In India, it's been the year of the scam. Over the past 12 months, allegations of graft or wrongdoing have touched, among others, Parliament, the media, mining, construction, hospitals, airlines, and sports. But after bubbling for the better part of a year, India's national debate over corruption may finally have come to a boil. The government and India's political class more broadly face an unprecedented wave of middle-class anger at how the country is being run. If channeled toward formal politics -- instead of being dissipated in activism alone -- it could be the first step in giving India the kind of governance many of its citizens feel it deserves.
Led by a folksy 74-year-old acolyte of Mahatma Gandhi, the so-called Anna Hazare movement is demanding the prompt creation of a tough new anti-corruption body called the Lokpal. Should Parliament fail to pass a bill to his liking by Aug. 30, Hazare, who has been on a hunger strike since Aug. 16 that followed a shorter fast in April, has threatened to ratchet up his protest another notch. In a civil-disobedience tactic borrowed from the days of India's independence struggle against the British, Hazare's supporters will begin courting mass arrest to force the government's hand.
This middle-class revolt follows a long season of scandal. Stories of padded contracts and graft -- $80 toilet rolls and $19,500 treadmills, and a budget bloated many times over the original estimate -- tainted October's Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. In the so-called 2G telecom scam, which began to dominate headlines shortly after the games ended, auditors claim that the government lost taxpayers up to $40 billion by handing out valuable telecom spectrum licenses to favored bidders at throwaway prices. In another scandal that broke around the same time, top generals, bureaucrats, and politicians apparently colluded to snare plush apartments in Mumbai on land originally meant for war widows.
Last year's publication of transcripts of the so-called Radia tapes -- secretly recorded conversations between a powerful corporate lobbyist and prominent politicians, journalists, and industrialists -- painted a picture of a country in moral free-fall, with everything from the front pages of newspapers to Supreme Court judgments apparently available for a price. Last year, Transparency International ranked India a lousy 87th out of 178 countries surveyed, nine places behind authoritarian China.
Many Indians place politics at the root of this malaise. Indeed, earlier this year Hazare captured a widespread middle-class sentiment about the masses who elect India's leaders by pointing out that votes are often bought for as little as 100 rupees (about $2), a sari, or a bottle of liquor. Rarely, if ever, have voters punished a so-called mass leader known to have accumulated vast wealth through public office, and some politicians don't even bother to pay lip service to the idea of public service without private gain. In Andhra Pradesh state, Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, a former chief minister's son and current member of Parliament, declared assets of about $82 million in April, nearly 4,000 times more than he had claimed seven years before, when his father took office.
India's electoral math is loaded against the middle class, some 300 million people by the most generous estimate. In general, those who feel most upset by corruption -- especially an abstract loss to the state exchequer of the sort embodied by the spectrum scam -- are also those who matter least on election day. In part this is because they're hopelessly outnumbered by the poor, and in part because, insulated by privilege from India's dysfunctional governance, they tend not to turn out in large numbers.