one could safely assume that this was a largely middle class crowd. They did not have a larger theory of capitalism or democracy – or even a blueprint of democratic reforms. They did not even know what politics was all about. They simply understood, perhaps in a very visceral way, that something was grievously wrong with the way things were in the political domain. In the last year or two, they had witnessed multi-crore scams where hard-earned money of ordinary folk was looted and passed on to fill the coffers of corrupt industrialists, corporations and supplicant politicians.

But apparently, middle class, apolitical people do not have the right to protest. They cannot have the right to protest till they have learnt that corruption is not the real issue; ‘the system’ is the real issue! In order to earn even the right to protest, they must also talk about the ‘working class’, the ‘peasantry’ and so on. Indeed, they must learn the correct grammar of protest: fight elections, fight for electoral reforms, for strengthening democracy, or go to the courts. In directing their apolitical ire at the politicians, they are actually attacking democracy itself and weakening or de-legitimizing the system. One can understand such a position when it comes from the representatives of the ruling party or other political parties. It is also understandable when political analysts who have made it their vocation to be the voice of ‘Order’, or when commentators in the Indian Express argue in this vein. It is quite surprising, however, when it comes from large sections of the radical intelligentsia who, on other occasions, have shown considerable acumen in critiquing ‘actually existing Indian democracy’ and have supported struggles against land acquisition, for instance.

Antecedents of the Movement

It is important to not lose sight of the fact that the movement did not suddenly spring out of nowhere. The immediate history of the movement goes back a few months when the matter of a new Lokpal Bill was revived against the background of a whole series of high level scams. In that context, the provisions of the official Draft Lokpal Bill 2010, were understood be ineffective and toothless. In any case, the idea of an ombudsman-like institution has been ‘on the agenda’, a perennially deferred promise of successive governments, for the last forty-three years. It was the demand for passing a new Lokpal Bill that became the rallying point for most people. It looked like a relatively small and achievable demand, to be sure, but one on which there had been endless foot-dragging by the powers-that-be.

But there is a larger background as well, which has to do with a range of ongoing movements and struggles in different parts of the country. Some of these, like the Right to Information movement have directly taken up questions of transparency and accountability while others like the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) have been dealing with questions of livelihoods and issues like illegal mining, fraudulent land acquisitions through rigged gram sabha meetings and such like. Corruption, at one level, is central to all these struggles. So when the movement for the Lokpal Bill was being put together, unbeknownst even to their organizers, it touched a chord among large sections of people in small towns and cities. Among them was a large sector of the population that felt legitimately cheated at its hard-earned money being looted. But there were also others, who were not so much affected by financial corruption but had lived in helplessness for years, in the face of the combined oppressive power of corrupt politicians and power wielders.

Let me illustrate this with one instance from an email message from an acquaintance, Dr Bhupendra Yadav, who teaches in MD University, Rohtak. I quote:

“I teach in a University where a teacher was suspended in the Academic Council meeting by a Vice-Chancellor who was the most corrupt we have had till then in 2006. A retired Major General of Army Service Corp, the Vice-Chancellor was giving recognition to Colleges after taking bribes. The teacher, Dr Himmat Singh Ratnoo, protested and paid for it by his suspension. There were more than 50 senior Professors in that meeting but sadly, not one teacher protested in the Academic Council that the VC was wrong. Not one walked out of the meeting when Dr Ratnoo was physically removed from it by security guards. This was my worst tryst with the arrogance of the power of corruption. It was also the reason why my expectations from the middle class are very little.”

Nevertheless, Yadav adds:

“Kudos to the middle class campaign against corruption led by Anna Hazare. I salute everyone who came out to Jantar Mantar which my wife, my friends and I frequented too. Next time, I hope Suresh Kalmadi will not try to walk tall, custom officials will not resist improved procedures and Dr Ratnoo will not be suspended. If this happens again, however, we hope it will be followed by loud protests from civil society”.

I need hardly add here that both Dr Yadav and Dr Ratnoo are active members of the CPI(M)-linked teachers’ movement. They are not helpless individuals without a political community. And yet their story speaks volumes. I should also add here that in the same mail, Dr Yadav underlines all his misgivings, and indeed suspicion, of the cast of characters who are associated with the movement. Yet, the power of that movement was one that gave them a sense of a wider churning in society. I have also received telephone calls from old friends – some of them live and work in the kachchi colonies of Nangloi (north-west Delhi), who have been once active with the CPI(M). They are still active in the area and have faced the nexus of the land mafia and the police for a long time. They too joined Hazare at Jantar Mantar, in search of a larger sense of community and struggle.

