Sowing Confusion: The Seductive Charm of Fighting Corruption

September 13, 2011

By Gautam Navlakha


It would be churlish to dismiss Team Anna’s mass mobilization and its assertion of our collective right to protest, in support of freedom of expression. More so in view of the fact that chances have significantly brightened for the passage of a Lokpal Act by the 15th parliament, having waited four decades, since 1968. However, it would be naïve not to recognise that corruption is not a life and death matter for most Indian people fighting for their right to live in dignity or fighting for their right to life in regions where war goes on against our own people, in 136 out of 626 districts in India. Is corruption the fundamental issue that subsumes under it answers to all our woes? Can fighting corruption lift people out of poverty? End oppression? Resolve struggle against land grab? Help ascertain will of the people through referendum in J&K? Bring the war to an end in Manipur or halt “Operation Greenhunt’? Stop mining juggernauts from gaining from the war against our own people in nine states? End the persecution of minorities at the hands of Hindutva terror?

Even as a Bill to fight corruption, it is a half-measure which feeds, not unjustifiably, into disdain for politicians and bureaucrats . It aims at stopping ordinary people from getting harassed and cheated by lower bureaucracy, politicians etc. This neither speaks for those who fight hunger or resist loot of land, forest and water nor, for that matter, targets those who are the biggest beneficiaries of privatization of public assets and cornering of public funds. True, like RTI, fighting corruption too could go someway in empowering citizens. But just as that campaign then dismissed proponents of bringing NGOs under the purview of RTI, even this time all versions of the non-state draft Lokpal bill/s exclude NGOs from purview of Lokpal. This exclusion is not innocent.

NGOs, Corporations, Media

The argument goes thus: the authorities, through FCRA and other rules, already have oversight over the NGOs and bringing them under Lokpal would add to burdening the Lokpal with additional responsibility. It would also increase the government’s harassment of funded NGOs, which amounts to undermining the civil society!

As for corporate bodies, they have by and large passed the onus for corruption onto the lap of politicians or, in some cases, said industry should self-regulate. In other words, they remain out of bounds from public scrutiny. But corporations are not mere victims of graft – they are active and willing participants, if not the initiators, of this loot. What else explains the under-pricing of public assets sold to Indian big business houses? And the corporate houses do concoct schemes for looting public assets and funds and tempt politicians and bureaucrats with bribes. So they are not just victims but aggressors, as so well exemplified by the 2G scam and the role of big business houses in this. Furthermore, bribe-takers float companies with their loot and/ or invest in established companies, as Pramod Mahajan did in the Reliance Communication scam where he got shares worth thousands of crores.

As for NGOs, a large number of them are recipients of corrupt money, as exemplified by Kanimozhi-run NGO. Thus (a) the corporations whose nexus with politicians and bureaucrats in the age of neo-liberalism has meant colossal loot of public funds and assets; (b) corporate media, especially the electronic one, whose involvement in scams as ciphers for the powerful and the privileged has recently surfaced; (c) as well as the NGO’s who work in the public domain and are scared of sharing sources of their funding with the public – are all reluctant to become accountable to the public in whose name and interest they claim to be engaged.

Thus, while a process is important, to essentialise the process to the exclusion of substance or content is simply wrong. Just because masses are participating and there is huge mass gathering and middle class is pouring out in support does not accord an issue greatness. To put it another way, while the process is a necessary condition, it is not sufficient in itself. Indeed if fighting corruption is the objective to bring about end to extortion and harassment in our public life it also means that there be some accountability of all those who work in the public domain.

In this day and age, by what logic do we leave out corporate entities when public utilities are and have been privatized? At a time when, in the name of public private partnership, the biggest transfer of public funds to the private sector is taking place, be it in education, health, surface transport, highway? At a time when public funds are used for privately owned/managed public projects or when public land is virtually gifted to hospitals &educational institutions, sold at a fraction of its market cost, only to see them deny free medical assistance to common men and women, or provide seats to children of ‘lesser mortals’? Are these not corrupt practices, among other crimes?

