The new year will show whether anti-corruption, the primary issue of 2011, will be but a footnote in history.
Will historians in the future, looking back at 2011 in order to detect in this turbulent year the seeds of things to come, isolate the anti-corruption movement as worthy of special study? Among the personalities of this past year, Kisan Baburao Hazare appears to stand out as having imposed his will on India’s public discourse. Nobody can guess in advance at the verdict of history. But there are already signs that can be read, and questions that should be asked. Did the year belong to Mr Hazare? Or has it ended with the sign that politics-as-usual will triumph over the sort of attempt to short-circuit processes that he led? After all, throughout 2011, it seemed that Mr Hazare and his followers promised so much to an India wearied of impunity at the highest levels. Yet there is little question today, as the Lok Pal Bill falters in Parliament, that Mr Hazare’s movement also has suffered a setback. The question of why this happened is worth investigating as 2012 dawns.
It is clear that, in some ways, Mr Hazare hit upon precisely the correct issue. India’s explosive growth has not been accompanied by the strengthening of institutions, or by the regulatory best practices that channel the rewards from growth correctly. Meanwhile, daily life for Indians is beset by leftover red tape from the Licence Raj, providing ample opportunity for a dehumanising round of supplication and graft. An attempt to address these twin menaces was long overdue. Yet it is equally clear that the way that Mr Hazare – and, more importantly, his close advisors – framed their agitation came in the way of its own success. When politics is the avenue for change, then an appeal to the basest anti-politics sentiment will undermine any movement’s success. That, in the end, is likely to be a limitation for any movement that, infatuated with the idea of “civil society”, eschews the nuts and bolts of political compromise.
Some blame must attach to political parties that misread and tried to appropriate Mr Hazare. The Congress underestimated the anger in India’s towns – which have voted for it, by and large, in the past two general elections – engendered by its consistent dismissal of the needs of an urbanising India. The Bharatiya Janata Party and others in opposition assumed that they could ride an anti-politics wave, self-evidently an error of judgement. Yet Mr Hazare’s angry words against the ruling party, and his promise to target it in 2012’s Assembly elections, show that the anti-politics crusaders themselves recognise that political mobilisation is the only way forward in a democratic polity. Indeed, the failure of the Lok Pal Bill to pass in the Rajya Sabha – interpreted by some as the showing of indecorousness by the ruling alliance – points to the supremacy of voters’ judgement in policy-making. After all, if a Bill is postponed until it can be passed, till a coalition in favour can be built following elections, is it a failure or an achievement of democracy? This coming year will hopefully provide the answers to some of these questions — and also to whether the issues Mr Hazare raised will be but a footnote in the history of India’s decades of growth.