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In India, an attempt to outsource the fight against corruption

If there is one issue that India is associated with right now, it is corruption. First came a series of scandals over the past months involving both politicians and high profile business leaders. Then, with  fortuitous timing, veteran social activist Anna Hazare launched a highly publicized “fast unto death” to force the government to draft an anti-corruption Lokpal bill. That was followed by an “awakening” of support from and demonstrations by the middle class, complete with campaigns over Twitter and Facebook. Earlier this month the government finally caved in to constitute a committee to look into the matter.

Commentators have compared this victory to the “freedom movements” in the Middle East. But there are few comparisons and this may well prove to be Pyrrhic victory. For while battling the corruption endemic in India’s political and administrative systems is certainly laudible, the way by which Anna Hazare and his supports plan to do so will only undermine India’s political freedoms and the faith the majority of Indians still hold in the system.

To control widespread corruption, the proposed Lokpal bill forsees the creation of an independent ombudsman consisting of representatives selected through a “participatory process.” Such an ombudsman would have widespread powers to investigate and prosecute anyone, yet be neither representative nor accountable to any branch of government.

Middle class Indians will probably say that all branches of government have failed them and they will be at least partly correct. The average middle class Indian today prefers to avoid any contact with the public sector. This apathy also extends to elections, where the middle class rarely participates. For them, the easiest solution to corruption in the system is simply to create an independent ombudsman.

Yet, only utopian naivete can explain why Hazare and his supports expect that an independent ombudsman would be any less corrupt than a system that has at least some checks and balances. Rather than fixing corruption and rent-seeking, it would simply move the problem from one place to another.

Worse this approach highlights, and will likely broaden, the rift between the middle class and the rest of India.

For while the middle class may have tuned out of participating in India’s politics, the majority of Indians continue to believe in the political system. They participate in elections and regularly reward or punish their politicians with amazing acuity. It is this majority that kicked out the BJP for suggesting India was shinning, when they were not; and this very majority that re-elected the Congress with a strong majority last time around, for proposing the motto of “inclusive growth.” It is this political vitality that has led to a competition amongst the states to grow faster, and that has taken Bihar from being a basket case to a success story.

So while the political system may not be working for the middle class, it is working for the many that continue to believe in it. Therefore, this middle class revival should not be compared to the protest movements in the Middle East. Rather, it is a tamer version of the yellow shirt protest movement in Thailand in 2008, which split Thai society apart. And it is a reflection of the middle class’ desire to blame someone else for their own failures.

Middle class Indians tend to see themselves as victims of corruption. Yet, they have done little about it. Facebook, Twitter, and the efforts of a Gandhian make it easy for them to let their anger be known. But Gandhian ideals require personal engagement and sacrifice, which is lacking from this movement. If Indians opt out of the political system and condone corruption in broader public life, they should not be surprised when it becomes endemic. And without a change in that apathetic attitude, it is only a matter of time before the ombudsman itself becomes a source of corruption, rather than a solution to it.

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