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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 cantake on Indiaunless, of course, you are either of the two Singhs conducting our greateconomy -- which seems to be tanking, too. But if the topic is governance andcorruption, cynicism, which is founded on decades of underachievement and utterfailure, is also wisdom.

 

Who can challenge you when you say nothingworks 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 fewrules please, thank you?

Nobody. A billion plus nobodies, actually.

The answer to what will come out of AnnaHazare and his Jan Lokpal agitation is easy: nothing, or at any rate, notmuch.  Even Anna's supporters would havetaken 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" getsthe better of Anna, they can always seek solace in the comfort of their cynicalhalf.

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

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

Where cynicism is the accepted wisdom ofthe day, there is normally little to cheer other than the coming to fruition ofour 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 tobust the cynics' party.

Sometimes change happens for no apparentreason 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, thatchange is happening through three well-recognised revolutions: education,technology and digital governance.

Millions of Indians are swelling the ranksof literate India.Mobile andinternet technology is shrinking the country, informing and empowering the aamadmi. Digital governance is delivering public services better, breaching thehigh walls of opaque governments. A reality check undertaken by Governance Nowacross ten cities to test the progress of digital governance showed that inevery city many or most public services were being delivered online, fast andefficient.

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

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

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

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

That brings us back to Anna. To measure thesuccess or failure of Anna's movement through the narrow prism of a strong orweak Lokpal is to misconstrue the very nature of popular movements. Suchmovements touch many things at many levels and leave visible and invisibleimpacts. Anna's movement left one indelible mark on our democracy which has notbeen discussed much.

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

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

The Anna movement exposed this raw nerve ofthe elected representative. As long as it was between Anna and the governmentand their parties, individual MPs were unconcerned. But the moment Anna askedhis supporters to demonstrate outside their MP's houses, he caused a disruptionthat reached right up to the top. Faced with a direct "support Anna orperish from the voters, the MPs, especially from the Congress party, startedopenly endorsing him. I would venture to guess that this rare pressure from thebottom up had a lot to do with the Congress party's subsequent fast-tracking ofefforts to break Anna's Ramlila fast.

More recently, it forced three Congress MPsin 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 beingthreatened by their voters. But there is enough evidence to suggest that theyhave been emboldened by Anna to give expression to their free thought. BeforeAnna there are not many instances of Congress MPs taking public stancesdiametrically opposite to the party's after the First Family has had its say.

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

Anna also demonstrated that by intelligentuse of the modern mediums of communication, a popular movement can be got up ina matter of months. Of course, even Anna can't repeat the miracle all the timebut that does not detract from putting the fear of the voter among electedrepresentatives. It is not easy to comprehend how and how much this fear willmanifest itself in the running of India's democracy from here on. Butseen with all the other positive changes -- mere blips though they might be onthe corruption radar - and the enormously empowering RTI Act, it is not toorisky to estimate that it will at least start a trend of accountability andtransparency 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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