By Kumar David –
Lanka needs to take inspiration from India’s Anti-Corruption Movement (ACM). Although corruption in India is horrendous an inspiring movement to combat it has grown up. We in Lanka are quite far behind in our ACM mobilisation. The JVP, groups like transparency and individuals are active, but an organised effort to cull crooks is still absent. A start has to be made and the first step is to build public consciousness and encourage awareness of the need for a systematic, organised, anti-corruption drive. Sleaze is the talking point in nearly every social and political conversation; therefore there is fertile soil for activism.
Recently I had the good fortune to be present at a preliminary brain-storming. A small group from diverse class, political, ethnic and religious backgrounds has started coming together to take up the ACM challenge. There was a clear realisation that although old liberal fogies and leftists dinosaurs can do the initial ideas formatting, eventually a contingent of energetic speaking young people must take over and drive the movement.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)
Though I am aware that readers are familiar with Aam Aadmi, Kejriwal and Hazare it is useful to divert to India before returning to the initiative taking shape here. Anna Hazare (age 77), a retired army truck driver, is the father of the Twenty-first Century anti-corruption drive in India and Arvind Kejriwal, an IIT mechanical engineering graduate, his 45 year old ‘son’. Unfortunately unlike in Christian cosmology, in India’s anti-corruption pantheon, father and son fell out. The issue post-2011 was whether, in taking the Jan Lokpal Bill forward, the movement should be broad and politically non-aligned, Hazare’s preference, or be a political party, Kejriwal’s choice. The parting in November 2012 was amicable and at first Kejriwal seemed right because at its first test, the Delhi legislative assembly elections, AAP won 28 of 70 seats and formed a short-lived minority city government with Congress support – the BJP fell marginally short of a majority. Now Hazare himself seems to imply that he was wrong by joining Mammata Banajee in West Bengal in the Lok Sabaha elections. But easy, it’s not so simple, it is early days and the last laugh may still be with Hazare.
AAP’s problems are more deep-rooted than falling short of a solo majority in Delhi. Snags extend to a plethora of issues; class base, ideology or lack thereof, spontaneity spiced with immaturity, and the lack of a definitive programme. I will touch on each, but together they demonstrate that an anti-corruption drive (in India or Lanka) must be broad-based, open to those of all political hues and ideologies, and focussed on a single issue. (“Oh dear” you must be muttering “this guy is some kind of Single-Issue nutcase!”) Seriously though, let me explain AAP’s headaches.
Srinivasa Raghavan, a well known Indian journalist, categorised the AAP as traditionalist and rightist on moral issues and left and populist on economics. There is a word for this; eclectic. General Secretary Prakash Karat of CP(M), India’s largest communist party, spelt it out thus: “The AAP’s clean image, incorruptibility, abstention from perks and privileges, funding through people’s direct contributions and its agenda of social justice, democratisation and decentralisation has long been at the heart of the Communist programme”, he claimed. On the other hand, he added, a stand against communalism and the communal Hindutva agenda are not strong points in AAP-speak. Kejriwal admitted much the same when he said “We are happy to borrow from the left and we are happy to borrow from the right”.
This dichotomy arises from the party’s class composition. Its leadership is a sophisticated core of educated and intelligent middle and upper-middle class intellectuals. Intellectually, AAP leaders can hold their own in any global forum. However they are not Marxists and lack the intellectual rigour and theoretical cohesion that Marxism, or other unified schools of thought, brings with it. You may opine that this is an advantage; let’s note the fact and leave the debate for another time. This philosophical vacuum, not individually since AAP leaders have personal beliefs, but in the morphology of the organisation as a whole, is an advantage for an entity which sets itself ACM goals, but not a party agenda. This sounds a bit of a mouthful so I had better explain.
Ideological eclecticism, that is the absence of unifying paradigm or outlook, is disastrous for a political entity that wishes to craft a programme and run a government. It will fly apart as illogical and unstable coalitions do. On the other hand, if there is a cry across the nation against a hideous problem and nearly everybody is willing to address it, then that which unites all should turn into a single-issue campaign. Of course other things that agitate partisans are also important, but can wait their time or be delegated to other forums. This is the genesis of single-issue campaigns and there are two matters on which Lanka is thus motivated; abolition of the executive presidency and the battle against corruption.