Corruption and Anna Hazare

Thus ‘corruption’ here becomes a term which condenses within it a number of other grievances and issues. It has become  for that reason, a radically open platform – which has its own possibilities and attendant dangers. Opportunities because, it provides openings that Leftists and radicals, who have always missed the bus, can use to enter into and make connections they would not normally be able to. Thankfully, this time around, some of the Left parties (especially the CPI(ML) Liberation but also the mainstream CP’s, to some extent) have been more careful in spelling out their relationship to the movement. CPI(ML) Liberation and its student and youth organizations have actively been part of the movement while the two mainstream CPs have refrained from publicly attacking it.

But it is precisely this openness that also contains some dangers. For ‘corruption’ also has a wide moralist appeal and can be quite attractive to the most politically retrograde and dangerous elements as well (and to that extent, Roy is right). The appeal of fascism and Nazism also lay, in part at least, to their strident rhetoric against corruption – which in their discourse became synonymous with ‘parliamentary democracies’: That is to say, in fascist discourse, the argument against corruption inevitably led, towards an argument for a strong, authoritarian/ totalitarian state. But this is only one possibility among many others and if others decide to hand over mass struggles against corruption to fascists, there is indeed little that anyone can do.

It has been rightly pointed out that the insistence of the ‘Anna Hazare movement’ on the Jan Lokpal Bill (that is, the counter bill drafted by the initiators of the movement) with its heavy reliance on special provisions of law and its seriously authoritarian implications, indicates the presence of such possibilities within this movement as well.  And given the fact that Hazare himself has no qualms about showering praises on the likes of Narendra Modi, the possibilities of the reactionary edge of the movement getting strengthened cannot be ruled out. But that is a far cry from fascism.

Nonetheless, at this moment, I want to insist on the radically open character of the movement and its platform. From the structure of the movement, its lack of organization, its relatively nebulous decision-making process to the completely unformed character of its mass support – all these provide avenues for intervention by radical political forces. At the moment, despite the problematic personality of Hazare himself, the overall control of the movement is in the hands of people who have been active in the struggle for strengthening democracy. Certainly, there are serious problems with the way in which the leadership has tended to push through the issue of the legislation in great hurry, which as some allies of the movement like Aruna Roy have pointed out, leaves little room for public deliberations and discussions on the Bill. Others like the NAPM have supported the movement even while cautioning that allies have to be chosen with care – indicating and underlining, precisely, this radically open nature of the movement. In other words, there is no inherent essence of a movement like this: it acquires the character of those who constitute it.

Needless to say, if radical political forces leave the field open to say the Hindu Right, the movement will end up confirming our worst fears. The field can be kept open only as long as the space opened up by the movement is not abandoned to forces inimical to democracy. In a sense, the Ramdev intervention was one such attempt to take the movement in the direction of a closure, and though I disagree with most excessive reactions to Ramdev, I do think that there was a real danger of it becoming a more open Hindu Right platform.

Like ‘corruption’, Anna Hazare too has become something of what Ernesto Laclau calls an ‘empty signifier’ – a sign to which any number of contradictory meanings can be assigned. Through his studies and his life-long engagement with the phenomenon of populism, especially as witnessed in the figure of Peron/ Peronism in Argentina, Laclau has shown that populism has no necessary class belonging, no necessary radical or reactionary content. Populism, he suggests, may actually be the ‘royal road to the understanding of the constitution of the political’ itself. Far from being anti-political as some have suggested, the populism of the Anna Hazare movement must be able to tell us something fundamental about the nature of politics and ‘the political’ itself.

For, it was the Anna Hazare movement that informed us that a bill on the Lokpal was lying in waiting for forty-three long years. Forty three years! Does that say something about the constitution of the political domain in independent India? And have we heard a word of condemnation from the likes of Indian Express and some of our radical friends of this farce? How is it that all the righteous anger is reserved for the ‘blackmail’ of the movement? Even if you have no faith in laws; even if you do not think parliament is worth a fig, is it not necessary to tell us what the forty three years of delay are supposed to mean? And now with the joke of an official Lokpal Bill (see Manoj Mitta’s excellent critique in this link) on the table, it might seem that the fears of the movement were after all not that misplaced. The joke is that not only is the PM kept out of the purview of the Lokpal, the accused (in cases they are within its purview) will have the right to ‘be heard’ before the FIR is even registered. The Lokpal is forbidden in this  Bill, from even registering an FIR without hearing the accused – a provision that overturns all provisions of criminal law! The supreme irony of the Bill, Mitta points out is that a false complaint can make a whistleblower liable to a two-year prison term while the errant public servant could get away with just six months!

