Saturday, April 9, 2011

Anna Hazare Goes to New Delhi

Anna Hazare Goes to New Delhi: "
Anna Hazare’s indefinite fast for getting the “Jan Lokpal Bill” passed has met with almost universal approval. The media frenzy has caught the Indian public’s attention to an extent that they generally reserve for more important matters such as a cricket match. One could argue that both the public obsession with cricket and the current spectacle of a public fast share a common origin, the deep-seated desire of the people to participate in what they believe are events of great significance. Mob hysteria is awesome to behold but rarely if ever leads to beneficial outcomes.

Hazare is celebrated as a Gandhian, and I believe that he is indeed one to the extent that he’s using an old Gandhian ploy. Gandhi too used fast-unto-death threats effectively and to much popular acclaim. Of all the hypocritical actions that Gandhi indulged in publicly, fasting to death is most definitely the most remarkable. It’s hypocritical because he talked loudly about non-violence and simultaneously took steps that could lead to death. If forcing others to give in to your demands by threatening to kill (suicide is not the same as homicide but it does involve the ultimate violence of the death of a sentient being) is not violence, non-violence is a meaningless concept mouthed by self-serving people.

Even if one is not wedded to the concept non-violence, a moral case can be made against the use of violent blackmail as an instrument of achieving public policy ends. Threatening to kill oneself to get others to do what you want is blackmail that’s impossible to ignore. That is unacceptable in small closed groups such as a family but it becomes infinitely more reprehensible when played out at the national level.

As a means to an end, I am not against violence. Violence is certainly justified in cases where it’s the last means of combating unbearable injustice. But violence has to be the last resort in one’s desperate fight against injustice and only if one’s violent action prevents an even greater violence. What makes me see red is when violence is camouflaged with pious talk of non-violence. Hypocrisy is ethically and morally repulsive.

Violence has no place in a civilized society which is supposed to be ruled by law. People who threaten to kill themselves are no better than those who take to the streets to riot and rampage destroying life and property. It is an unfortunate fact that too often the government gives in to demands — reasonable or not — when sufficient violence is employed. At some point when the nation as a whole, including the government and the citizens, becomes sufficiently mature to play by the rules, and the use of violence as an instrument of forcing public policy becomes verboten. I believe it is high time that India became such.

Hazare’s fasting to death and the public support that he has enlisted shows how immature India is as a nation. Endorsing his and his supporters’ actions in this case is dangerous for the simple reason that its essential consequence is rule by mobs hell bent on having their way by threatening violence. Already India suffers from episodes of mobs forcing the government to restrict personal freedoms such as expression and speech by violent means. Whether Hazare’s action will result in a better ombudsman bill or not is uncertain. But it will certainly reinforce the public perception that if you want your way, instead of taking the hard way of arguing your case, the quickest and most expedient way is to take to violence.

Yes, Hazare and his cohort are fighting for a good cause; yes, we have to collectively and publicly fight public corruption; yes, we have to make heroic efforts to clean the Augean stables which the Indian legislature has predictably become thanks to the Nehru-Gandhi clan’s misrule. But in our haste to do something we could be painting ourselves into a corner.

“We have to do something against corruption; this is something; so therefore we should do this.” It has superficial appeal but however intense our passion for justice, we have to make certain that it is the right thing to do, not merely the most expedient or the most TV news worthy.

My contention is that what Hazare and company are doing is definitely spectacular but is also as certainly the wrong thing.

Bandwagons are spectacular, full of sound and pomp, but the streets revert back to their normal once they pass and the spectators have dispersed. The celebrities — movie actors, cricket players, politicians, news anchors — after they are done riding this one, will jump on the next one to continue to distract the public. Candle sales will drop until the next big thing — perhaps another terrorist attack — comes along for the public to latch on to. Mind you, I like a circus as much as the next guy. I would rather have one in town for entertainment but not if we are entertained into a comatose state.

