The real lesson from India’s Anna age

The paradoxical tale of India:

The story of India is full of paradoxes. We’re a nation characterized as being in constant a state of flux: we’re developing, we’re growing, and we’re emerging. We’re always getting there, but not quite there yet.

Yet grandeur is not something that lacks in our political discourse. We believe that we are a nation destined for greatness. But often when it comes to reality there is a deadly combination of complacency and cynicism that pulls us back.

It is the mentality that nothing can change or a sense of resignation that even if things can change, we’re too small to make a difference. “What is most corrosive in India today is cynicism,” said Pritish Nandy on a television debate.

The Anna Hazare age:

In the Anna age, the age of anti-corruption protests, however, we are leaving behind this mentality. I was in Mumbai in April when the movement had kickstarted. Anti-corruption was the word on the streets. Then occurred the Auiraya incident in Uttar Pradesh, which was the second victory for civil society.

Three lessons: “One, the system we frequently criticize and abandon, can work. Two, we must make it work. Three, if it works once, it will again,” was the Hindustan Time’s Message from Auiraya. It is a paradigm shift in thinking.

I returned to Mumbai in August to see the Hazare movement gain momentum. There remains a strong desire for justice, for a fair system and a determination to see it being carried out. “We are on the brink of change,” is the media’s message and the public’s opinion.

But there is the catch: “the brink.” We are “changing,” it has not happened yet. So what is holding us back this time?

Sometimes it is easier to get swept up in the sea of demonstrations and civil unrest, than to take a step back and understand the political forces at play. More importantly, to look at lessons from the past, like the Auiraya incident.

There are perhaps two reasons as to why the Hazare movement may have lost it’s focus.

Too many rules and little enforcement:

Firstly, the solution to corruption does not lie in taking “sides.” The reason why the issue turned into a battle is the Indian media . It is not about being in “team Anna” or “team UPA”. It’s about our believing in a corruption-free system for our country. And working towards it, about remembering that the system that we criticize and abandon CAN work.

Secondly, the solution to corruption does not lie only in the Lokpal bill. This is not a panacea to our problems. A small body faced with the monumental task of overseeing a pervasive problem like corruption seems unrealistic. And the constant about being within the “constitutional” and “democratic” parameters has forestalled the development of a concrete solution because we are caught in a game of semantics.

The underlying question is whether we need another legislation to solve corruption. There isn’t a dearth of laws in India. Our constitution is one of the lengthiest documents in the world. Unfortunately our judicial system is conversely one of the slowest and most inefficient.

What we lack is better enforcement. Institutions are not strong enough to enforce their writ in society. And so we look for ways to circumvent the system. Which is why corruption, a word being thrown around almost too casually now is actually entrenched in our society, as a common practice but also as a mentality.

A few years ago if you asked an Indian, “How can we change this?” it would be the cynical response. Today that answer may involve supporting Anna or the lokpal bill.

The real breakthrough:

A lot of us have come out of our cynical and complacent attitudes, but just because we think we have answers does not necessarily mean they are right.

We are still in a state of flux. We are in a world where democracy is becoming a more powerful tool, evident in the Arab Spring, where the strength of civil society is also increasing. While we live in a country built on democratic ethos, we are waking up to play our role as citizens and learning how to exercise the power we have as civil society. And this is the real breakthrough.

We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go, it is that is the age-old tale of paradoxes, the tale of India.