Prime time quackery

THE televised euphoria of cricket`s World Cup climaxed in Mumbai on April 2. A more lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) kicked off on April 8.

Between the two fixtures, as nationalist fervour soared and patriotic biceps rippled across the country, Anna Hazare and his `civil society` troopers were ushered to stage their heavily televised anti-corruption agitation in Delhi. Corporate TV channels described the milling turnout as a second war of independence and so forth. They didn`t discuss why the first was lost.

Mr Hazare`s timing was remarkable for another reason. It coincided with a most unusual event for India. A parliamentary committee investigating telecom graft allegedly involving their companies had just finished quizzing Ratan Tata and Anil Ambani, two formidable giants in the Indian corporate pantheon.

Far from educating their audiences about the likely fate awaiting corporate corruption, the media switched their attention to an ancient populist theme — rooting out political corruption by setting up a watchdog body. Indira Gandhi had toyed with the idea in the 1960s.

This is not to say that financial corruption among politicians is not gnawing at the roots of India`s democracy. But it has its trigger elsewhere. Recent history suggests that it is corporate subterfuge that corrupts the political system, not the other way.

President Obama would not go to war with Libya to line his pockets so that his two lovely daughters would have a secure future. He commits American troops in danger zones or braces to kill local civilians as collateral damage, as did his predecessors, to secure the interests of American corporations. This is an inviolable reality.

If he doesn`t see a link between India`s malaise and corruption that marks global capitalism — and there is a good reason he won`t — Mr Hazare`s prescriptions will lead to a neo-fascist state in India, not to an equitable, fair and just society his supporters say he espouses. Let me illustrate the point.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee heads the drafting committee endorsed by Mr Hazare to prepare a national watchdog bill. Hillary Clinton would agree. Mr Mukherjee`s links with corporate houses should have disqualified him from the proposed job had someone been seriously concerned with probity.

Similarly, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, another member in the Hazare-backed committee, has represented in his avatar as lawyer controversial business houses in strange deals. Another lawyer-minister Kapil Sibal cut his political teeth when he argued against the impeachment of a corrupt Supreme Court judge. Some candidates they make to draft a law to fight corruption.

Several liberal groups and individuals that initially supported Mr Hazare`s fast for a corruption-free society got cold feet after hearing him speak. Not the least worrying of his utterances was the demand to hang the corrupt. Those who mistook Mr Hazare for a Gandhian pacifist suddenly sat up when he decreed that it was the militant Hindu avatar of Shivaji — incorrectly advertised as an enemy of Muslim rule in India — that was the need of the hour.

If there was any doubt left about his scantly secular credentials, Mr Hazare confirmed his priority by holding Narendra Modi, the violently religious revivalist chief minister of Gujarat, as a model of probity and economic development.

Not surprising then that ace liberal activists led by Mallika Sarabhai distanced themselves from Mr Hazare`s dubious intellectual trajectory. His main support came from a strong middle-class base of yoga guru Baba Ramdev. Many among them had demanded military rule after the Mumbai terror attacks. PEW opinion polls quoted them as the only people in the world supporting the zealotry of George W. Bush.

(Mr Ramdev`s credentials with the upwardly mobile middle classes took a knocking when he claimed that homosexuality was a disease, which he could cure with simple yoga technique.)

What then could have triggered the garbled interest in Messrs Hazare and Ramdev in fighting corruption? As I said, Mr Hazare can`t seem to be able to divine the link between overt financial crimes and the corporate plunder, assisted as it often is by political and often military protection. It targets virgin resources that can only be procured by robbing the poor who own them.

A possible beginning for Mr Hazare`s interest may lie in 2008, when the former army corporal won the World Bank`s award for developing a self-sustaining village as a global model. Another person who got the Bank`s award that year was Nuhu Ribadu, chair of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) of Nigeria.

The citation recalled how Ribadu had led a courageous anti-corruption drive in Nigeria as head of the EFCC. Had the EFCC been a successful venture, Nigeria would have taken some steps to become a prosperous, transparent and fair democracy. Is India going to follow Nigeria? Ask the World Bank.

There has been considerable mythmaking about the efficacy of protest by fasting. Had he not been ushered in for a four-day event between the matches, Mr Hazare`s venture would have probably met the fate of scores of fasting men and women with laudable causes who went unnoticed and unsung.

Manipuri poet and rights activists Irom Sharmila Chanu is in her 11th year of fast unto death. Her demand for the repeal of the arbitrary Armed Forces Special Powers Act in her northeastern tribal state has gone largely ignored. You might say her struggle exemplifies the triumph of human spirit over the unbridled power of the mighty state. But who is listening?

Possibly the main beneficiary of Mr Hazare`s well-meaning but potentially misdirected agitation is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Not only has he been let off the hook from recent revelations of alleged complicity in corruption, he has been certified as an honest man by the hero of the moment — Mr Hazare himself.

It is difficult to say which of them, if any, between Dr Singh and Messrs Hazare and Ramdev, will free the country from corruption — not in its restrictive financial sense but as a means to more sinister and deep-rooted exploitation of the poorest of the poor.

The writer is Dawn` s correspondent in Delhi.