I have argued why fasting to death is the wrong thing to do. But there’s more. I am convinced that the “Lokpal Bill,” either version is at best a palliative and does not strike at the root cause of corruption. Corruption is a serious matter but in the end, it is only a symptom of a deeper cause. Corruption is the manifestation of a systemic problem. Government power and control forms the foundation on which the massive structure of corruption is built.

I have written about the connection between control, shortage and corruption previously. (See “The Shortage Congested Economy.” April 2010.) I will briefly recapitulate the arguments here. Here’s how it goes. First, the balance of power between the government and the civil society. The government gets control of economic activity and arrogates to itself the power to dictate who does what. Instead of merely being a referee and enforcer of rules in the great economic game, it becomes a player. That gives the people in the government the opportunity to make economic profits (what economists call “rent.”) Rent-seeking opportunities attract the most greedy and the least principled to government positions. Instead of a democracy, it becomes a kakistocracy. Massive public corruption is the necessary and predictable consequence.

Imagine that being the minister for telecommunications affords one the opportunity to make $20 billion through kickbacks. One has to get elected to become a minister. We know that getting elected is a costly business. How much one is willing to spend on elections to become the minister for telecom depends on two things: the opportunity to recover the money spent on the elections and one’s readiness to steal from the public.

Now the larger the opportunity, the more the attraction for the greedy to seek the position. This leads to intense competition among the morally and ethically handicapped. It also weeds out the honest people. Suppose you are really capable of formulating good telecom policy but you have scruples. You don’t want to steal. So if you were to become the telecom minister, you would not even take a wooden nickel from the public till. You can spend at most a few lakhs on your election campaign that you are able to raise from your well-wishers. But what about your thoroughly dishonest competitors? They will make $20 billion if elected and so they can outspend you. You know that and thus keep out of the race.

The license-permit-control-quota raj is at the root of the criminalization of Indian politics. The less scruples one has, the greater the loot; the greater the loot, the more intense the competition to win the position; the more intense the competition, the greater the cost of fighting elections; the greater the cost, the greater the need to recover them; the more greedy and unprincipled people in government, the greater their desire to increase the government’s choke-hold on the economy.

The government controls massive segments of the economy. Food procurement and distribution; education; fuel, aviation; telecommunications; railways; banking and insurance; real estate; . . . the list is endless. The government is in it not because it is good for the country but because it is good for the people running the government. The politicians ride around for free on the government controlled railways and airlines. The government determines who gets the licenses and how restrictive the quotas have to be to extract the most rents. Ministers in charge of handing out mining rights make more money than the annual GDP of many small countries. Some are so rich that they must be counted as the richest men in the world. Raul Vinci aka Rahul Gandhi made it to one such list.

As if that was not enough, multi-billion dollar schemes (all named after Gandhi or the members of the Nehru-Gandhi family) for “social uplift” proliferate. Using taxes — our money — the government buys the loyalty of this or that vote bank. It would have been the most astonishing miracle if given the circumstances India had not been the world’s largest kakistocracy.

India is a corrupt country because the rules — those that give all the power to the government to run a license control permit quota raj — make it inevitable. George F Will was referring to the US government but his words apply with greater force to India when he wrote, “The administration’s central activity — the political allocation of wealth and opportunity — is not merely susceptible to corruption, it is corruption.” [Tincture of Lawlessness. The Washington Post, May 2009.]

The root cause of corruption and the related issue of absolutely abysmal governance is our set of bad rules. India’s persistent deep-rooted poverty is due to that. Douglass C. North noted that “economic history is overwhelmingly a story of economies that failed to produce a set of economic rules of the game (with enforcement) that induce sustained economic growth.” The road out of poverty starts off with people deciding on a different set of rules. The corruption we are suffering today can only be eradicated by redressing the balance of power between the government and the people. The way to do that is to change the rules. But that change has to come from actions that are legitimate and consistent with the principles of a constitutional republic.

But, one may argue, isn’t that what Hazare and company are trying to do: change the rules? Indeed they are but that rule change is palliative and not curative. What they are trying to do is to see that criminals are punished. That’s after the act and it is not likely to be a deterrent because the penalties are paltry relative to the rewards, and the corrupt can buy their way out given that the system — even the courts are not immune to corruption — is corrupt.