At a time when the ‘political system’ and the political class has become fully immersed in the loot of the people and is completely unable to raise any issue of any consequence, the emergence of a movement of this kind reflects a serious crisis of legitimacy. For over two decades now, important issues have all been posed from, and contested, outside the fold of the party-system. These include issues like mass displacement of populations, questions of environmental degradation and pollution, critique of the development model, right to information, the question of nuclear energy and indeed, the struggle against communalism (from intervening at the time of massacres to tracking court cases, providing assistance to victims) and so on.

Increasingly, the legitimacy of party-representation is under question today. It is true that people still vote and often in very large numbers but it is really worth asking what they really do when the vote? Do they vote for particular parties because they have faith in them? Or do they, most of the time, make tactical choices? Sometimes these choices may be of the lesser evil; on other occasions, they may have to do with opening out channels to power through the local dadas – channels that give access to people in the bureaucracy or the police. Sometimes people may participate in elections simply to vote out a set-up that has become unbearably oppressive. These questions call for much greater investigation and reflection.

In conclusion, a word about democracy: Is the movement anti-democratic? We should be very suspicious about an imagination that ends with framing a new law, especially of the kind that is embodied in the Jan Lokpal Bill. As has been pointed out by commentators, the movement draft proposes a structure that can become a law unto itself. On that we are all agreed. But what about an imagination that draft the Bill that the great parliament has! Any critique, anyone? Any class or systemic analysis?

And let us make this very clear once again, for what it is worth. A new law can only come into being after it is debated and passed in parliament. The fact that it is being drafted by a committee of ‘Team Anna’ does nothing to undermine that. It just brings out a debate that was suppressed for decades, right into the open. That is to say, it makes it the object of a much wider process of public deliberation. So the allegation about bypassing democratic institutions is wrongly posed. What we see in this movement is a form of involvement of ‘citizens’ and surely no democracy can be possible without an active citizenry – with or without the mediation of political parties. Political parties are merely the means for ensuring democratic representation; they cannot be the be-all and end-all of democratic politics.

26 thoughts on “Democracy, Populism and the ‘Middle Class’: The Return of ‘Anna Hazare’”

  1. Extremely well articulated, and represents a mid point of view that is so sorely lacking in this debate so far. There appears to be only self-righteousness all around… from the IAC proponents, the critics and the ‘system’, of course. Why would it be necessary for observers (who otherwise seem reasonably intelligent on most other matters) to take such an extremist position on this movement, one way or the other? I think it is pseudo elitist puritanism at its worst. Since the ‘grammar of protest’ is not right, the legitimacy of the protest itself is called into question.


  2. Concerning Nigam’s observations on Hazare/ anti-corruption aandolan/Lokpal Bill/ citizen
    participation in the democratic process. I have experienced how corruption works in my home state of Kerala suceessively ruled by left and right coalitions and where the people
    are all well educated and informed. They know that it is not moral ‘dhaarmik’ to accept
    bribe or to give bribe for a simple thing like getting a ration card, or a birth certificate. At
    the same time on a different level of consciousness, all of us are capable of being
    “a-moral” in our daily affairs. The shame of the CPM/CPI/CPML is not that they have lost
    elections, but they have failed miserably to induct and strengthen a “clean” administration.
    Or to put it differently, the left, socialist and progressive parties/groups have not suceeded
    in changing the basic Indian(Hindu) mindset. Gandhi did that magic a little bit, against all
    odds, against very penchant of the Indian mind. The tendency is universal and bothers all
    societies. Even in the so called rich West corruption exists, especially in higher echelons of
    governance and business. The common man is by and large spared of its debilitating
    effects. But in India, it is rampant, sickening, making a mockery of citizens’ rights. Why, for
    example, the Trade Unions, Students Unions and several other progressive/ activist groups
    have not made corruption hataao their long term agenda? Why did we wait till an old Gandhian came agitating the ant-icorruption flag and Lok Pal Bill? I personally think that
    understanding the Indian ethos is essential to unstand why corruption has attained such
    proportion. One may read in this connection Pavan K. Varma’s BEING INDIAN
    Inasu/ from Paris


  3. very well articulated, its high time we get down from the pedestal of telling, making a mockery of an initiative rather than constructively monitoring it


  4. Very well put sir. While I don’t agree with the Jan Lokpal bill myself I think people have lost sense of proportion when they attack it. Why so much vitriol for the Janlokpal Draft when the Lokpal (Govt) Draft is much worse.


