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India Against Corruption

Learning to poll dance

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RIGHT TRACK? Civil society figures in the past have tried to form parties and contest elections but with little success

In a fragmented polity such as ours, IAC could, at the very least, make a difference to poll outcomes, especially if it builds alliances.

Any examination of whether the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement can be a gamechanger in the political arena must necessarily revisit the movement's beginnings and its rise in the popular imagination. First, consider how it was the arrogance and stupidity of a few ministers in the UPA-II government that was responsible to a great extent for turning Anna Hazare into a superstar and enabled the movement to gain momentum. The day the Union government decided to arrest Anna and then blame it, rather farcically, on the Delhi Police, it lost its first battle in the court of public opinion.

A concerted effort was then made to malign the movement's leaders. An old inquiry commission report (by Justice P B Sawant) was dredged out to cast aspersions on Anna Hazare's integrity;the way in which land was acquired by the elder Bhushan was questioned, as were Kiran Bedi's air travels. Arvind Kejriwal was targeted for a computer he had acquired while in government service. Even as the anti-corruption movement progressed in fits and starts, some in the IAC stepped back and listened to what many of its well-wishers, associates and even critics were saying - that it needed to confront certain inherent limitations before going ahead. An obvious contradiction quickly came to a head: a civil society organization can only go so far and no further in challenging political parties by staying avowedly apolitical.

Another limitation of the movement was its focus on a single issue, the setting up of a Lokpal. Corruption in India always had many facets - from the illegal funding of election campaigns to the deliberate misallocation and undervaluation of valuable natural resources such as telecommunications spectrum, land, coal, iron and natural gas. Whenever asked about his excessive focus on one issue, Kejriwal would bring up the mythical analogy of Arjuna's singleminded concentration on the eye on the fish. While the government may have indeed scuttled the Lokpal Bill, the institution of a people's ombudsman could never have been a silver bullet or a magic wand to curb corruption across the board. A deeper engagement with other factors responsible for corruption was needed. Fissures soon erupted within the IAC. Once some members - especially Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan, clearly the movement's brains trust - began to advocate the political way forward, others began pulling in different directions.

Time will tell whether or not the leaders of the IAC will make a difference to the country's politics. The party to be formed by the IAC could get its own candidates elected or support other (independent) candidates. It could end up playing spoiler in several key constituencies. In the past, similar attempts - by academics, civil society figures and prominent citizens - at forming parties and contesting elections have had negligible impact on the polity. These attempts were probably doomed because such candidates, despite their obvious integrity and professional credentials, sought no help from - or bothered to build alliances with - political parties. IAC could make the same mistake.

But one thing's for sure, the leaders of the IAC will strike a chord with many voters in the coming elections when they yoke the issue of corruption with runaway food inflation and crony capitalism.

Another major factor that may work in their favour is the continuing fragmentation of our polity. Even though this process appeared to have stalled by the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, I don't believe we've moved to a two coalition system at the centre - one led by the Congress and the other by the BJP. Shorn of their allies and partners, the vote-share of both national parties has been barely 50 per cent over the last five general elections. The two largest political parties in the country are principal adversaries only in eight out of the 28 states. I expect the Indian polity to fragment further in the next Lok Sabha elections and in such a fluid situation, the leaders of the IAC could matter in determining poll outcomes, especially if they seek support from selected political parties and particular candidates. Alliances could make a big difference.


AS TOLD TO PRAVEEN DASS
The writer is a Delhi-based independent educator and political commentator.

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