Commentary

Arrest Corruption, Not Those Who Protest against It

Sixty-four years ago, the Congress Party led the independence movement that exposed British rule as repressive, callous and often stupid. But in last week’s Anna Hazare fiasco, the same Congress Party exposed itself as repressive, callous and stupid. By jailing Hazare, it simply created a wave of public support for him that eclipsed anything seen earlier. That’s what happened when the British Raj jailed Mahatma Gandhi, and when Indira Gandhi jailed Jayaprakash Narayan and his followers in the 1970s. Hazare cannot compare in stature with Mahatma Gandhi or Jayaprakash Narayan. That hardly justifies the government’s ham-handed crackdown, which appears bent on squashing an anti-corruption agitation rather than corruption itself. Result: the government looks more corrupt than ever, while Hazare emerges as a hero despite his many blemishes.

I have reservations about the version of the Lokpal Bill suggested by Hazare and Prashant Bhushan. Nevertheless, I hail them as brave, idealistic crusaders trying to do something about corruption even as the government does nothing. Their anti-corruption campaign has echoed the anger of millions across India, and forced the government to eat crow on the proposed fast.

The crackdown on Hazare and misuse of Section 144 to prohibit inconvenient rallies has, inevitably, revived memories of the 1975-77 Emergency. So has Congress talk of a “foreign hand” seeking to destabilize India. One has to snigger when the BJP says the only foreign hand in sight is of Italian origin.

Congress spokesmen say agitators cannot claim the right to agitate at any place and time of their choice. That’s a nice technicality. But did Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement in the 1970s specify the time and place of every demonstration? Or the Congress agitation against the CPM govermment in Kerala in 1958? Or the agitations in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab in the 1950s for separate statehood? Will Congress condemn participants of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya for not specifying the time and place of every demonstration? The fact is that popular demonstrations can take on lives of their own. Congress wants Hazare to limit his followers to 25,000, as though he is issuing invitations to a wedding banquet. Congress spokesmen say India’s security and integrity are being undermined by anticorruption agitations. No, only the security of crooks is being undermined.

Kapil Sibal is among the Congress spokesmen saying Hazare’s attempt to push his version of the Lokpal Bill is undemocratic. Excuse me? In every democracy, citizens have the right to demand and agitate for changes in the law to promote justice. Only the legislatures can enact such changes, but that does not diminish the right to demand new laws.

Equally facile is the Congress claim that Hazare is “blackmailing” the government through a fast. Will the Congress spokesman also accuse Mahatma Gandhi of blackmailing the British Raj by fasting? Will they similarly accuse Potti Sriramulu, hero of Andhra Pradesh who fasted to death for separate statehood? Blackmail is defined as demanding money for not revealing your secrets. The Congress surely has thousands of dirty secrets, but Hazare is not asking for money to suppress them. Rather he wants those with dirty secrets to be prosecuted and jailed.

I was dismayed by some echoes of the Emergency in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Independence Day speech. He said, “There are some people who want to create disturbances in the country so that our progress gets stalled.” Please include my own name in this list. Yes, I and millions of others are appalled by what goes on in the name of “progress”, and we definitely want to stall that. To suggest that agitations against corruption will impede true progress is sick.

It’s a cruel joke for Singh to claim that “the government is taking strictest possible action in cases of corruption.” Arrests in the 2G case happened only after the Supreme Court intervened. Sonia Gandhi will not permit a serious hunt for corruption since it would reveal skeletons galore in the Congress cupboard. Other parties have skeletons too, and are not serious either.

It is not enough for Singh to be personally honest. He must be seen combating corruption. A politically easy starting point would be an anti-corruption crusade against leeches in the petty bureaucracy who suck the life blood of citizens. This is the job of the state police, not the Centre. But Singh can ask Congress-run states — starting with Delhi — to launch crusades against corrupt bureaucrats, who are so brazen that they can easily be caught.

The bureaucrats will resist any crusade with strikes and agitation. If Congress can’t even stand up to corrupt petty bureaucrats, it should be booted out at the next election.

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.