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Sarika Bansal


Where Anna Hazare's Anti-Corruption Movement Should End

Posted: 08/19/11 02:39 PM ET

Hat sales are unusually high in India for this time of year. Specifically, white boat-shaped 'Gandhi caps' are flying off the shelves. India's hat makers have a septuagenarian social activist named Kisan Baburao Hazare -- popularly known as Anna Hazare -- to thank for that.

Across India, Anna Hazare's supporters have been vociferously protesting the government's refusal to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill. Drafted by members of the India Against Corruption movement, the bill proposes an independent body, or lokpal, to investigate and prosecute corrupt politicians. While Hazare spent part of the week in jail, thousands have been lighting white candles, wearing "I am Anna" stickers, and donning 'Gandhi caps' in support of his cause. Hazare, meanwhile, is refusing to eat or drink anything until the government signs a version of the bill he deems satisfactory.

Emotions are running high, and it has become abundantly clear that the aam aadmi, or common man, is dissatisfied with the level of corruption in the Indian government. It is also clear that with this new international spotlight, the government must start taking corruption seriously.

It is less clear, however, whether passing the proposed Jan Lokpal bill will actually keep government-wide corruption at bay. As with most populist uprisings, the vast majority of supporters have been drawn by the spirit, rather than the letter, of the proposed policy changes. Relatively few of those chanting "Sab neta chor hai" (all politicians are thieves) have been discussing the nuts and bolts of the proposed Jan Lokpal Bill.

Unfortunately, while the bill has a very noble end in mind -- a government free of corruption -- it will not, in its current form, likely get us there. There are several reasons for this.

As mentioned, the bill establishes a new committee to investigate and prosecute corruption in the Indian government. Such an entity, however, does not address the fundamental reasons corruption occurs. It also does not change the inner workings of the government to make it corruption-proof in the future. Nandan Nilekani, chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (and former head of Infosys Technologies), highlighted in an interview the need to address the systemic causes of Indian corruption:

You obviously need surveillance and audit, but that's a layer you put on top of a functioning, streamlined system. A surveillance and audit cannot be a substitute for that. That's one of the conceptual problems I have with many of these proposals, is that nobody's talking about how we fix the underlying things. [Instead], we create one more army of people who are going to inspect something that already is not working.

Second, the structure of the proposed lokpal is troubling from a legal standpoint. Unlike other public institutions in India, the committee's powers reach across several dimensions, putting it in violation of the democratic ideal of checks and balances. For instance, it both investigates crimes and prosecutes those found guilty -- awarding it powers that are usually separated. Given this, some lawyers, including Arghya Sengupta, worry whether the proposed lokpal is itself corruption-proof. "You don't build institutions thinking all members will be guardian angels," said Sengupta, member of the Delhi-based think tank Pre-Legislative Briefing Services, in a phone interview. "You design them to take care of [potential] bad apples who will be on the committee fifty years from now."

Finally, even if the bill were carefully designed, Hazare's supporters must remember that overturning society involves much more than passing a law. "There's this notion that you can change the world by changing a law," said Anush Kapadia, Harvard lecturer and expert on Indian political economy. "[The Jan Lokpal Bill] is almost a utopian idea of what a law can do. You have to remember, however, that you cannot read outcomes from design." Pouring so much energy into the passage of this bill may, in the long run, be detrimental to the larger cause.

Anna Hazare and his supporters should be extremely proud of what they have accomplished. This movement has brought unprecedented light to an enormous thorn in Indian democracy. At this point, however, they should let go of their specific demands and instead allow a much wider ring of experts to develop methods that will, in due course, systemically weed out corruption.