Interpreting The Maladies
Amb Kanwal Sibal

The Arab Spring pollinated the rejuvenating purpose of the Anna Hazare campaign, even though the context of the street movements in the two cases is different. The movements in Tunisia and in Egypt that caused the downfall of entrenched dictators vividly demonstrated internationally that massive and sustained peaceful street mobilization through the social media can be a powerful instrument for political change in countries amenable to Western influence. Even leaders of vulnerable countries not in the Western orbit — as in the case of Syria — can be exposed to international reprisals, including attempts at regime-change through the imposition of sanctions. This is because dominant Western powers can mobilize an increasingly responsive international opinion against any brutal suppression of peaceful domestic dissent by governments.

The democracy movements in west Asia aroused tremendous international interest because the consequences of political change in this region of great geopolitical importance could be far-reaching. The implications of the overthrow of longstanding pro-Western regimes — such as that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt — for the maintenance of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours were no doubt a primary concern. Europe had additional reasons to worry about the region’s political complexion after the downfall of key figures who had helped in controlling terrorism, religious extremism and clandestine emigration.

Irrespective of the short-term uncertainties, democratic change in west Asia had to be welcomed by the West in the longer-term perspective because it carried the promise of greater convergence of political and social values between the two. A revolution led by the Facebook and tweeting middle class had special appeal as it meant that the initiative was in the hands of a young, modernizing generation and not the retrograde religious elements linked to the growing Islamist threat to the West. The West would also have been gratified by the success, in Tunisia and Egypt, of techniques that it had encouraged less successfully elsewhere for destabilizing the regimes it disliked, such as the one in Iran. Beyond that, the middle class urge for democracy forcing political change in the authoritarian Arab world seemed to validate the calculations of Western strategists who have banked on a rising middle class in China to prise open the one-party State system there. China’s allergy to the word “jasmine” would not be surprising in that perspective.

If functioning democracies thought that they were immune to the kind of unrest sparked off by the middle class, civil society, youth-led movements in the Arab world, then their judgment has proved erroneous. The Arab street revolt has been infectious despite the objective circumstances in India being vastly different from those in the Arab world. Whatever its shortcomings, India does have a functioning democracy. People’s power is exercised with telling results at the time of elections. With the weakening of the principal parties, coalition governments, assertive regional parties, caste politics and the increase of constituencies have empowered the people more. The Hazare movement is not for introducing democracy; it is for weeding out corruption. This, of course, can hardly be done by governmental fiat alone as it is also a moral enterprise, requiring a wider, regenerative movement encompassing the society as a whole. Anna Hazare’s movement is benefiting from a new sense of empowerment that the success of the Arab street campaigns has given civil society across borders, and the social media’s unprecedented capacity to rapidly mobilize like-minded people. It, therefore, replicates the social composition and the communication methodology of the Arab uprising, albeit for a much narrower purpose.

The foreign media had kept the eyes of the world riveted on street turmoil in the Arab world, especially in Tahrir Square, because of its international political and security ramifications. The same media had earlier totally ignored the Hazare movement as it carried no such external implications. It was probably seen as part of the noisy nature of Indian democracy. Since the movement gained strength, and the government was not able to quickly defuse the challenge, curiosity in the person and the agenda of Hazare began to attract notice. However, the interest has remained perfunctory.

The crusaders for democracy worldwide gain nothing from supporting the government-civil society stand-off in India. The improved functioning of democracy in India does not clinch the argument in favour of the spread of democracy globally. In fact, advertisement of its weakness and its corruption-ridden core damages the case for its diffusion. The perceived pro-Western tilt of the present government should normally shield it from untoward external pressure, especially at a time of renewed global financial turmoil when stable political conditions in the large economies would be desirable. The proposition that thwarting the rise of India would serve the West’s interest seems contrary to current Western thinking about India’s global role. Prolonged turbulence in India can, of course, create opportunities for inimical external interests to fish in troubled waters, but for now the outside focus is on India’s economic growth and its insulation from bemusing domestic political drama.

The Indian media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Hazare movement seemed a conscious effort to inflate its magnitude and substance. It was intriguing to see the melodramatic headlines in some national dailies, the numerous stories engineered through field reporting in order to dramatize public anguish and the projection of a government under siege. It turned out to be a public mobilization exercise to give fillip to the handiwork of the social media and to escalate the protests. While the media may well argue it was dutifully reflecting public sentiment, the slant and the sensationalism of reporting appeared agenda-driven.

The government’s position on the draft lok pal bill — guided by practical considerations and administrative experience — is probably sounder than that of the Hazare camp that is driven by frustration and exasperation over the exaction of corruption in the daily lives of the people. A liberal polity cannot have laws with an authoritarian spirit. In any case, laws require proper implementation to be effective, and that is a governance issue. The government’s arguments are suspect because of its failure to act firmly, transparently and in time against egregious scams. This has also denied it the credit for incarcerating some of those responsible. Undoubtedly, there is no magic wand to end corruption, but a stick is available for prompt use against those considered culpable.

The malady of corruption has to be cured but the medicine should not be administered with the kind of belligerence and peremptoriness that the Hazare camp has exhibited. This was best exemplified by a prominent social activist who drew a parallel between the Hazare movement and that which ousted the Libyan dictator. Such a shallow understanding of the Libyan developments may explain the oversimplified thinking of the Hazare activists.

The immediate crisis has been defused by the parliamentary resolution, but the issue has not been settled. The government, the stronger contender, has lost prestige and authority by its half-capitulation. The Hazare movement, the weaker contender, has got a tremendous boost by its half-success. The government’s flexibility under duress will invite more pressure, but then it is paying the price for its follies in tolerating corruption. It is unclear whether a people’s victory under these circumstances will be to the nation’s advantage.

Published in The Telegraph 8th September - 2011

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