  5. Fully agree. What Arundhati Roy and other radical leftists do not seem to understand is that Anna Hazare has no where said that he has the sole monopoly over the anti-corruption movement. Roy and others are also most welcome to address the issue in their own way. Where Hazare is different, and in my view better than Roy, is that he and his team has come up with a definite alternative while Roy is only good at criticising and never bothers to provide an alternative.


  6. The problem with Stalinist rapist goons, Maoist throat slitters and eye gougers and their propaganda puppets and fake intellectuals is that Anna Hazare is not a closet-Maoist and he does not take dictation from Beijing or from Alimuddin Street. That is why they are tearing into him like a pack of hounds. In the process they are helping the dynasty to defeat his cause and gain some petty favours

    The dubious argument that economic liberalisation leads to corruption is against all known facts, both in India and globally. Socialist regimes are the most corrupt. In India one could not get a phone line without bribing BSNL parasites until private companies came along. Today the most corrupt services are also ALL in the public sector. And guess who is sitting in their comfy chairs attending office for 2 hrs and day and demanding bribes to do simple work – the same leftist brigades and their warriors who hold red flag and agitate at the drop of a hat.


    1. Robert,
      As a matter of policy, we do not approve comments that use such language as yours -bile after all, does not help in furthering debate. The age-old and utterly unfounded argument that Moaists take orders from China is repeated by you with the same blindness as is the ‘dubious argument (as you put it) about economic liberalization leading to corruption.This was never true even in the heyday of Stalinism (it was Moscow then). Stalin and the CPSU had to criticize the Indian communists on many crucial junctures, often disagreeing with them openly. But that is another story.
      At the moment, let me point out two things:
      1. In this piece, I am referring to the radical intelligentsia – and my critique of their position is an internal dialogue. I consider myself a part of those whom I criticize. And by the way, I am not referring here to the Communist Parties, which in my view have taken a more measured and responsible stance towards the movement.
      2.The argument that you call dubious and ‘against all known facts’ is not all that dubious in its essentials. My point in the piece is against certain laziness of approach adopted by some of my ilk. But, on the whole, even though a whole section of so-called analysts (like those who abound in the Indian Express) have made a living on making the point that socialist regimes were the most corrupt, that is hardly the case. Their corruption was small, everyday corruption compared to say the US, where the entire Congress was bought over by private insurance companies to push out certain proposed health reforms. Corruption of that kind arises from a deep conflict between the democratic imperative (things have to go through elected governments and parliament etc) and corporate search for unrestrained profits. You are completely off the mark if you think that the most corrupt today are all in the public sector in India. I can only ask you to follow just one story – that of the rise of the Ambanis and their current activities. And lt me assure you, they are only the tip of the ice-berg.


    2. For Robert;

      i wonder what makes you run away from reality, what makes you blind to the divide created by Neo-Liberal policies. See it is very clear that these problems have been created by such policies. And people who take bribe are not Leftists. A true leftist will never accept bribe. In fact it is your Ambanis and Tatas who bribe and lobby to get contracts. It is these people who have made this country good for few and a disease for the majority. Today a normal-person has to struggle to live happily, he can not live a happy life. State run Companies (PSU’s) are made sick and the sold to private players and they start making profits all of a sudden. Come on you ca not be blind to all this.


      1. Please see the per capita standard of living in the US and other developed countries of Europe and see the standard of living in Russia and other east european nations, Cuba, and North Korea.

        When the Berlin wall fell, how many wanted to migrate to West Germany and how many to East Germany? Please ask yourself why no one wanted to live in East Germany!

        North Korea vs South Korea: Which do you prefer?

        China: after opening up its economy or before?