Alright, you may say, but what is wrong with doing this first and then taking on the larger matter later? Wouldn’t it improve the situation?

Actually it may make the system worse because it would distract the people long enough for the larger problem to become more acute. It is like giving a painkiller to a person suffering from a gangrenous limb. It reduces the perceived urgency of removing the limb and is therefore ultimately more damaging to the body.

So what should be done? Instead of a hunger-strike, what is a better way of registering protest? Hazare should get his millions of supporters to protest peacefully. A few hundred thousand should go to New Delhi and not allow Pratibha Patil, Manmohan Singh, and their handler the Italian-born Antonia Maino aka Sonia Gandhi to move out of their houses. Do that for a few weeks under the full glare of international media attention — remember all these worthies have foreign connections — and I bet that these people will get the message.

Instead of threatening violence, Hazare should use reason to persuade people to vote for change. In civilized societies, people argue, debate and use reason to make their case and persuade people. Let him take on Manmohan Singh on prime time TV. Let’s all hear what Manmohan Singh has to say for himself. Let the people ask MMS tough questions, instead of a stage-managed bunch of stooges — oops, I mean media personalities — throwing him softballs.

Popular leaders like Hazare should educate themselves first — so that they don’t end up making a bad situation worse. Mere good intentions are no guarantee that one is not seriously mistaken. Too often it is like the monkey trying to save a fish from drowning by putting it up on a tree.

Work to amend the constitution. The set of assumptions made when it was written were probably wrong then, but they are most certainly wrong now. Treating citizens like immature children is one such assumption. The British did leave the building but their rule book is being followed still.

The Jan Lokpal Bills is better than the Lokpal Bill. But that is not saying much. Both bills are dangerous because they focus on what punishment to dole out for crimes, and not on preventing criminals from committing them in the first place. But even if you believe that passing a bill is what you have to do, how you go about doing it matters because of the precedent it sets.

To my mind, the way out of hole that the Nehru-Gandhi clan and the Congress party has buried India in is to elect a competent and incorruptible person to be at the helm of affairs. That’s a tall order but it is not impossible. We can do it because when all is said and done, the citizens of India have the power to elect such a person. No one of us has the power to elect a real prime minister but together we can make it happen.

We have to unite as voters and create our own vote bank that demands a great prime minister. We have to launch a public awareness campaign so that the next election cycle the leader is someone who is serious about governance and not interested in loot. The rules can be changed by a good leader. India has 1.2 billion people and it is impossible that there isn’t one competent and honest person to lead India. The way out is therefore through the ballot box.

Postscript: The hunger strike is off as of 9th of April. The powers that be have assured Hazare that something will be done. The matter will be looked into. A committee will review the changes.

Kapil Sibal said, “We have resolved issues which seemed intractible. Our fight against corrupiton is a fight in which we are the civil society are in the same page.” Yes, indeed they are. As I had argued before, without the civil society being corrupt, it would not be possible for the corrupt to rule the country for so many decades.

Anyway, it’s all about kissing and making up now. Hazare thanked Manmohan Singh and Antonia Maino. All’s just wonderful. Mera Bharat Mahan.

Additional Readings:

Nitin Pai wrote a great piece on the matter: “Against Jan Lok Pal and the politics of hunger strikes”.

The Jan Lok Pal will become another logjammed, politicised and ultimately corrupt institution, for the passionate masses who demand new institutions have a poor record of protecting existing ones. Where were the holders of candles, wearers of Gandhi topis and hunger strikers when the offices of the Chief Election Commissioner, the Central Vigilance Commissioner and even the President of the Republic were handed out to persons with dubious credentials? If you didn’t come out to protest the perversion of these institutions why are you somehow more likely to turn up to protest when a dubious person is sought to be made the Jan Lok Pal?

