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Sunday November 18, 2012

Rise of civil society activists

Man on a mission: Arvind Kejriwal has endeared himself to the hard-pressed common man for his
fearless manner in exposing wrong-doing in high places. — EPA Man on a mission: Arvind Kejriwal has endeared himself to the hard-pressed common man for his fearless manner in exposing wrong-doing in high places. — EPA

A group of public-spirited individuals has come forth in exposing scandals in the government, a role traditionally expected of the Opposition.

IF you had asked a passerby only a few months ago about Arvind Kejriwal, chances are you would have drawn a blank.

For outside his own immediate circle, hardly anyone seemed to know him. Now, thanks to his anti-corruption crusade, and a generous coverage by the broadcast and print media, Kejriwal is a household name. The foremost civil society activist has overnight emerged a middle-class hero. Targeting the powerful but allegedly corrupt politicians and corporate bosses, the former Indian Revenue Service official has spearheaded a sharp turn in the political discourse. In a way, Kejriwal and a few other civil society activists gathered under the banner of India Against Corruption are now setting the agenda for the ruling class.

Kejriwal, 44, won the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Award for his championing of greater transparency in governance. He was principally responsible for the enactment of the right to information law which empowers citizens to hold the rulers accountable. Imbued with a missionary zeal, Kejriwal donated the entire award money to a newly-formed non-profit, Parivartan, which espouses transparency in governance. Soon after, he quit government service, devoting himself full-time to social and public causes. However, his wife, a fellow IRS officer, continues in service in order to provide financial security to the family.

Last year, Kejriwal enlisted the support of a small group of civil society activists, and together they succeeded in persuading the old Gandhian, Anna Hazare, to sit on hunger fast in the national capital in support of an anti-corruption ombudsman (Lokpal). This was the first time Hazare, an army truck driver in the mid-60s, had stirred out of his home State of Maharashtra to take up a national cause. Hitherto, he had fought local-level corruption. The 24/7 television news coverage, with Kejriwal playing the key adviser to the fasting Hazare, catapulted the civil society activists into national prominence.

However, Hazare and Kejriwal soon parted ways, with the former shunning politics while the latter decided to form his own political party in order to offer the people what he promises would be a genuine alternative to the present crop of “corrupt and compromised” political parties. Though he has yet to formalise the formation of his party, Kejriwal and his small group of activists have already made national headlines. Their exposes of scandals in the government and corporate sectors seem to have rattled the well-entrenched vested interests.

In a short span, Kejriwal has held crowded press conferences, televised live by private news channels, to lay bare the alleged corruption and wrong-doing of Robert Vadra, Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, in collusion with the Congress Government in Haryana; he has exposed the alleged financial skullduggery of Nitin Gadkari, the head of the main Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party; and, last but not least, laid bare the perfidy of a foreign bank operating in India which had allegedly helped hundreds of rich Indians, including top industrialists, to stash away illicit funds in secret Swiss accounts. Next on the list, Kejriwal has said, would be the alleged judicial corruption.

Small wonder, then, Kejriwal has endeared himself to the hard-pressed common man. Sporting a Gandhian cap bearing on its side the legend, “I am a common man”, he has tormented the high and mighty, holding forth on live television against the people in authority without let or hindrance. Till he came along, the entire media had tended to treat Robert Vadra and a few other powerful persons as holy cows, completely ignoring their alleged corruption. Kejriwal showed no such compunction, a fact that seemed to have further added to his cache as a fearless crusader.

He insists that he is now inundated by hundreds of cases of political and administrative corruption from all parts of the country. Concerned citizens who had hitherto felt helpless in exposing misuse of official machinery for private greed were seeking him out to expose wrong-doing in high places. Recently, he exposed the alleged misuse of funds meant for the physically handicapped by an NGO run by Louise Fernandez, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s wife.

Faced with threats of physical violence, Kejriwal refused to accept any kind of security, asserting that he was destined to live “as long as God wills”.

Kejriwal might be the most well-known and fiercest civil society activist, but he is not the only one to pin down the authorities for their alleged acts of omission and commission. A number of others, including the saffron-robed yoga guru, Ramdev, and, of course, Hazare, have made civil society activism most relevant. Ramdev, in particular, has focused on the billions of dollars in black money allegedly stashed away in secret foreign banks. Thanks to his country-wide campaign, even the Opposition BJP felt obliged to demand stern action against illicit funds held in secret Swiss bank accounts. On its part, the Government was at pains to announce that it was taking all due steps to bring back Indian money held illegally in foreign banks.

A couple of others like former Indian Police Service officer, Kiran Bedi, and retired Supreme Court Judge, Santosh Hegde, have, however, stayed steadfast with Hazare, with the latter now threatening to go on a hunger fast if the anti-corruption ombudsman was not in place before the 2014 parliamentary poll. Several NGOs and public-spirited individuals have also made common cause with Hazare to support the creation of an independent and powerful anti-corruption ombudsman.

Meanwhile, there can be no denying that the rise of the civil society movement in recent months is mainly due to the fact that the Opposition parties have stopped performing the role traditionally expected of them. The main Opposition BJP, for instance, is accused of soft-pedaling corruption, thus vacating the space for an Arvind Kejriwal to occupy. Because the Opposition parties have their own share of black sheep, the civil society campaigns have found easy traction with the ordinary people.

But the downside of the civil society movement is that it has further undermined the peoples’ faith in the political system. By tending to paint all politicians as venal and even criminal, critics argue, Kejriwal has sought to question the very validity of the freely-elected parliament.

Whatever the truth in that charge, the fact remains that thanks to him and other civil society activists, there is now a strong pressure on the rulers to make themselves accountable and transparent in all their official actions. Which, if successful, would be a huge gain for the Indian democracy, whether or not the current civil society movement survives in the long-term.

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