        I am sorry but no one other than the so-called “leftist intellectuals” belive that reforms were bad for the country. Whatever prosperity India has seen was BECAUSE of the reforms! The number of people who have come out of poverty is far more in the post reform period than before. The sectors which were opened up has far less corruption than the sectors still not opened up. These are facts that common people see everyday with their own eyes. As someone mentioned, we do not pay a bribe anymore to get a phone connection, we do not pay a bribe to get a watch (yes HMT was the sole company making shoddy watches at one point), plane travel has become affordable among the middle class and not remained the bastion of babus. However, poor people STILL have to pay a bribe to get their kids
        into a government school even though its supposed to be free, the quality of education is abysmal. Because we do not allow people who wld like to be educators and legitimately make money to start colleges, the private colleges are such a mess. Our public health care is a mess. The poor use private services whenever they can afford because they know it is far superior to the public one even if it is not fantastic. These are the realities that so called lefty intellectuals need to understand otherwise their days are numbered.



  7. Mr. Nigam, I am referring to actual acts of violence by Stalinists, Maoists and their ilk in various parts of the country which are too well documented to need repeated mention. You may find that bile. Or perhaps you may want to ask the Maoists about violence by the Stalinists and vice versa. My comments are no way different from the comments regularly made by leftists against their ideological foes.

    Coming to the point at hand, if you (or commie spokespersons like Ms. Roy) continue to argue that state monopolies are the best way to reduce corruption, then be prepared to make that the official policy of any one party and face the electorate with that. And stop using any service provided by newly liberalised private providers, including mobiles and anything else. We all know how shallow the commitment to true-red communism on the part of Karat & Co was and we also know how eager they were to turn into a goon army of a corrupt Chinese industrialist and engage in land grabbing and savage butchery for that industrialists’ private business purpose.

    There is no petty corruption or major corruption based on the amount of funds that change hands. You seem to believe that looting Rs.100/- from a hundred million poor to issue phone connections, electricity connections, driving licenses, birth certificates, land records and such is somehow better than paying/receiving Rs.1 crore by a big company to one MP. To me both are same and in fact the former affects a lot more people directly.

    The most corruption free countries are those that made competition the way of life and unbiased, strict regulation the counter check on greed. They also punish corrupt amongst the lower rank cadre, which our communist friends never even acknowledge, let alone help fight.

    Instead of fussing over the fact that they have been left out and not given political exploitation room in this popular uprising against corruption, the leftists should join forces with Hazare & Co., and contribute to ending corruption in India, big or small. It would help if the communists were to ask all their members employed in PSU/Govt sector to do sincere 8 hr work and stop taking bribes. Perhaps 99.9% of the corruption by volume (perhaps not Rs. to grant your point) will also go away.

    But I dont expect that. I do expect that any movement that does not fit into their scheme of things, into their hierarchical reporting structure and command and control systems will be abused, insulted and destroyed. That has been the Stalinist style for ages.

    Thankfully the people of India have understood that and are saying so with their ballots. And the leftists are trying to stop that with bullets and daggers. And some useful idiots who can be slaughtered after serving their purpose.


  8. Regarding your point on rise of Ambani (and others), if you carefully analyse the corruption spawned by them, you will find that almost all of it is to circumvent useless and stifling regulations and controls that should not have been there in the first place. Just as water attempts to leak thru’ the best seals, concrete and structures by nature, businessmen by nature try to find ways to get their main job done. The government should be facilitating their positive energy and channel them into useful channels instead of putting barriers that make little public sense.

    Yet those barriers too were designed by our leftist plants in the babudom and in Congress – primarily to facilitate bribe generation and economic sabotage on behalf of their patron saints. It was also a nice way of micro-managing the lives of millions, and having the power to do so, another favorite pastime of our lefties in India and abroad.

    It took a patriotic Congressman called Rao to break through some of it.

    I would strongly argue for regulation that prevents anti-competitive behaviour, fraud, poor quality products or services and ill treatment of workers, environment or the society. That incidentally would end corruption too. As it has done in numerous European, Asian and North American societies.

    Would the leftists facilitate that? Or want to take India back to the 1930’s Soviet Union?


  9. Robert,
    Clearly, you have no intention of debating with any evidence but your prejudices. If this is your understanding of the rise of the Ambani’s – a self-serving tale served by proponents of the loot of the last two decades – there is little there is to discuss here. And anyway, prejudices are not matters open to any kind of reason.There is a whole section of people who have long lived in the ridiculous paranaoid belief that the leftists were runnig this country. Actually this was a screen for dismantling any control that ate into large corporate profits.I T can at best see this as a bad joke!


