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BW Businessworld

A Thousand Screams

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It is not their fault that both Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal are altos, but that does lead sometimes to the impression that they are screaming. It does not help that both are used to addressing crowds without a microphone. Their abuses are sometimes loud enough almost to carry to Parliament House; when they got carried away by their own rhetoric, it was not surprising that members of Parliament got provoked. It was only right that Parliament desisted from punishing its abusers, for the right to criticise it is a part of this country's democratic privilege. Even in Britain, the highest punishment handed to abusers of Parliament is a reprimand, followed by symbolic imprisonment in its premises till the House rises.

Nevertheless, the proceedings in and outside the House illustrate two features that mar political debate in India. First, critics get so carried away by their targets that they make personal attacks and forget the issue for which they are fighting. And second, even seasoned politicians have a thin skin: they easily take umbrage and forget that the attacks, while ostensibly on them, are really on the way they behave and function.

It is unlikely that Hazare and his strident followers will give up now. Most likely, they will be back at Jantar Mantar indulging in collective rudeness once the monsoon is over. It would be injudicious for Parliament to react to their antics; but there is no denying that the agitators are getting under the politicians' skin. The latter no doubt are worried about the impact of the agitation. The Hazarists have not decided to contest elections till now. But some of the dirt they have been throwing may stick, and incumbent members of Parliament may see their chances of reëlection being adversely affected. Abuse they can stand, but loss of power they cannot.

The standoff is all the more incomprehensible because the compromise has already been agreed upon: that Parliament will pass a Lokpal Bill. True, the Hazarists are asking for a "strong" bill; but the strength is easily adjustable, and can be negotiated. Besides, legislators of experience should know how little strength matters. If legislation improved a country, the reams of laws the country's legislators have passed would have made it Ramrajya. As the continued prosperity of the corrupt legislators that Hazarists point to suggests, there is many a slip between the law and its implementation. That gap will emerge in respect of Lokpal too; after all, the Lokpal will also have to rely on the existing machinery of law enforcement. So, politicians are in no danger; they can safely give Hazare anything he asks for. In fact, it is surprising that no politician has jumped on the Hazare bandwagon; a cheaper way of winning popularity can hardly be imagined.

If the Hazarists stopped marching around and paused to think, they would realise that they are fighting a phantom. Corruption is not a phantom rising out of Parliament House; it is thousands of detailed activities such as bribes for driving licences and jobs for undeserving candidates. They are identifiable, and are in fact all too familiar to their victims, who should be the first supporters of the Hazare movement. They only have to be asked; their answers will provide an accurate and detailed map of corruption. Each act of corruption can then be addressed by precisely the same means that the Hazare movement has chosen to target the phantom of Delhi; each corrupt official in property registration offices can be identified, and barracked until he changes his ways.

This is so obvious that one must wonder why it has not struck the Hazarists. Maybe they have been entranced by the Parliament House, such an elegant target that the Hazarists cannot stop gazing at it. The other is the publicity that demonstrations at Jantar Mantar brings. True, Hazare's meeting at Shivaji Park did flop. But that was because Shivaji Park is huge and its emptiness cannot be hidden. Jantar Mantar has no space for crowds, so a few hyperactive individuals are enough to make news there.

It is remarkable then that the Hazare movement has received so much notice from politicians. But while the movement itself may not be of great consequence, the issue certainly is. It is not just Indians who resent corruption; global surveys show India to be a champion in corruption. It is the representatives of the Indian people who should be most concerned, and most desirous of finding a way of eradicating corruption. End of corruption will not be the death knell for politicians; after all, politicians in many other countries thrive without being corrupt. Let us look for life after corruption.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 02-04-2012)