Take the case of the BCCI, which all of us know is a cesspool of corruption. Many of those who speak in the public domain as ‘neutral’ commentators/observers actually enjoy lucrative contracts with the BCCI to act as their PR personnel. Corporate houses which participate in BCCI or are its Board members, in particular, are also privy to decisions taken by the BCCI which is a source of great financial benefit to them as owners of IPL team and other commercial deals. They too have taken shelter behind the fact that BCCI does not take money from the government, therefore, owes no explanation to the public. But BCCI team, not Indian cricket team, wraps the tricolor around it to promote itself as a team representing India and this corrupt practice is tolerated? And yet the Indian public has no oversight over them? Does this not suffice to bring them under RTI and Lokpal Act? Especially when BCCI is a good illustration of the nexus between corporate house, politician and bureaucracy in the lucrative field of sports? However, going by various drafts of the Lokpal Bill, BCCI is left free to assault public interest by leaving them out of the purview of public accountability.

Take another aspect. All listed and even unlisted companies, by sheer fact of participating in capital market, raise funds from institutions which hold the public’s money as well as their manufacturing or mercantile processes which affect public life where it pinches. They either raise debt from banks, insurance companies, pension funds etc in which public money is deposited or raise money from so called capital market where public money is in the form of mutual funds, or loans from bank and financial institutions invest in equity. Why should corporations therefore be excluded? Especially when a number of them have been found to fiddle with their share price or submit incorrect information, or hide facts…when they take out IPO or raise debts?

Besides, many of these corporations ride roughshod over the livelihood of the people and seek to corner land, forest and water i.e. public assets, and it is their lust for profit that is driving “operation green-hunt” in nine states of the country affecting the lives of approximately 200 million people. The companies bribe, loot, overcharge, pay low wages, create pro-management unions, pay bribes to local authorities to suppress unionized workers…These too are forms of corruption among other crimes. Or are they not? We have corporate honchos in parliament; now we also have politicians who have become corporate entities, such as YSR”s son Jagan Reddy, who has amassed wealth to the tune of Rs 43,000 cr, according to the CBI, in just 7 years from just few lakhs shown as income in 2004. Just consider the staggering scales of bribe taking and giving and it becomes abundantly clear that politicians like YSR made thousands of crores and the companies they benefited made ten times more. So the corporate houses share a slice of their super profit. Why should an ordinary citizen not have some protection from such forms of corporate molestation?

What about corporate media? There are many media houses which have huge investments from companies which have been implicated in one or other scam. Could these media houses ever be in a position to bite the hands which, so to say, feed them and expose their wheeling-dealing? Look at how NDTV buckled and suppressed news of the attack by Adani group hoodlums even on its own reporters investigating destruction of mangrove forests in Kutch recently. The manner in which JIndal group could manage to get activists campaigning against their illegal land grab and stage managed public hearing in Chattisgarh or the attack on peaceful protestors campaigning against JIndal Power Plant in MP. Did any media house bother to report these criminal assaults and pursue it? Look at also the timidity displayed by Times Now anchors when faced with corporate honchos, or right wing rabble rousers such as Shiv Sena or RSS activists and leaders, fawning and deferential in contrast to their aggression against human rights activists, centre-left politicians….Look also at how reporters were editorializing during Anna’s Fast as though their job description said that they were to help in managing if not manufacturing public opinion in favour of Anna, and not to report. And through this entire period of heightened sense of fight against corruption, not once did they show concern for corporate media’s own role in the 2G scam and its implications for their role in informing the public. And yet they become champions of probity in public life?

Why does the media cry ‘public interest” when they are threatened with censorship, but claim private funding when it comes to their public accountability?

Furthermore, even if we assume that civic life gets tainted by corruption, it cannot just mean extortion by 4 million strong junior bureaucracy at the centre with another 20 million state government employees. It must also mean targeting the high and mighty operating in public forum in every walk of life which affects/vitiates public life far more than anything else done by a petty government employee. Surely we are aware of gradation of crime – or are Rs 50 and Rs 50,000 cr one and the same?

