It may not be defining, but certainly a historical phase in the history of Indian democracy. It saw the common man participating in a nationwide uprise against a common enemy- corruption and witness a new history in making. For the first time perhaps the people of India saw those whom they generally held responsible for the gradual unmaking of India, deliberating on how to create a new history for the posterity. It also saw the men of public life often blamed to turn blind eye to the acts of corruption, persuaded in a most peaceful manner to rise against it. This generation saw the mass sentiment echoing in the spirit of parliament and not the least; the benevolent force of democracy defeating the belligerent forces of corruption, at least symbolically. This mass movement which coincided with other movements in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia had something in common and yet unique. The commonality lay in the growing faith in democracy and the rising aspiration to introduce, restore and strengthen it. But the uniqueness was in the action of this mass movement which preferred dialogue and peaceful protest to persuade India’s political class without shedding a drop of blood. It was in the finest tradition of democracy wherein people and government learnt to engage with each other and there was a win-win for both. The message on the other hand was loud and clear; Gandhian method of non- violent persuasion and the clean image of the leader can still touch a million hearts.
This crusade against corruption led by Anna and his team largely focused at the entire government machinery and political class which it considered the fountainhead of corruption and the main source of a common man’s woes. License, ration card, land records, birth certificate, pension among host of other have thus been rightly enumerated as the painful touch points between a common man and government institutions. However, in the era of market economy the fight against corruption will have to include other sensitive touch points as well which lay beyond government domain and yet make people feel equally harassed, cheated and exasperated. The post-liberalization era in India has helped corporate sector emerge in a big way as a provider of a range of services from telecommunication to banking, insurance, education, healthcare and so on. These are the new touch-points for the common man across small towns and big cities. Unfair and often extortionist practices adopted by these sectors is a common experience. The worst part is while for redressing grievances in the government there is still a control and command system in place, here there is often none except for a virtual interface; a toll free helpline number. This is a new and more vicious face of corruption facing common man.
People are disgusted with corruption in the government, and no less with the unfairness in the unregulated corporate governance. They’re victimized when they have to pay penalty to get rid of loans at most private banks, or when the private banks immediately enhance the EMI in case of a slight increase in the interest rate but rarely reduce it if the same is reversed. They feel cheated when they receive inflated cell phone or credit card bills followed by an intimidating recovery goon or when a mobile service provider deducts a certain amount from their balance for unsolicited services. They feel miserable when nobody at such organizations properly guides them who to approach in such cases other than the virtual helpline numbers.
Their engagement with people begins with the dreams which they sell through relentless ad campaigns and ends at the sales counter. Behind the glossy backdrop of the sales counter is a void. A common man feels cheated when he finds the corporate or private run schools charging exorbitant fees and donations. He feels helpless when the private schools change the textbooks every year and make the parents buy a new set rather than let the child use his sibling’s or friend’s books. He feels misled by the proliferating nondescript private and corporatized institutions of professional education - management, engineering, design, IT, medicine who see students as customers and education as a FMCG commodity. An average Indian feels helpless when the privatized ‘higher education’ turns out to be excessively ‘expensive education’ which entraps him into the debt trap of ‘education loan’.
Commenting on the civil society movement in India Jung, the prominent Urdu daily of Pakistan underscored the need to have a similar movement in Pakistan which suffers from identical malaise; an answer for those who tried hard to convince it was an RSS, BJP sponsored show. However, what Jung also pointed out and rightly so was that corruption has affected both the government and corporate sector in India. In fact, we first failed to deliver efficient public service governance and now we’re failing to ensure honest and transparent corporate governance too. To judge corporate conduct and governance on the basis of corporate growth will be erroneous. Under market economy the government interface is reducing and the corporate interface is rising. The sectors from banking to telecommunication, electricity, insurance, healthcare, education and so on were basically public services rendered by the government. But for the corporate these are all business ventures where it’s replacing government by corporate monopoly. That is why the cases of unfair business practices must be viewed as similar to the act of corruption and should have similar provisions of punishment under law which applies on the public servants. It’s time the corporate sector in India sensing the sentiments of the anti-corruption movement suo-moto adopts a corporate version of RTI and a strong corporate governance regime under government monitoring. Else, tomorrow there may be another uprise to introduce a Corporate Lokpal Bill which any parliament would definitely like to avoid.
(Author is a Senior Faculty at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.)