Freedom, not controls
(An edited version of this was published in DNA)
The government’s accession to the demands of those who want to draft the proposed Lokpal bill is not a cause for celebration but a cause for alarm. This action by the government amounts to a promise to abdicate its duties and transfer its powers to a small group of unelected people who would not be accountable to the citizens of the country. This is troubling, and the motives of those involved in demanding that NGOs have a say in the affairs of the people of India are questionable. The result of this action by the government will lead to more rules and bureaucracies, making it counterproductive to the cause of rooting out corruption as the new setup will inevitably descend into another scheme replete with corruption. The key to ending corruption is not the addition of more controls – some of which will be concentrated in the hands of a few chosen people – but a reduction in controls.
For several decades, the term ‘civil society’ has been used as a euphemism by fellow-travelers of both the Marxist and Maoist varieties to refer to one of their own kind. The people who constitute this group object to the existence of the anti-Maoist group Salwa Judum and brand it an illegitimate body even though self-defence is a perfectly valid reason for citizens to arm themselves. When Salwa Judum gave the Maoists a Roland for their Oliver, it was the so-called ‘civil society’ that came to the aid of the Maoists and carried on a sustained campaign on their behalf. They petitioned the Supreme Court and other entities of the state to prevent the citizens from defending themselves; they appealed to foreign powers for help in their so-called fight for human rights; and they cried foul when one of their members was found guilty of abetting the Maoist terrorists. The members of the ‘civil society’ also turned reality on its head when they claimed that the cause of Maoism was poverty although the Maoists are able to afford expensive Kalashnikov rifles that cost six hundred dollars apiece. It is truly ironic that those who oppose the Salwa Judum see merit in the government transferring the powers of law enforcement, investigation, and the judiciary to a small group of people.
The proposed draft of the anti-corruption bill by this group allows for foreign interference in Indian affairs. The demand to include Nobel Prize winners of Indian origin as part of the proposed de facto courts, if put into practice, will potentially allow citizens of other countries to act as judges, and such people could at least in theory owe allegiance to forces inimical to India
The demand to include Magsaysay Award winners and Nobel prize winners, if implemented, will also allow foreign powers to determine the qualifications of those who would control law enforcement in the country. In addition, both these awards have been plagued by their own problems. The organization that gives the Magsaysay award is based in Philippines which is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries by Transparency International and ranks several notches below even India. The award itself is sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation which was once involved in the funding of the infamous eugenics programs. For its part, the Nobel Prize Committee was recently caught in its own corruption scandal when its members went on an all-expenses-paid trip to China. Even as ordinary Indians link the prevention of corruption to the right to information as they understand that secrecy is the cloak behind which corruption occurs, the proposed draft of the anti-corruption bill overlooks the fact that the selection processes for both the Nobel Prize and the Magsaysay awards are shrouded in secrecy.
There is yet another reason to be wary of the Magsaysay Award: in recent years, this award has been awarded to an unusually high number of Maoist sympathizers from India. It is a well known fact that many international awards are given to members of groups that lobby for such awards. These groups gain an advantage once they win their first award as the recommendations of past winners usually carry weight during the selection process of future award winners. Amongst the winners of the Magsaysay Award in recent years is a person whose work is so insignificant that her only claim to fame to this day is that she has won the Magsaysay Award. A few years back, her husband who operated an NGO with a name reminiscent of Mao’s ‘Barefoot Doctors’ was forced to return the Aga Khan award after it came to light that his group had not really built rainwater harvesting structures by using illiterates as claimed; instead, a professional architect had been hired to perform the task and had been paid for it. Thus, at least some of those who are eager to run the new anti-corruption scheme and hope to get the government to anoint them as judges have tainted reputations.
The above example of taking credit for someone else’s work is by no means an isolated case. The many claimants who take credit for the successful passage of the Right to Information Act conveniently omit the fact that it was H.D. Shourie who preceded them all and set the ball in motion many years before any of the claimants appeared on the scene. This method of operation by the fellow-travelers should not surprise the long-term observers of Indian politics; in the years immediately following independence from the British, the Communist Party of India circulated a pamphlet that instructed the members of its cadres to identify and stand at the front lines of protest groups so that they could claim leadership and take credit for whatever issue was in focus.
Whether it is the self-appointed guardians of various causes who wish to channel money to their NGOs or the technocrats who advise the government to give huge contracts to their firms for boondoggles like the biometric identity card scheme, each group is guilty of mounting a raid on the public exchequer. Each of these situations – and every other situation in which the government redistributes the wealth of the country’s citizens to a few opportunists – is made possible by the concentration of power in the hands of the government.
Lost in the din of the anti-corruption protests is the fact that the problem in India is systemic and is not merely the corrupt nature of a few individuals. A system that grants too much power and control to the government invariably deteriorates into a corrupt system when corrupt people take over the system and perpetuate their rule. Corruption all over the world results from governments or their agents creating controls and utilizing these controls to restrain the vast majority of the people while granting favors to a few well-connected individuals. In every act of corruption, at least one party involves a government or an agent of the government.
The recent corruption scandal involving the allocation of frequencies in the 2G spectrum could have been averted if the government had not exercised control over the frequencies, but had applied common sense property laws and the principle of homesteading to determine ownership of a frequency in a specific geographical area. Government control of frequencies is based on a myth that the frequencies form a scarce resource. The reality is that government control and regulations are the reasons for the scarcity, and even if we grant for the sake of argument that frequencies are a scarce resource, government interference can only exacerbate the problem.
We also have the example of the telephone department that was known for rampant corruption. As long as the government exercised control over the allocation of telephones, a system of bribery and corruption was the norm. Once the private sector entered the arena, people not only got telephones in quick time, but in a reversal from the days of having to pay bribes to obtain a telephone connection, Indian consumers actually started benefiting from discounts and promotional offers that were given by the operators who were eager to win customers.
Thus, corruption can be removed with less control and more freedom. It is only the unfettered free enterprise system that eliminates corruption. Even in those cases in a market-based economy in which corporations receive unfair favors from governments, it must be noted that one party to this arrangement is the government.
In the late 1940s, there was vigorous debate in India about the dangers of nationalization, and the prevailing thought in those days favored the unfettered free enterprise system. Although an overwhelming majority of India’s leaders wanted a free enterprise system, they were not vigilant enough and allowed the socialist views of one man to prevail. The result is the pandemic corruption we see in the country today. To remove this corruption, we not only need to dismantle the socialist institutions and other laws that create unnecessary restrictions, but we also need to guard against vested interest groups that seek to seize control of India’s polity and channel public money into their coffers. Unless we keep watch, we might also see groups like the Rockefeller Foundation influencing India’s politics. It is for us to remain vigilant and prevent our freedoms from being further usurped, for, as it has been stated many times in the past, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Arvind Kumar is an energy trader . Arun Narendranath is a political researcher.Views are personal