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Hungering for Morals

By Gautam S. Kumar

Just as groups of blockmates celebrated each others’ return last week as students returned to campus after the summer, Indian-Americans in Cambridge were rallying in favor of the 74-year-old Anna Hazare. Hazare, a so-called Gandhian activist, recently ended his 12-day fast for an anti-corruption bill in India that is, at best, an ineffective piece of legislation. At worst, it’s a damning law that will curse the government into even more crippling corruption.

In a nutshell, India has recently been plagued by discoveries of massive conspiracies that seem to extend to all corners of the government, the press, and the private sector. As much as $40 billion may have been swindled out of the government through mispricing in contracts of wireless 2G networking. And this news only follows another recent discovery that the Jharkhand chief minister had personally benefited by nearly $1 billion through an intricate corruption scheme.

In protest of this stifling corruption, India’s citizens united and began to protest. And rightfully so: The corruption and general government incompetence has slowed the speed of infrastructural development and encouraged a switch in the net capital outflow to a stunning negative.

As the millions coalesced, they rallied behind Hazare, who claimed to look for inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, the universally respected non-violent freedom fighter and father of the nation. Gandhi was known for staging occasional hunger strikes in protest of religious strife. When he fasted, he fasted for peace.

Yet the current activists—Anna Hazare included—are doing no such thing. They are fasting for the passage of their bill, the Jan Lokpal, or “People’s Ombudsman” bill. According to some reports, as many as 150 people joined Hazare in his fast to support his cause.

But the protests are just killing Indians, and uselessly so. They do not support a credo; they simply hold peoples’ lives hostage in order to force the government to pass this bill with little negotiation or discussion. This sort of activism amounts to the near political terrorism that the Tea Partiers exhibited in the debt ceiling debates. Anna Hazare is no Gandhian. He is a media-happy fraud.

Jan Lokpal is infeasible and irrelevant. The bill calls for a selection committee of top judiciary members and parliamentary leaders. Presumably, these are the best of the best, even though recent allegations in the 2G have surfaced of the prime minister’s knowing about the dealings. But we are placing our trust in the hands of a select few who will sit on an executive bench of Lokpal, and we are trusting that they stay trustworthy—which might be idealistic.

Further, this organization would have sweeping investigation powers into nearly any branch of the federal government or private sector. In other words, the members of the bench just have to point, and their police dogs will be unleashed on whomever they choose. While the bill does provide compensation for whistle-blowers, incentivizing them to become an anticorruption militia, this might wrongly incentivize citizens in a broken system to ask Lokpal to investigate every Tom, Dick, and Harry—costs that will only get transferred to the citizens themselves.

But the biggest issue is that the bill undermines the legitimacy of the government. Yes, India is upset that her politicians ask for fees under the table as coolly as they order their lassi, but that doesn’t mean that we should support a bill that has the power to overthrow the government. Corrupt or not, the government is better than anarchy. The passage of this bill, because of its unfortunately naïve interpretations of India’s legislative needs, might promote a disastrous political end.

We need to consider new and innovative ways to combat corruption on a large scale. The chief economic advisor to the Ministry of Finance, Kaushik Basu, had an interesting idea: Instead of fining and incarcerating both the bribe-giver and the bribe-taker, why not only prosecute the bribe-taker, retrieve the black money, and give it back to the bribe-giver? In his paper, he modestly acknowledges his creative idea as “small,” but it might be able to affect profound changes to the daily bribes solicited by bent public officials.

We could follow one Hazare’s supporters, Kiran Bedi, who is encouraging citizens to carry around his trademark white hat (a favorite sartorial staple of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as well), and wear it whenever an official approaches for a bribe.  This exemplifies a non-violent protest against corruption and an intelligent shaming technique that is more in line with Gandhi’s philosophies.

Gandhi is famously quoted to have said,  “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Hazare clearly wants to see change in the form of a proud India, without corruption. But he must redirect his admirable discipline and energy to that cause, instead of fighting just for the Jan Lokpal bill. Granted, it’s a tougher fight: While Anna Hazare’s current battle might end with the passage of the bill, that doesn’t mean the true war is won. India’s fight for corruption doesn’t end with the Prime Minister’s signature on this bill. It ends when the farmers no longer have to bribe their exchequers. When we have that India, we may break our fasts.

Gautam S. Kumar ’13, a Crimson news writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Cabot House.

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