Consider also this; Out of 4.3 lakh registered NGOs more than 70% are religious NGOs; Hindu, Christian and Muslim, in that order. Now for Team Anna as well as NCPRI, Loksatta etc it is alright if fascist NGOs continue to receive funds and operate and poison our body politic with their hateful and divisive work. But in order to save their type of socially conscious NGOs from coming under scrutiny they would much rather that everyone escape scrutiny! This is outrageous self-pampering. For instance RSS has floated thousands of NGOs. Surely Indians have a right to know who funds these bigoted organizations and what kind of activities they are engaged in? Who can deny the urgency behind it? If our memories are robust let us recall the role these RSS-floated NGOs played between 1983-93 in nearly wrecking the country and for begetting Muslim radicalism. So theirs is a double heinous crime of terrorism as well provoking and causing the militant Muslim response. Can we allow the acts of omission and commission of the State or the nexus between RSS fronts and agencies of the State to be left out of public scrutiny? We should not forget that another doyen of anti-corruption, VP Singh-led Janta Dal government, suspended an Income Tax commissioner who had the effrontery to serve VHP notice for gross and serious violations in their tax returns. Thus this mollycoddling by successive parties and now at the hands of the Social Movement threatens to continue. Because they fail to see that NGOs are a much larger phenomenon than their own individual organizations. A very large number belong to the right wing among Hindus and other religious denominations.

Thus, however much one eulogises the process, the half-measure for which this fight is being lauded raises questions about the limits of this movement, if not the limitations of social movements. The process – mass mobilization outside the control of established political parties, efforts to remain inclusive and reaching out by dropping divisive slogans or adopting slogans that resonate with most – are its self-conscious attempt to appeal to all. This public manifestation catapulted Team Anna to pressure the government to back out from confrontation. It is through this that the movement has managed to force an arrogant and scam tainted Government to back down and now is forcing them to act. All this I acknowledge. The power thus acquired must, however, be accompanied by their own public accountability. Or else it would be power without accountability, which is the very anti-thesis of probity that the campaign demands from authorities.

The Mass Mobilisation

Coming to the question of mobilization of masses of people: this was not the fallout of their own organizational reach but due to a deliberate decision of the corporate media, beginning with Zee TV, to support them from the first day. The pro-RSS proclivities of the owners of Zee TV are not hidden from those who care to know, just as the rabble-rousing capacity of Times Now cannot be underestimated.

With this the message of Anna Hazare and his team began to reach millions of homes. Few lakhs in contrast got connected through other channels. Right before our eyes we also saw how Team Anna began acquiring iconic proportions and soon Anna became equal to Mahatma/Sant/pious man/honest crusader. Times Now began to describe members of Team Anna as ‘crusaders”, praising even those whom they had until then ridiculed. Certainly a section of people came of their own volition once the media began the coverage, motivated by different reasons; some seeking help, some in hope, others to check out. But there was equally large mobilisation by the Hindutva groups which tried to tap strong anti-politician sentiment among a section of Indian middle class as well as the constituency which is stridently anti-Congress. The two streams converged in this movement.

It is also no accident that the biggest mobilization was done in states ruled by BJP and by the RSS and its units such as ABVP using brute power and clout to send jathas, or organize parallel manifestations and even browbeat critics into silence wherever they could.

Social movements do not have the organizational reach, indeed they celebrate their inchoate nature, since organized effort is perceived as being a centralizing tendency, anti-democratic or inherently repressive. Masses come and then disperse. On the other hand ‘ Team Anna’ is a self-appointed team, and core group members add new names or oust those who fall out of favour. Their campaign rested on the iconography of the ascetic Anna Hazare. All the progressive songs and plays cannot drown this reality. How democratic is that?