But this is us. Given this reality, the solution for corruption and malgovernance should be one that does not rely the notoriously apathetic middle classes to come out on the streets. The solution is to take away the powers of discretion, the powers of rent-seeking from the government and restore it back to the people. This is the idea of economic freedom. Societies with greater economic freedom have lower corruption. We have long argued that we are in this mess because we have been denied Reforms 2.0.

Sandhya Jain’s piece is another worth reading very carefully: “Anna Hazare: NGOs for Governance?”

Anna Hazare’s so-called fast-unto-death is questionable for its anti-democratic disdain for elected government and people’s representatives. The timing is equally suspect – right after the adjournment of Parliament after passing the Union Budget. It may be recalled that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to gift Rs. 40,000/- crores to the leaky MREGA project favoured by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her unelected friends in the National Advisory Council; his attempts to curtail this hole in the exchequer enraged her.

As if on cue, Hazare, NAC cronies, Rockefeller Foundation-funded Magsaysay Award winners, and other usual suspects, ganged up against the besieged prime minister. Concerned citizens and analysts have a duty to ask whether the government of a Republic that derives its power from the people should – in the months preceding the monsoon session of Parliament – cave in to blackmail by well-heeled and well-connected NGOs, and accept a legislation drafted by them? If laws are to be adopted and enacted in this manner, do we need either government or Parliament?

. . .

Readers who may regard this critique as harsh should consider that Anna Hazare wants a joint committee comprising government and civil society leaders [read individuals and NGOs favoured by him and his friends] to rework the current draft Lokpal Bill. I am refraining, in this article, from going into the merits of his critique of the Government Draft [I stipulate there will be much merit in it]; in fact, I am not going into the text of his draft at all, nor comparing it with the impugned Government draft.

My point is that he is instigating the middle class intelligentsia that comes to hear him at Jantar Mantar – and neither he nor any of his allies is a grassroots mass leader – to despise and distrust politicians and bureaucrats as a class when these are the constitutional pillars of State. In their place, Hazare moots an unelected oligarchy. This does not bode well for the nation or the society.

While he is within his rights to fiercely criticise the Government draft Lokpal Bill, it is utterly unworthy to say that, “If the government alone drafts the anti-corruption bill, it will be autocratic not democratic, there will be discrepancies.” Here it may be pertinent to note that while Hazare’s charmed inner circle includes some high profile lawyers who have made a mark in the battle against corruption in high places, he has placed NO FAITH in the Judiciary as an institution in rectifying anomalies in the law and its application, and in bringing culprits to justice. This is a strange kind of crusade.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s column “Of the Few, By the Few

Corruption is a challenge. And public agitation is required to shame government. But it is possible to maintain, in reasonable good faith, that the Jan Lokpal Bill is not necessarily the best, or the only solution to the corruption challenge. We should not turn a complex institutional question into a simplistic moral imperative. Many of the people in the movement for the Jan Lokpal Bill have set examples of sacrifice and integrity that lesser mortals can scarcely hope to emulate. But it is the high vantage point of virtue that has occluded from view certain uncomfortable truths about institutions.

The various drafts of the Jan Lokpal Bill are, very frankly, an institutional nightmare. To be fair, the bill is a work in progress. But the general premises that underlie the various drafts border on being daft. They amount to an unparalleled concentration of power in one institution that will literally be able to summon any institution and command any kind of police, judicial and investigative power. Power, divided in a democracy, can often be alibi for evading responsibility. But it is also a guarantee that the system is not at the mercy of a few good men. Having concentrated immense power, it then displays extraordinary faith in the virtue of those who will wield this power. Why do we think this institution will be incorruptible? The answer seems to be that the selection mechanism will somehow ensure a superior quality of guardians. Why? Because the selection committee, in addition to the usual virtuous judges, will have, as one draft very reassuringly put it, two of the “most recent Magsaysay Award Winners”. Then there is no sense of jurisdiction and limits. It is not going to look at corruption only. It can even look into “wasteful” expenditure. They can, potentially usurp all policy prerogatives of democratic governments. So many accountability institutions, in the name of accountability, are not distinguishing between policy issues and corruption. They are perpetuating the myth that government can function without any discretionary judgment.