Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Anna Hazare moment is not any "Arab Spring" in India

One of the neatest first experiences for me when I came to the US was at the Social Security office in Los Angeles.  Right on the first day, I was advised by personnel at USC and by other students that I needed to get to the Soc. Sec. card at the earliest--the lack of which meant no paycheck.

At least now, the neighborhood around USC looks presentable, especially since the construction of the Staples Center and USC's basketball arena.  Those days, it was a typical downtown in deterioration,  A couple of us walked over to the Social Security office, all the while wondering whether this was really the richest country on the planet when the conditions around us were not pretty.

The organized system at the government office made it clear that this was no India.  The ticket number I grabbed gave me an idea of how long I might have to wait for my turn. There were chairs to sit on.  When my turn came, I presented my papers to the clerk, and we both had a little bit of problem with our respective pronunciations and accents.  And that was it.

This was no where near any of my experiences at government, and private sector, offices in India.

In India, there is a formal way, which takes a very long time, and another way that cuts through the process as long as one paid the prevailing bribe rates.  When I got my driver license in India, for instance, all I did was give a couple of portrait photos and money to the driving instructor, who took care of things for me--a week later I had my license!

Every visit to India, there are more experiences--direct or otherwise--that remind me about the strange inner workings of the Indian system characterized by bribes, corruption, and "black money."

Though most people complain about all these, they generally feel powerless to change anything by themselves.  Further, bribes and corruption and black money do not become serious political issues primarily because getting elected even to the lowliest office is a sure way to start getting ahead in economic terms.

A few are now voicing that old movie line, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."

A small, quiet, 74-year old man has become the voice and symbol of this frustration.

Anna Hazare has quickly become a 21st century Mahatma Gandhi inspiration for millions of Indians fed up with rampant corruption, red tape and inadequate services provided by the state despite the country posting near-double digit economic growth for almost a decade.

As much as I am excited to follow the developments, I am equally confident that this too shall pass.  After all, India is a country with a history of exciting events, which eventually die down without doing any serious damage to the status quo.  Which is why I agree with this:

The anti-corruption movement has the simplicity of a third-rate fable.
There are the good guys (the reformers and the average Indian citizen) and the bad guys (the politicians). But the real story is not a fable but art cinema.
Indians have a deep and complicated relationship with corruption. As in any long marriage, it is not clear whether they are happily or unhappily married. The country’s economic system is fused with many strands of corruption and organized systems of tax evasion. The middle class is very much a part of this.
Most Indians have paid a bribe. Most Indian businesses cannot survive or remain competitive without stashing away undeclared earnings.
Almost everybody who has sold a house has taken one part of the payment in cash and evaded tax on it.
Yet, the branding of corruption is so powerful that Indians moan the moment they hear the word. The comic hypocrisy of it all was best evident in the past few months as the anti-corruption movement gathered unprecedented middle-class support. 

While the middle and upper classes might voice their support to the cause, particularly at the click of the computer mouse, as individuals they are trapped in a classic game theory situation: if they don't pay up for the service, then there is always somebody else who will, which makes a loser out of the one who wants to fight the system.  Not wanting to lose out, everybody becomes a participant.

Ultimately, it is the economically disadvantaged who get screwed.  Because, they cannot things the proper way, and nor do they have the resources to take the bribe route.  To make things worse, they trust the politicians to deliver for them :(

As I noted here earlier, in another context,

When I was a kid, I remember elected politicians switching parties like crazy depending on who offered a better deal.  And everybody knew that such deals were going on.  One politician was referred to as "aaya ram, gaya ram" (aaya meaning to come, and gaya means to leave--characterizing how the politician, ram, entered and left parties.  Hilarious it was to some extent, more so when we did not have television to entertain us ....

The Economist has a neat statistic about India:
The country’s politicians are mostly an unsavoury lot. Of the 522 members of India’s current parliament, 120 are facing criminal charges; around 40 of these are accused of serious crimes, including murder and rape. Most Indian politicians are presumed to be corrupt, which is less surprising. In India’s poor and fractious society patronage politics is inevitable. But Indian politics has got much muckier in recent years because of two factors: the rise of regional and caste-based parties, nakedly dedicated to delivering patronage; and the mutinous coalitions this has led to.

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