Besides, what kind of mass celebration or mobilization is that which ends up galvanizing the right wing forces? We are told dissent must be respected but what do they mean when dissent is smothered in place after place or organization after organization stand proscribed by institutions of the State? On the other hand why is it that the social movements are tolerant or respectful of the right wing whose perspective is regressive and whose conduct is heinous ? Just as the culpability of the establishment whose perspective, policies and programmes are tainted by death of millions due to hunger, malnutrition or military suppression does not cause much heartburn. So all talk of non-violence becomes vacuous and hypocritical when they have one foot in the very same establishment.

Another failing is Team Anna’s authoritarian attitude, where some persons become more important and their view prevails on all and they try to shut out those who differ from them. Team Anna had no qualms in either sitting with Group of Ministers to work out a draft bill nor from keeping everyone else out, as the spat between them and NCPRI revealed. So although there are, ostensibly, no hierarchies or rigid structures among social movements, yet there is a leader and led and paid employees, not volunteers, working in funded NGOs. And it is these NGOs which form the bedrock of many campaigns. Also, funded organizations have mostly adopted the corporate culture, hierarchies exist among them and management does not brook employers from organizing themselves as trade union. Besides, their very disdain for organized politics does not stop them from keeping one foot in establishment. For the establishment it is like having a loyal dissident group by their side. Their other problem is disdain for power and fascination for those who wield power. It is like having power without accountability. It is akin to eating the cake while having it too!

Undermining Democratic Institutions?

Those who criticize Anna’s movement among the ‘civil’ society are critiquing it from the vantage point of their concern that this is undermining democratic institutions. One cannot be blind to the fact that these same institutions have exacerbated inequalities and divisions among Indians – these democratic institutions that have been hollowed out. It is the parliament which first repealed POTA while simultaneously incorporating provisions, in some cases further attenuating restrictions, in 2004, and then compounded it in the wake of the Mumbai Attack in November 2008. Without much of a debate, it incorporated a new set of provisions making UAPA one of the most vicious Acts , which has been used to witch-hunt political ideologies such as those espousing self-determination or radical transformation of India, while molly-coddling Hindutva terrorists. The ruling and opposition parties of the establishment have accused the Judiciary of over-reach and corruption, while the judiciary has accused the ruling parties of following policies which have resulted in untold misery for people and loot of public funds.

Parliament has before it a bill which will allow Monsanto’s genetic engineered crop great many benefits.   The juxtaposition of this bill at this current moment of our history shows the extent to which so called democratic institutions have become indifferent to popular concern. Public consultancy on Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Bill is being curtailed to push through the Bill. Must we forget what transpired in the Indian Parliament which met to debate and vote on Indo-US civil nuclear agreement? The replacement of Mani Shankar Aiyar with Murli Deora, reportedly at the urging of US administration or the appointment of A Raja as Telecom Minister with the backing of Tata group? Indeed all those who essentialise electoral democracy and representative democracy have a lot to answer as to how much Indian institutions manifest or share people’s concern. While judiciary wanted food stocks to be used for distribution among those suffering from hunger, the Congress-BJP combine argued that this was encroachment into executive’s domain. And as the executive has decreed that their policy is that food stacks will not be used for providing food for those in need, well then this decision must prevail, even if this results in deaths of lakhs.

Let us recall that when the judiciary spoke up for neo-liberal reforms (see Vedanta order or Yamuna Pushta slum demolition drive from public land, or virtually repealing Contract Labour (Abolition) Act where instead of abolishing the system of ‘theka mazdoor’ the act itself was so to say abolished….) the very same Executive, corporate media and corporate houses cheered the judiciary.

If there was any doubt about the pro-State leanings it is clear from the Section 29(12) of the Jan Lokpal Bill which says that “The appropriate bench of the Lokpal shall be deemed to be designated authority under section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act empowered to approve interception and monitoring of messages or data or voice transmitted through telephones, internet or any other medium as covered under the Indian Telegraph Act read with Information and Technology Act 2000 and as per rules and regulations made under the Indian Telegraph Act 1885”. (See Times of India, 30 August 2011).

