The problem of corruption in Indian public and private life is vast and complex. According to a 2006 report by the Swiss Banking Association, India has more money hidden in Swiss accounts than the rest of the world combined. If the money in those accounts were returned to India, the government could pay off its debt thirteen times over. Yet India’s reputation as a poor country persists and more than 40 percent of its population lives in extreme poverty (on an income of less than $1.25 per day).

Corruption, so deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life here, is at the root of much of India’s poverty and helps explain the vast disparity between the rich and the poor. Transparency International, a watchdog NGO based in Berlin whose mandate is to monitor corporate and political corruption in international development, estimates that 55 percent of Indians have firsthand experience in paying or receiving bribes and using influence to get things done.

I’m surprised only by how low the number is. In my experience, corruption is a part of everything in India. It determines how we think, defines our relationships, and dictates our behavior. Our health, safety, routines, and attitudes are all created, infected, and reinforced by it.

It also kills. I knew a child who was electrocuted at a wedding when the caterers set up their tents with live wires. Pay off an inspector and carry on regardless. That goes for building codes, food and drug administration, traffic laws, even medical licensing. Everyone here has a story of an unqualified doctor who botched an operation or a building that collapsed because of substandard construction.

We are so accustomed to assuming the worst (every politician is corrupt, every public servant is on the take, every system is rigged), that it doesn’t occur to us that people can still be genuinely good at heart or willing to put their reputations on the line in service of a greater good.

So the recent emergence of the India Against Corruption movement, spearheaded by veteran social activist Anna Hazare, started out as both heartening and astonishing. Heartening, because Hazare, who is nearly eighty and referred to affectionately as “Anna” (elder brother), tapped into the rage the average person feels about what is going on in the country. But astonishing also because he has channeled that anger into a movement so powerful many compare it to the independence struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1947.

The crowds that gathered at Hazare’s rallies, and their disciplined nonviolence, were a tribute to the seriousness of purpose the movement inspired. In true Gandhian fashion, Hazare staged a public fast in support of his group’s demand that Parliament accept a bill that would create an independent institution to examine charges of corruption against public officials. On August 28, when Hazare ended his fast following government assurances that the Team Anna bill would be considered, there was widespread jubilation.

But now, only two months on, problems are showing up. The movement, while principled and led by intelligent, committed people, lacks a clear understanding of political strategy and economic reality. On October 13, Prashant Bhushan, a prominent member of the group and a well-known Supreme Court lawyer in his own right, was brutally attacked in his office after making critical remarks about Kashmir. While Kashmir has nothing to do with the issue of corruption, the India Against Corruption movement was widely criticized for Bhushan’s “antinational” views. Hazare himself, rather than condemning the attack and defending Bhushan’s right to express his own opinion, took issue with him and warned that no true Indian had the right to say such things.

A few days later, members of Hazare’s movement descended on Hisar, in Haryana state, where elections were underway. Their mission was to engage in a negative campaign—the first of many they planned—asking voters not to vote for the ruling Congress Party candidate because he is corrupt. Unfortunately, the other two candidates are equally if not more corrupt, causing confusion and consternation among supporters. The Congress Party candidate was defeated and Hazare’s supporters exulted in their power and influence.

Delhi Archbishop Vincent Concessao, a founding member of the movement, was rumored to be considering stepping down, citing the need to stay out of partisan politics. Recently, however, he reiterated his support for India Against Corruption, yet cautioned: “We cannot dictate to the government. The way they [Team Anna] talk sometimes gives this impression. There is a normal governmental procedure and one should follow that.” Others within the core group echo the archbishop’s concerns, and charges of antidemocratic, authoritarian rule are heard more frequently. While a sense of disenchantment has set in, many feel that vested interests are working behind the scenes to destroy what once seemed like this generation’s greatest hope for change.

Here in Dehradun there is a school whose hilarious name is Crony Academy. Underneath the sign is the subtitle: “An Intimate Friend for Your Child.” I used to smile whenever I saw it, feeling a little sorry for the person who obviously didn’t know the meaning of crony. Now I’m wondering if that person knew all too well that cronyism isn’t going away anytime soon. Best to teach the kids how to survive while they are still young.

Published in the 2011-11-18 issue: View Contents

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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