  10. Dear Aditya, great intervention and analysis. I particularly like the phrasing of the question “whether middle class concerns about corruption” are to be taken seriously or not? In conjunction to the idea that there is a radical potential within these democratic impulses that few in the left are willing to engage with in a non dismissive way. I especially find it surprising because here I would think that since allies such as from the NAPM and RTI campaigns have been supportive of this movement, surely that should force the radical left/intelligentsia to take some of this more seriously. Thanks


  11. Well analysed, Aditya.
    You may wish to critique Prabhat’s article on “empiricism” (EPW – Decline Of the Left) as he describes spontaneous movements without an agenda of “transcending capitalism.” Though such movements cannot per se deliver a radical solution and may flounder (Tehrir Sqaure and Singur being an example where the movements were hijacked by Islamists and TMC respectively) , the solution is for radicals not to stay away but infiltrate such movements.
    This comes out succinctly from your well-written post.



  12. Thanks everybody for all the comments. Let me respond to some of the issues (not always in disagreement):
    Ruhi, I understand what you say. But that is precisely my point. Why is it scary? Simply because you are seeing people there who perhaps stand for a politics that can easily tip over into a reactionary one (I suppose that is what you mean by ‘fascist undertones’). I have two points to make in this context. While I agree with you about a certain reactionary potential in this movement, I would hesitate to loosely fling around terms like ‘fascist’ – we cannot even in our worst dreams imagine what fascism really is and yet, for some strange reason, we tend to throw this label around at will. In the recent past alone, Mamata Banerjee was described as fascist, then this term was used for Anna Hazare and some intellectuals also term Ramdev ‘a fascist acrobat’. In my view this is to loose all sense of proportion.
    Secondly, I think the movement has no pre-given character. Supposing, alongside the Youth for Equality types or the BJP types, there had actually been an energetic mobilization of the trade unions and the Left, would it not have made it possible to move the agenda and the discourse of the movement in a decidedly radical direction? Would Anna Hazare and Kiran Bedi or Arvind Kejriwal have found it possible to ignore this huge new constituency that would have pushed for a more widespread debate on the Bill as well as on widening the decision-making structures of the movement? The other day I read a statement by Aruna Roy, criticizing the movement and in the course of that she mentioned the JP movement and how it made space for the Hindu Right. I think we need to revisit that moment and understand what exactly happened. One section of the Left (viz, the CPI) was in alliance with the autocratic regime of Indira Gandhi, holding farcical ‘Anti-Fascist Conferences’ which were graced by the presence of communist parties from across the Soviet-aligned world, including the Veitnamese CP. So, for large sections, it was already clear that the “communists, true to their colours, are against the mass movement”. The other section, namely the CPI(M), prevaricated and adopted precisely the same attitude that one sees in sections of the radical intelligentsia today. What about the fascist undertones? Or overtones? It even went to the extent of saying that it will form its own committees, in opposition to the Jan Sangharsh Samitis – where by then, the Jan Sangh has already started ensconcing itself. On the ground, there was a mass upsurge and we all joined in the marches – even in Delhi. But the decision-making bodies were left uncontested in the hands of the Jan Sanghis – when it was quite clear that they were only one component of the movement. The atmosphere everywhere was overwhelmingly anti-Congress and anti-Indira Gandhi but the Leftists (despite their role in the recent Railway strike of May 1974), were seen as appendages of the ruling party, or as a group who were not quite sure whether they supported the groundswell of popular opinion. That the Jan Sangh and the RSS eventually came to play a role far more important than their strength and that they found a comfortable space there, had to do with the fact that the field was left open to them. They won without a contest.
    Unfortunately, this time round too, a discredited and almost dead BJP has been revived – thanks to perhaps the most corrupt regimes of all times – by the fact that from April down to July-August, the Left has had virtually nothing to say or do. Thankfully, the parties did not condemn it outright as many intellectuals have but the fact remains that there has been no intervention.
    Jinee, I am not quite hopeful that the Left/radical intelligentsia will see any sense here. In fact, my suspicion is that they are not willing to rock the boat for the fear of the BJP returning to power. They do not seem to realize that by taking the stance that they do, they in fact, make room for the BJP.
    Upal, I would not use the word ‘infiltrate’ – but I think we agree on the substance of the argument. I can imagine that if the Left had joined in the movement (not surreptitiously but openly) demanding its share in decision-making and in pushing for the radicalization of its demands, it would have posed a crisis before many of the right who would then have to decide whether to go along with the movement ‘infiltrated by Leftists’ (that would be their term) or not. The ball would have been in their court.
    As for Prabhat’s article, I am simply amazed at the new coinage (’empiricization’). Perhaps his contribution to philosophy! You really have to have painted yourself into such a theoretical corner that everything ’empirical’ starts frightening you!


