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Jasdev Singh Rai Headshot

India's Topi Revolution

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It seems to be the year of upheavals and democratic India also appears to have caught the fever. The anticorruption wave gripping India is getting bigger by the day. From a few thousands it has grown to millions now. India is facing a constitutional conflict precipitated by a topi (cloth cap) wearing elderly campaigner, Anna Hazare. He has forced the Government and the police to backtrack on every executive decision to contain his crusade. His campaign is to set up a Lokpal (ombudsman) with powers above Parliament and Supreme Court. In any language, it is a rebellion.

Anna Hazare, a veteran Gandhian, is not being rhetorical when he calls his campaign the second struggle for freedom. It's been a long time coming. Abuse of power and corruption has become endemic in India.

Many Indians have labelled India's post colonial political order as Brown Sahib's raj. Minorities who have suffered the State's exploitation of majoritarianism and repression call it necolonialism. While the State terms British withdrawal from India in 1947 independence, others call it an unfinished struggle for Hind Swaraj, or Indian self determination. They have some justification. The nature of India's constitution and parliamentary democracy is a blueprint for corruption and abuse of power.

The constitution is essentially an amended version of the 1935 British India Act enacted by British rulers to stack power in their favour. The Act gave Indians a semblance of engagement in political power. That founding principle has continued in India's highly centralist constitution which grants extraordinary powers to the highest offices. Secondly, it gives the executive a say in almost every sphere of decision making, from making roads to managing religious institutions. The British wanted to ensure they could rule over the 'natives'. The new Sahibs perceive Governance similarly.

During British colonialism, civil servants did not serve civil society but their colonial rulers. Today the Indian civil servant serves his/her political masters.

The result is an administration with relentless power without the checks and balances that make democracy more than a five yearly trek to the voting booth. And with excessive power comes corruption and abuse.

Corruption has not been entirely bad for India. Corruption is the only proven method that disintegrates obstacles to entrepreneurship in one of the world's most bureaucratic systems. Economists give it a flattering label. They call it rent economy.

However this rent economy also prevents India reaching its real economic potential. It is the reason that more than 50% of the population remains in poverty unable to afford more than a meal a day.

Corruption reaches the top levers of power. Some Indian ministers have broken universal records. Twenty billion pounds amiss. How is that for a backhander job? It's enough to bail UK's economy and halt all those cuts.

India's Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, on the other hand has a reputation as an honest man. Unlike most in power, he won't even permit his wife, let alone relatives, the luxury of a State car for personal use.

However the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, interestingly treats honesty and integrity as a personal religion rather than a general virtue in public service. The public domain is an ocean alive with corruption. It makes the life of the ordinary Indian an everyday struggle to get any service from the State without greasing palms.

People pay bribes to get jobs. Teachers to police officers, doormen to senior District Commissioners. The game is pay your way in and then recover your investment. For many the pay packet is pocket money. The actual wage is the rent economy.

Anna Hazare has challenged this. And ordinary Indians have got tired of accepting their karma. Karma, it seems favours those Indian politicians with Swiss bank accounts.

Hazare wants a people's ombudsman system that has power over and above the Parliament, the Prime Minister, his ministers and even the judiciary. He wants a Lokpal (ombudsman) that can charge any corrupt officer and politician of the State, irrespective of office.

The executive sees this as undermining the supremacy of Parliament or rather their power. In response ex Supreme Court Judge, Santosh Hegde, member of Hazare's team, said the constitution starts with 'we the people'. Therefore people are supreme over parliament.

This is Anna Hazare's second freedom struggle. A country in which the ordinary Indian can live with pride and self respect. A country in which the civil service is a servant of the people and elected politicians serve the masses. He seeks, intentionally or unwittingly, to undo the colonial legacy embedded in the Indian constitution through the 1935 British India Act. The State has not quite grasped this.

At the heart of this is Gandhi's words in his book Hind Swaraj, 'Real Swaraj will come, not by the acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused.' Wearing topis, India's middle classes have joined Anna Hazare's revolution for Hind Swaraj. This wave is going to get bigger, much bigger.