One would think that a campaign against corruption is a no-brainer; that anyone who isn't on the take should support India Against Corruption. However, the IAC's stance has more than its share of critics among intellectuals and talking heads.

Some of the lines of attack are: fasting is coercive, not that different from holding a gun to my head; civil society groups are not truly representative of the Indian public; who are these people to suggest a law, laws are made by parliament; these are just a bunch of privileged IT guys who don't really understand the real problems of the poor; it is a right wing conspiracy and so on. While I understand these complaints and that some of them might even be legitimate, I believe that each one of them can be answered intellectually, without an emotion outburst or denigration as coming from vested interests.

So let us take them up one by one:

Are fasts an acceptable response in a democratic society?

Fasting is definitely an act of coercion. If used inappropriately, it is a form of blackmail. It can and should only be used as a last resort when all other methods have failed. If the choice is between the use of violence on others and potential violence to oneself by fasting, one should choose fasting. There is a sliding scale of acceptability of any act of protest: at one end is a full blown welcome and at the other end is bare tolerance. Fasting or any other coercive act cannot be welcomed, but I think that at the very least it should be tolerated.

Here, acceptance means recognition that some citizens have a grievance and that grievance needs to be given a hearing. It is a sad commentary on our public culture that fasts are the only way to get attention but that's where we are. I prefer Gandhi to guns.

Can civil society groups become law makers?

Civil society groups have always been influential in making laws. Whether one looks at environmental laws or anti-discrimination laws, NGO's and other organized civil society groups have played a major role in both the structure and the content of the law. The role of the relevant parliamentary standing committee is to take the opinions of all concerned.

That may be true, but isn't IAC saying that it's version of the law is the only acceptable one? Isn't saying that parliament be damned, we will force the law we want on the nation?

I am not privy to the internal deliberations of the IAC, but people say all kinds of things in the heat of battle. As a thinking citizen, I don't have to take IAC's word as law. In any case, IAC doesn't speak with one voice and even if it did, we don't have to listen to it. There are some demands that are non-negotiable; for example, we all agree that every bureaucrat from a district clerk to the cabinet secretary should be under the purview of the law. This list should be small, no more than one or two items. As for the rest, they should be up for reasonable negotiation.

There is a sliding scale of acceptability of any act of protest. Fasting or any other coercive act cannot be welcomed, but I think that at the very least it should be tolerated.


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Aren't these a bunch of privileged IT guys and other educated urban folk? Do they really understand the genuine problems of the poor? How will the ending of corruption help stop farmer suicides?

Yes, the main support base of IAC is urban and educated, though the movement clearly has legs outside urban India. Part of it is the means through which people have organized themselves: the internet, social media and other modern means that are accessible to urban people. So what? If nothing else, the IAC is a special interest group asking for demands that affects its well-being. Just as farmer ask for subsidies and disadvantaged communities ask for reservations, some people can ask for corruption free governance. What's wrong with that? It's not as if corruption free governance will hurt anyone; the poor and the disadvantaged pay the hidden costs of corruption more than anyone else.

As for farmer suicides, one should at least be open to the possibility that the neo-liberal regimes that have lead to farmer suicides are partly a result of bribes being paid. There is of course corruption as a larger moral problem far greater than that of money changing hands. But that larger problem cannot be tackled by a campaign. Campaigns have to target something visible and concrete.

What about the Vande Mataram's and the praise of Narendra Modi? Is this Hindutva in disguise?

Many people supported the RSS because of the perceived simplicity, honesty and social service of its volunteers. Much of that sheen has vanished now that we know how the BJP behaves when it is in power. If anything, IAC has shifted some of that support base away from the RSS. Many people will prefer a secular civil society organization that is clean and simple over a communal organization that happens to be clean and simple. Purity and simplicity have enormous emotional pull in this culture. The RSS made use of that pull and the IAC would be foolish not to. I think it was a strange and rather stupid decision to let culturally resonant forms of behaviour become the property of communalists.

As for the praise of Narendra Modi, I don't know what Anna Hazare was thinking and frankly, I don't care. This is not about any particular individual's beliefs; by harping on his pronouncements, the critics are making IAC about one person while complaining about its becoming a one man mission.

Is IAC a second independence struggle?

No. IAC is a campaign against corruption in democratic country where people still have the genuine freedom to make their grievances known. In any case, a campaign cannot stand for a movement; at best it is a precursor to one. The independence movement was simultaneously creating institutions of governance as it was struggling against the British. This is why it is important that IAC declare its goal posts clearly and publicly so that the campaign can end and the movement begin when the goals are achieved. The real task of building governance oriented civil society based political institutions can start only when this campaign ends.

Political institutions? Who wants politics? Politicians are all scoundrels. Aren't they the people we stand against? Why would we want to get into that game?

Every movement has its rights and responsibilities. By insisting on the right to protest and to demand that a Lokpal bill be passed, IAC has entered the political arena. It cannot shed those responsibilities once the campaign is over. All the great independence era leaders were politicians; if we are claiming that inheritance we might as well go the distance.

Governance without politics is likely to take us toward the Singapore model. We have to build political institutions around governance; whether that will take the form of parties or other political formations remains to be seen. If politicians realise that governance oriented civil society groups are permanently outside the political arena, they will not take us seriously. That's why they love NGOs. In short: the civil society supporters of IAC cannot abdicate political responsibilities. The bark must be followed by a bite for it to have an effect.