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BV Rao says the tide is turning against corruption in India

The cynics may not realise it, but the tide is turning against corruption.

Being cynical is the safest bet you can take on India unless, of course, you are either of the two Singhs conducting our great economy -- which seems to be tanking, too. But if the topic is governance and corruption, cynicism, which is founded on decades of underachievement and utter failure, is also wisdom.

 

Who can challenge you when you say nothing works in this country, nothing will ever change, we are all like this only, this country has no hope…. so will you stop bothering me while I bend a few rules please, thank you?

Nobody. A billion plus nobodies, actually.

The answer to what will come out of Anna Hazare and his Jan Lokpal agitation is easy: nothing, or at any rate, not much.  Even Anna's supporters would have taken to the streets half in hope of change and half in expectation of failure. Decades of repudiation trains them to do that. If the "system" gets the better of Anna, they can always seek solace in the comfort of their cynical half.

Of course, after Singh Senior is done with trying to divert our attention from corruption with FDI and other such peripheral (to corruption) issues, we will get a Lokpal that is far weaker than what Anna wanted but way stronger than what the government originally tried to foist on us.

That's about all the success that Anna can claim, a far cry from the second freedom movement that he promised us. The new half-baked Lokpal will definitely not end corruption. A fully-loaded Jan Lokpal couldn't have either, but that's a different debate. So it might seem like all the cynics were right: nothing changes.

Where cynicism is the accepted wisdom of the day, there is normally little to cheer other than the coming to fruition of our own dark prophecies. But wait, don't clink your glasses in celebration yet. There are a few possible party poopers lurking round the corner, waiting to bust the cynics' party.

Sometimes change happens for no apparent reason than that change's time has come. And when that happens, no human brain, however deviant, however adept at keeping status quo, can stand in its way. In India, that change is happening through three well-recognised revolutions: education, technology and digital governance.

Millions of Indians are swelling the ranks of literate India. Mobile and internet technology is shrinking the country, informing and empowering the aam admi. Digital governance is delivering public services better, breaching the high walls of opaque governments. A reality check undertaken by Governance Now across ten cities to test the progress of digital governance showed that in every city many or most public services were being delivered online, fast and efficient.

The City Civic Centres in Ahmedabad, for example, don't look anything like the corporation ward offices that they are. No dingy corridors with creaking old cupboards lining them, no files spilling all over and no paper at all. Most of the preliminary work can be done from home and the average time a citizen spends here is about ten minutes. No scowling officers, no angry citizens and most important, no money changing hands. This scene is repeated in city after city.

Without much noise and without any of us realising, new standards in public service are being set and followed. This is true of passport services in most cities, the ease with which we file our tax returns or get tax refunds, or book our train tickets, to name just a few of the most troublesome services that have become less irksome. But the problem with good governance is that it is easy to get used to it (which is fine because that means we are raising the bar for what is good which in turn is good because it means the cynics are shifting position without actually realising it). 

There is merit in the argument that all this is an urban and semi urban phenomenon. Well, the good news is, it's not going to remain that way for long. The way private capital is hungering for new markets, mobile and internet revolutions are going to reach there pretty fast. And once corporate India starts sales and services on the mobile and internet platforms, digital governance will have to get on to it as well. In a knowledge economy powered by an informed citizen, governments cannot spurn technology for too long if they want to be re-elected.

Then there is the other change that is already underway: that of good governance paying rich electoral dividends, in turn spurring these governments to do better. Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Bihar are examples. After getting re-elected, all of them have voluntarily brought in the public services delivery act. This act not only guarantees services in specified time but also fines bureaucrats for not delivering within deadline. Madhya Pradesh, which pioneered the public services act, did it much before Anna came on the scene. It is only a matter of time before all state governments are forced to follow this great example.

That brings us back to Anna. To measure the success or failure of Anna's movement through the narrow prism of a strong or weak Lokpal is to misconstrue the very nature of popular movements. Such movements touch many things at many levels and leave visible and invisible impacts. Anna's movement left one indelible mark on our democracy which has not been discussed much.

Our democracy has evolved in a way that our MPs are mere puppets of the party they belong to. An MP who is supposed to be the voice of about 15 lakh citizens, has no voice in Parliament other than to parrot his party line even when it is against his own principles and beliefs or against popular mood. But since it is the party that is the final arbiter in matters of giving ticket and ensuring victory they end up becoming slaves of the party rather than servants of the people. There is practically no political life outside of a party format.

In effect then the MPs' contract with the party is hinged on self-preservation. As long as the MPs are assured of a full term and stand a reasonable chance of getting the party's ticket again, they will do the party's bidding. Only when their survival is threatened they will dare to go against the party.

The Anna movement exposed this raw nerve of the elected representative. As long as it was between Anna and the government and their parties, individual MPs were unconcerned. But the moment Anna asked his supporters to demonstrate outside their MP's houses, he caused a disruption that reached right up to the top. Faced with a direct "support Anna or perish from the voters, the MPs, especially from the Congress party, started openly endorsing him. I would venture to guess that this rare pressure from the bottom up had a lot to do with the Congress party's subsequent fast-tracking of efforts to break Anna's Ramlila fast.

More recently, it forced three Congress MPs in the standing committee to dissent on substantial clauses of the Lokpal bill. It is possible that these MPs agreed with Anna's formulation even before being threatened by their voters. But there is enough evidence to suggest that they have been emboldened by Anna to give expression to their free thought. Before Anna there are not many instances of Congress MPs taking public stances diametrically opposite to the party's after the First Family has had its say.

This is the most crucial contribution of Anna's movement. By exposing this political pain point of the MPs, Anna showed how we can unsettle political parties: shake the basic unit, the super structure shall tremble.

Anna also demonstrated that by intelligent use of the modern mediums of communication, a popular movement can be got up in a matter of months. Of course, even Anna can't repeat the miracle all the time but that does not detract from putting the fear of the voter among elected representatives. It is not easy to comprehend how and how much this fear will manifest itself in the running of India's democracy from here on. But seen with all the other positive changes -- mere blips though they might be on the corruption radar - and the enormously empowering RTI Act, it is not too risky to estimate that it will at least start a trend of accountability and transparency across all levels.

It'll take time, but the tide will turn.

The author is editor of Governance Now, a magazine on public policy and national affairs


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