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Indian state arrives at the crossroads

The challenge in fighting corruption is to set up a freedom born of righteous conduct, not authorise a new source of coercion

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The September 7 bomb blast at the entrance to the High Court in New Delhi was a macabre finale to a summer of crisis. Previously, weeks of anti-corruption protests launched by Anna Hazare, and supported by the country's rising middle class, had brought India's government to a virtual standstill. This was followed by an embarrassing surrender to the demand of protesters that a powerful new anti-corruption agency be established.

For some people, the protests that paralysed large swathes of the capital were akin to a festival. Others, following the government's retreat, grandiosely thought the events amounted to a revolution. To be sure, a large part of urban "middle India" has revolted against the tyranny of daily corruption. But will the Hazare-led protests deliver real change or merely media hyperbole?

Whichever side one takes, the consequences are disturbing: Indian society, the core of Indian nationhood, is now questioning the very legitimacy of the Indian state.

India's nationhood resides in a non-territorial civilisational entity. The Indian state, on the other hand, is a historical variable that has periodically governed parts of the subcontinent. Following independence in 1947, a centralised Indian state emerged for the first time. For citizens, the Indian state is the great provider — mai-baap, literally "mother and father."

The strength of Indian nationhood, however, lies not in this state but in Indian society. This idea was at the core of Gandhi's beliefs; he emphasised "reform of society," because only that, he believed, could correct the state's ills. Herein lies the central disconnect, and also the source of discontent, for today's India: if and when an Indian citizen now approaches this state, for even the most routine of needs, the state inflicts pain rather than providing succour.

The Indian state's fundamental inability to redress grievances, correct mistakes, and attend to its citizens' most basic needs has given rise to a ruinous level of corruption, as citizens, despairing of obtaining their due fairly, try to buy it instead. The state then turns into a monopoly seller, and thus an enemy of its own society.

For Anna Hazare and his followers, the only solution is another state agency — a vast and all-powerful anti-corruption watchdog with the power to coerce and intimidate. Others call for a spiritual revival within Indian society. It is no surprise, of course, that large crowds cheered for Hazare and his anti-corruption movement, by which they assumed a vicarious role in slaying the demon of corruption. Their abuse was reserved for "evil parliamentarians" — or any politicians — as vile agents of a crooked state.

Unfortunately, India's government misunderstood the anti-corruption protests from the start.

At first, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stood firm against Hazare's demands on technical grounds. But this proved insufficient to halt a growing sense of drift and decay concerning his coalition.

Gold standard

Were periodic elections the only yardstick of democracy, India would have achieved what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls the "gold standard". But that is far removed from reality and the nature of its ruling party.

There is a depressing aspect to the corruption debate. Both Singh and the US State Department helped spread the canard that foreign influence was at work behind the scenes. "External forces," Singh declared in Parliament, are trying to prevent India from taking "its true place" in the comity of nations. "We must not play into their hands," he intoned gravely.

Meanwhile, a State Department spokesperson urged India's authorities to act with "appropriate democratic restraint" in response to the crisis provoked by Hazare's protests. This was an egregious bit of meddling. After all, non-violent protests are an Indian speciality.

But Gandhi's yardstick for non-violent protest was satyagraha — "the protest of truth". In contrast, India's current anti-corruption protests may be missing the point, for the central challenge in fighting corruption is to establish a freedom born of righteous conduct, not to authorise a new source of state coercion. Indian society must regain its strength — and its proper role. Only when India, as the great poet Rabindranath Tagore put it, is a place where "the mind is without fear and the head is held high" will it be able to act with the confidence, honesty, and generosity its citizens demand and deserve.

— Project Syndicate, 2011

Jaswant Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister, and defence minister, is the author of Jinnah: India - Partition - Independence.