Is this not augmentation of draconian powers, by creating yet another ‘big brother’ watching and monitoring our activities and invading our privacy? Is it not enough that nine departments enjoy this authority along with multiple private agencies operating clandestinely? The perspective which informs this is one which strengthens the State at the expense of the citizen. Team Anna believes that public has the right to expose and collect evidence of corruption. Protecting reporters or investigative journalists from undertaking such operations to uncover high corruption is one thing but to empower Lokpal to snoop over us is filled with ominous possibilities. Next logical step might become snooping on all in the name of preventing corruption….So will we then also have to fight to set up an ombudsman to hear complaints against Lokpal? How can a Bill which is informed by such perspective serve public interest?

Arguably there is nothing wrong with dealing with party A or B or C… if the law is required to be passed, what other way is there for passage of law i.e. other than through the Parliament. And social movements need support of political parties to force their demands. So either there be no law or else the very same Parliament which has a despicable record of acquiescing in wars against our people, introduction of economic reform which ushered in immense transfer of wealth to the rich and privileged and impoverishment of our working people…must muster support for its passage.. Yes, the logic is impeccable. Only parliament or legislature must enact a law. This reality one understands. Just as we turn to the same judiciary which often becomes an instrument of injustice. But the point is to ‘be realist ’ but not to become crass realist. Crassness would come in if we enhance the possibilities of enhancement of chances for encroachment of our fundamental rights under the name of fighting corruption.


Thus, one section of social movement, in the name of strengthening democratic institutions participates in policy making closely aligned with ruling UPA and frowns on prolonged mass mobilization and considers it a form of ‘blackmail’. Whereas, the other section of social movement takes its half-measure and elevates it to the level of panacea , uses street power , which from behind the scene is aligned to opposition BJP. But both show their limitations of being no better than reforming and strengthening the present status quo, while escaping public oversight of their funded activities in the public domain. The tragedy is that left political organizations who work open ground have neither the mettle nor the wherewithal today to lead mass movement of the oppressed in this country and have allowed social movements a free run in consolidating the status quo, by elevating piecemeal/segregated approach as a matter of principle, same way as the over-ground left has done for six decades.

The point is that democratic institutions cannot be strengthened by reposing faith in the very institution, which has failed to stop the political parties from betraying their mandate and for taking people for a ride. All the sophistry of electoral studies cannot wash off this crime. In 2004 UPA I came to power when it attacked ‘Shining India’ and spoke of inclusion and social justice. Under UPA I the loot of public assets and pro-corporate policy regime picked up steam. They also decided, in the midst of extraordinary price rise which made basic commodities go beyond the reach of most of our people, to go to war against our own people across nine states of India in the name of wiping out Maoists from the forest areas because these are mineral rich and exploitation of whose mineral wealth, PM claimed, was decisive for India’s “growth story”. It is a different matter that this ‘growth’ story has wreaked havoc on the lives of working people where they are being taxed through price rise to pay for the profligacy of the rich and powerful, and their net earnings are declining, whereas those in higher income group have seen their rise exponentially. Parliament whose record of riding roughshod over freedoms and consistent and unbroken record of indifference towards Directive Principles of State Policy, is made the quintessential repository of virtuous behavior since it is seen as epitomizing the democratic institution elected by the people, never mind who got elected and how.

The Achilles heel of the social movement, over the issue of corruption is, consequently, its promotion of a narrow vision for fighting corruption by leaving out corporate houses, corporate media and NGOs and illiberal for demanding right to snoop. Thus a political coalition of left parties committed to transformation of state and society is sorely missed as the main spearhead for radical reforms, where partial reforms could become a part of, self-consciously, the larger issue of transformation of our state and society. Until then the limited vision of social movements will continue to mesmerise a section of our people and footloose “left” even as some sections of social movement will place one foot in the establishment , some others transform themselves to fighting elections and others working among people undertake the hard work on the ground and on whose shoulder so many social movements ride.

The Left , in so far as they subscribe to transformation of state and society must campaign to ensure that Lokpal does not become yet another ‘big brother’ as well as help widen the ambit of the debate and thus the understanding of the issue. Because fighting corruption means accountability and transparency in our public life.

