Why India needs an Arab Spring

Indian students shout anti-corruption slogans in support of veteran Indian social activist, Anna Hazare at a garden in Amritsar on April 8, 2011. Indian social activist, Anna Hazare, who entered the fouth day of his indefinite hunger strike, has vowed to keep fasting to push for changes to a draft bill facilitating corruption complaints against the prime minister and cabinet. Hazare complained that the draft of the Lokpal (Ombudsman) Bill was formulated without the input of civil society groups and had been watered down by ministers.

India's democratic institutions are failing just as miserably as governments from Tunisia to Libya, Ranjani Iyer Mohanty argues in the Atlantic. And as voting has failed to do the trick, an Arab Spring-style revolution is needed to initiate change.

Here's Mohanty:

Those [same] failed government institutions, morally corrupt or at least morally inept, certainly exist here [in India] as well. Last year alone, the Indian government was implicated in corruption scams that amounted to billions of dollars swindled from the public. Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index ranks India at 87 -- below Serbia, Colombia, and even China. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, ranks 59. Even the families living under the overpass need to pay off the police to allow them to remain there.

India's failed institutions also include those that fail in their role of looking after a large section of the population. Two formal reports have independently estimated the proportion of Indians living below the poverty line as 77 and 50 percent, though the Indian government touts a third report, which found a more palatable 37 percent. But even this figure would put some 420 million Indians in poverty. Other statistics are equally galling. Even among BRICS -- the informal community of developing economies Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- India lags behind the other nations in, for example, literacy among women and girls in secondary school. The latest Global Hunger Index ranks India as 67 out of 84 countries -- far below neighbors China at number 9, Sri Lanka at 39, Pakistan at 52, and Nepal at 56. UNICEF reports that some 56 percent of Indian adolescent girls are anemic and 42 percent of children under the age of five are underweight. And food prices are rising.

There is a growing disconnect between India's affluent and its poor. One man who has lived in Delhi all his life told me icily that there are no beggars on the streets here. Is he being defensive, or has he just stopped noticing them? An elderly woman complains that servants are no longer what they used to be, i.e., content with their lot. They are demanding time off, asking for raises, and trying to buy a scooter. A well-to-do Indian family of four could easily spend on one dinner at a nice restaurant the equivalent of their housekeeper's monthly wages. A coffee in one of the city's elegant five-star hotels costs the same as one day's wages for the woman digging the ditch just outside in the sun, while her toddler sits bare-bottomed on the pile of rubble.

I have some sympathy for this view, of course. Democracy in India can seem like a revolving door -- as one corrupt and incompetent pol clocks out, another one clocks in, and no proof of wrongdoing is enough to kill a career.  But Mohanty may be looking to the wrong revolutionaries for a model. What's India after a dramatic call against corruption pulls down the government?  Some months back I was reading similar articles about Pakistan.... Why can't Pakistan have a jasmine revolution etc.  I said, it has, at least three times. Most recently, the anti-corruption lobby got itself General Pervez Musharraf.  Or maybe most recently the revolutionaries got rid of Musharraf and got Asif Ali Zardari.  But you see where I'm going here...

I'll go out on a limb and say the revolution is underway in India, but the one that will make the difference isn't being fought in the jungles with the Maoists or on the streets with Anna Hazare's corruption protesters.  It's being fought by newly emerging civil society groups that are creating the framework of democracy that is too often ignored -- institutions that are providing information that the media has not about the financial assets and activities of politicians, independent data and new ideas about India's big problems (poverty, food, education) and so on.  

Related Stories