Unfortunately, AAP missed this broad-bottomed boat. Wikepedia has this to say: “AAP says the promise of equality and justice in the preamble to the Indian constitution has not been fulfilled and independence has replaced enslavement to a foreign power by oppression to a political elite. The party claims the common people remain unheard and unseen except when it suits politicians. It wants to reverse accountability of government and has taken the Gandhian concept of swaraj as a tenet. It believes that through swaraj, government will be directly accountable to the people instead of higher officials, and stresses self governance, community building and decentralisation”.
This is a partially obsolete ideological mandate. A pure Gandhian model harks back to an antiquated world, infeasible in globalised times – elements of it though have vitality. But that is not my point. An ideological mandate or belief system such as this, or any other, sits ill at ease with the plurality essential for an anti-corruption movement which must integrate people of all ideologies and beliefs. The AAP has fallen between two stools, having become a political party, it must now set up another, separate, parallel, uniquely focused anti-corruption entity in which all hues and shades can assemble exclusively for that purpose.
And now to Sri Lanka
There is an advantage in Lanka being a late developer; it can benefit from the achievements and learn from the mistakes of others. I have dwelt on one AAP mistake – adopting a party structure rather than the loose style of a movement. The great achievement of AAP is that it has taken the corruption issue head-on, laid it bare, and brought a rotten can of worms into daylight and public attention. Thanks to AAP’s sterling efforts there is now a focus on the issue not only in urban areas (the educated city classes anyway are AAP’s core constituency) but to a degree the issue has also penetrated the vastness of rural India. Of course AAP will win no more than 20 seats in the elections, it lacks machinery outside Delhi and Haryana; but these are early years.
The gravest threat to national security in Sri Lanka is neither tigers nor lions, neither Chinese nor imperialists; it is that the political system, as a whole, depends on graft and on payments by the drug trade to rent-seeking politicos. Crummy power-stations, and useless airports, harbours and roads, are born of crony capitalism; efficient firms are throttled by politically connected rivals; “rent-heavy capitalism sets a tone at the top that lets petty graft flourish. When ministers are on the take, why shouldn’t underpaid junior officials be?” (Economist 15 March, 2014).
‘Rent-seeking’ is a term used by economists to describe money collected not by productive effort, initiative, entrepreneurship or legitimate business activity, but by outright graft, regulatory abuse, transfer of public assets at knock-down prices, illegitimate licences, permits and contracts, and payment of protection money by the drug trade to law enforcement, the security establishment and politicos. This is all rampant in Lanka and has worsened since the end of the war.
That issue of the Economist devotes its leader to graft and also contains a three page special report on crony capitalism in India. Except for a huge difference in scale, the sorry tale of India is applicable verbatim to Lanka. Nay, in a certain sense it is worse here. Although some in the Gandhi family are suspect and though there may be up to half-a-dozen big time crooks in the Indian Cabinet, the collective apex of government is not entirely tarnished with as black a brush as Lanka.
The start that has been made in Lanka in putting together an anti-corruption movement has got off the ground in the right direction. It is broad based (class, politics, ethnic and religion wise) and while old hands can provide early impulse and guidance there is an appreciation that young people must take the helm and drive the wagon. JVP people, in their personal capacities, bring useful energy; business leaders may be linked to conventional entities (UNP, SLFP, TNA and SLMC sympathisers; I am not sure and it does not matter) but they want to help; retired top public servants inject a wealth of experience. For obvious reasons I am not splashing names at this stage.
The ACM must be independent of party politics and must learn from the collapse of the Platform for Freedom. I was a founder and drafted its Charter, but others pushed it into the arms of the UNP where it became an appendage. It lost its appeal and the broad base withered; it now lies flat on its face, useless. Launching an ACM and benefiting from this collective experience is the first step on a long road; but every journey begins with the first stride. Public support and shelter are crucial in making this not-so-easy trudge towards a less corrupt Lanka.