Recall when in 1951, within 16 months of adoption of our Constitution, the first amendment was moved by the then PM JLNehru, Law Minister Dr BR Ambedkar and Home Minister C Rajagopalachari. All concurred that one reason for empowering the Parliament and Legislative Assembly to impose “reasonable restrictions” on fundamental rights was because Directive Principles of State Policy, which are not justiciable but are guidelines, cannot be implemented otherise, because right to property will necessarily get curtailed. Nehru argued thus

“…the real difficulty we have to face is a conflict between the dynamic ideas contained in the Directive Principles of Policy and the static position of certain things that are called ‘fundamental’ whether they relate to property or whether they relate to something else….” (pp9625)

A member of Parliament KT Shah said:

“ It is therefore impossible for me to overlook the force of the ideals embodied in the chapter on Directives Principles of State Policy. My greatest regret is that this Government has not yet been able to implement substantially, or even up to a reasonable extent, many of the great things promised in this Chapter, so that the Chapter remains so much of paper promises or eyewash; and that in reality , these prophets of realism and practical wisdom do not insist upon giving effect to any of these notwithstanding their claims for realism in this regard.” (pp 9640-1)

Six decades later not one party, even when they wax eloquent about the Constitution, speaks of or has any credible progress to report on making Directive Principles the guideline for State policy. Indeed the first amendment set into motion a gradual erosion of fundamental rights making a mockery of Keshavanand Bharati judgment delivered on April 24, 1973 which had said that “legislative powers …cannot be so exercised as to take away the fundamental rights contained in Part III(of Constitution)”. The legislatures have continued to encroach on fundamental rights especially freedom of speech, assembly and association. The history of AFSPA, Defense of India Rule, MISA, National Security Act, TADA, POTA, UAPA….exemplifies this.


5 Responses to “Sowing Confusion: The Seductive Charm of Fighting Corruption”

  1. BD Says:
    September 13th, 2011 at 02:48

    No Anna’s bill wont do all you mention in the first paragraph. It also wont stop global warming, or encouraging the growth of lichens on mars or reduce the sun spots. To answer your question, yes, this article IS churlish which you start with and that unfortunately leaves the rest of the article frankly astounding.

    Here’s an idea. Rather than spend time pulling down somebody who actually did and achieve something that they think is important, why dont YOU start another andolan and get your pet lichen growth / NGO corruption / anti capitalism / land rights etc. etc. campaign started. Oh! sorry, you guys have been doing that so the only conclusion one draws is that this epistle is either a blind funk fulmination or sour grapes that somebody actually managed to do something.

    Reminds me of that muppet, Udit Raj. He also went on a fast on to death and then threw an almighty strop when nobody gave him any ghaas phoos. And then they came up with that extraordinary bahujan anti corruption bill or whatever clownish it was called.

    Way to go, guys, this is the way to be relevant.

  2. skj Says:
    September 13th, 2011 at 09:50

    Hi BD,

    The article mentions 3 relevant stakeholders who are apparently so pure that they don’t come under the ambit of anti-corruption: the corporations, the NGOs, and the media. The article gives proof of why they should be watched, if others are watched.

    Now – instead of addressing the three points, why are you getting so defensive?

  3. Surya Says:
    September 13th, 2011 at 12:18


  4. Anurag Says:
    September 17th, 2011 at 06:05

    To all,

    Navlakha only tended to say- organized effort has a centralizing tendency, to some extent, its less democratic and a bit repressive.
    He don’t deserve to be criticized for his opinion for which he’s justly & fully entitled to.
    No body questions what Anna & team has achieved. but we still want voices like navlakha to keep them on their toes and remind them not be be complacent ever and there is always more to be done.

  5. Som Says:
    September 22nd, 2011 at 11:38

    Well, what about NGOs with political leaning ? If religious NGOs be brought under scanner, why not them ? Recently it was reported that some notable civil activist affiliated with a person who is allegedly funded by ISI for their vested interests. The writer should that a note of that point !

    & to Surya……no doubt BD was quite harsh, but expressing such overwhelming reaction……that’s not an good sign either, mate !