Skip to content

Historicising anti-corruption in India’s 2014 election, Part Two


In Part One [h1] of this blog post, I explored how political discourses of corruption in mid Century India continued to have a resonance in the electoral politics of contemporary India, particular for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).  These longer term views of corruption and the politics of anti-corruption, I argued, were based in a particular historical critique of the Indian post-colonial state.  The latter was represented as an entity that had not only failed to overcome, but had encouraged what parties represented as ‘traditional’ or ‘pre-modern’ forms of governance. In the second part of the blog post, I explore how these long term ideologies of anti-corruption held an appeal too, for parties with a very different notion of the role of the state in Indian life – a role which promotes the state’s essential paternalism, ideologies of national belonging and, in some cases, the need for minorities’ integration.  In the early 1950s, the political messages of anti-corruption were characterised not only by a critique of the incomplete ‘modernisation’ of the state, but also by a second ideological strand connecting to it– that espousing the idea of a failing tradition of political integrity or morality. In the case of UP scandals involving mudslinging between the likes of P.D Tandon and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Nehru’s response was to mourn the loss of an older idea of anti-colonial integrity.  This sentiment was also part of a public outcry which had a wide social appeal: in the early 1950s, the assumed illicit profits of politicians in distributing licenses and permits for trade was seen as a betrayal of an older moral politics championed by the Mahatma and his followers.

However, there was a flipside to this discourse of declining political morality which represented corruption and anti-corruption, essentially as a political game in the cut and thrust of political funding and vote banks, especially at the time of elections.  Appeals to Gandhian morality were a very useful, if risky strategy, in which accusations of corruption could be connected to all manner of sectional abuses, including the cronyism that grew from both casteism and communalism. This game of political recrimination quickly found its natural home in the politics of local electoral politics, particularly at the state level, and thrived on what Kochanek and Brass traditionally described as forms of clientelism.  In this sense, a rooted politics of anti-corruption has always existed alongside or even within the very political structures that have arguably allowed Kejriwal’s ‘nexus’ to survive – the old factories of ‘briefcase’ or pork-barrel politics which kept Congress’s (and other parties’) electoral options alive, factions tentatively united and alliances usefully fluid.

The notion of corruption as a decline in political morality, also appeals to parties who have sought to revive the moral impulses of ‘national’ unity.  When in October 2013, Narendra Modi launched plans for a 182 metre statue of the iron man of India in Gujarat, Vallabhai Patel, he made a clear bid to appropriate one of the main ‘heroes’ of the freedom movement, representing again a rejuvenated politics of integrity.   The gigantic Patel, which would be the largest in the world, is at once a challenge to the Nehru dynasty (the alternative right-wing first PM), lip-service to Hindu nationalism that grew out of the Congress, a celebration of a tough stance on separatism (Patel was the great integrationist of Princely states) and on group concepts of citizenship rights (Patel famously challenged Muslims to ‘prove’ their loyalty to India).  Although Modi’s proposed necropolis is comparable to that of the Dalit leader, Mayawati who has constructed monuments to Ambedkar all over the state, the BJP has traditionally been dominated by an anti-reservation ideology.  In 2014, Modi himself has shifted more towards a pro-Mandal stance.  But his party and its affiliates (as well as his largely urban supporters) have been quick in the past to juxtapose their supposed tough stance on ‘corruption’ against a perceived growth in political corruption and criminalisation attending, as they see it, the rise of caste based parties since the 1990s.

Where does this leave then anti-corruption as a project, beyond that of political mobilisation or strategy? Being represented mainly as a concern of the urban and erstwhile high caste voter it perhaps becomes a relatively empty domain of the (hitherto apathetic) middle classes’ complaints about a state that no longer adequately serves its interests.  As a result, it can be extended to cover all manner of agencies and potential abuses.  Appealing to every party, anyone, or anything can essentially turn out to be ‘corrupt’ and its tentacles reach everywhere.   This, in turn leads us into relativist arguments from the position of privilege. Ashis Nandy’s remarks at the Jaipur literary festival in January 2013 were interpreted as a commentary on the natural propensity for corruption of low castes.  Partha Chatterjee’s concept of paralegal mobilisation within ‘political society’ for those living on the margins also presupposes that anti-corruption is a largely urban middle class privilege, and perhaps renders the very notion of corruption/anti-corruption relatively meaningless to the poor.

However, despite the largely urban middle class support for Anna Hazare in 2011, and the currently recorded urban support for AAP, it is dangerous to assume that these political strands of anti-corruption have little or no purchase for the poor, either in urban or rural constituencies.  One relatively large movement promoting RTI in rural UP for example, Asha Parivar, under the leadership of Sandeep Pandey, has had extensive success in mobilising the rural poor of Lucknow, Hardoi and surrounding districts in anti-corruption movements.  Equally, our data on party support is urban-skewed.  It is probably the case that the polls, as in previous elections, are not a particularly accurate measure of how the vast majority of the electorate will vote.  This is not just because of the myriad of regional parties, whose forms of voter mobilisation complicate these predictions.  It is also the fact that these polls largely fail to accurately capture the voting habits of rural populations.  Therefore relatively little is known either about the views of rural constituencies on the politics of anti-corruption.   Equally, we might ask what will become of the agendas of anti-corruption, once the real business of forming a coalition government across a range of regional parties begins to take effect.  Whether or not it radically changes the practice of electoral politics in India, and given its historical trajectories, the politics of anti-corruption is unlikely to go away for the foreseeable future.


William Gould is a Professor of Indian History at the University of Leeds and author of Religion and Conflict in Modern South Asia and Bureaucracy, Community and Influence in India.


 [h1]Insert link to part one.

Published inIndia Votes 2014

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.