  13. Mr. Nigam, I beg to differ with you on this issue. I believe your middle-class bashing is unjustified. I presume you are referring to middle class means people in “upper-middle” class. The people of my generation (I’m in 20’s); the people who are reaping the benefits of liberalization in India. Let me refer to some of your comments:

    “But apparently, middle class, apolitical people do not have the right to protest. They cannot have the right to protest till they have learnt that corruption is not the real issue; ‘the system’ is the real issue! In order to earn even the right to protest, they must also talk about the ‘working class’, the ‘peasantry’ and so on. ”

    While I agree with you that “upper middle-class” has become little selfish with all the “easy money” they are earning. But we are not apolitical people. We do have right to protest since on every step we face corruption. Yes, we travel around the world and wonder why there is very little corruption at the bottom half of pyramid. And what do you mean by “system” here? I’ve been a regular voter (even paying air ticket worth double the amount just to vote once). And same can be said about my family and friends. However, the candidates we voted were “bribing” the “peasantry” all the time to “buy” their votes. We could not get our candidates elected because of the same reason. And to be frank we were not ecstatic about those guys since majority of them are “corrupt” (cases have been lodged by same middl class against them in courts and they are busy fighting elections). We thought of contesting elections by ourselves but we dont have enough financial support to “buy” the votes from “peasantry”. So how do we protest then? We’ve tried everything. Filed RTIs. Voted religiously so far. Filed cases in courts. Do we still dont deserve to protest?

    I guess there was tipping point after CWG where corruption after corruption was taking place. And Mr. Hazare stepped up to fight it. Had there been any other “common man”, we would have supported him with the same vigor. He was merely our conduit for anger and frustration with system. And admit it; whole system is corrupt.

    Middle class are the backbone of this country. We pay taxes regularly. Please don’t bash us. We hold this country together.


  14. Dear Lekh,,
    The trouble with you is that you are in a great hurry to ”differ” – without even understanding that the lines you have quoted are not mine but what I believe the opponents of Anna Hazare are saying. I think you have not even read the post at all – or read it very carelessly, since mine was a defense of the movement. Please do not be in such a hurry – you will not miss the bus to your promised land:)


    1. Mr. Nigam, first of all “promised land” comment was uncalled for even though its common for you (or your jholawalla friends) to refer us with moral righteousness.

      Anyways, I was not in a hurry and to be honest I didn’t understand context (which is surprising given the fair amount of reading I do as a researcher). And your previous statements like the one quoted below didn’t help the matters either:

      “Here was a movement that comprised largely of people who normally do not participate in politics and do not even have a language to talk about politics – including Hazare himself.”

      By the way, its always good thing to give “citations” (links?) whenever you are referring someone else’s quotes. We scientists follow that even though we don’t have deep philosophical intellect.


      1. I rest my case, Lekh. Don’t read or try to understand even what is written, just blabber…


      2. @Aditya Nigam – Interesting previous comment sir (Where you mention a few points about the emergency). Would you say that part of the reluctance of the left to rock the boat stems from the fact that they haven’t quite recovered from the recent electoral losses they suffered and don’t have the confidence to take a big role in this movement? Of course I would say that this would be a very good opportunity to give a fitting reply to all those “Is this the death of the left in India” theories that sprung up in May. But is it possible that aforementioned underconfidence is what is holding them back?

        @Lekh This Aditya Nigam is like this only. You should see his new article on this same site. He says India should have a dictatorship of the corrupt people. And recommends Independence for these corrupt leaders. Ridiculous I tell you.


  15. Dear Aditya

    A wonderfully articulated essay. And a refreshing change from the often simplistic and pre-judged pieces that one comes across. As for Lekh’s comment, did he miss the irony in the lines he quoted or did I read it in :-)


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