Arab Spring, Indian Summer, American Fall
First published in The Pioneer, October 23, 2011
There is neither script nor star, but the story nonetheless is bigger than the biggest. Our cluelessness as to the origin and direction of this worldwide resurgence against institutionalised corruption is perhaps the only predictable aspect of it all.
This has been a year of protests: the Arab spring, followed by the Indian sumn1er, and trailed by the American fall. But in the old Pagan and now Christian state of Greece it has been a year-long bout of colic with citizens having long forgotten the Socratic n1ethod, and instead fallen deeply in love with the Molotov cocktail. Protests have been going on elsewhere too, with students in Santiago, Chile turning violent, seeking reprieve from paying more for their education, and demanding jobs after they graduate. The world's leaders seen1 as clueless as the rest of us about this confusing state of affairs, about ran1pant corruption eating into the vitals of society, and systen1s created by Wall Street and European banks that have siphoned off the savings of hundreds of millions of ordinary working n1en and won1en and created a small elite of billionaires, and their sn1all army of millionaire henchn1en.
Yes, Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali will be vacationing permanently in Saudi Arabia, Hosni Mubarak will slowly lose his memory and his many mansions, and Gaddafi is dead. And while Assad continues to kill his own, desperately hanging on to power, members of Team Anna are biting their finger nails to the bone unable to stop the machinations of the Congress' bulldozer, Digvijay Singh, the protesters at Liberty Square in New York City seek desperately to define what has gone wrong and more importantly, how things can be set right.
Greed ranks second in the list of seven deadly sins, but it seems all of us are its victims. From credit default swaps, to hedge fund manipulations, to banks that bundled bad debts and bet against themselves, we have seen a greedy group of people who have acted as the old medieval marauders - decimating and pillaging everything in their sight as they went on a "war of conquest". We don't know where and how much they have stashed away wealth, except to note that in the US the top one per cent own 40 per cent of the nation's wealth, and the bottom 18 per cent owning just seven per cent of the wealth.
The American median income fell the last two years, to just about $26,400, whereas the number of millionaires grew from 78,000 to 94,000 in the same period. It is no different, the world over, as 38.5 per cent of the world's wealth is held by 30 million people (less than one-half of one per cent of the world's population of nearly 7 billion people), and in one year, between 2009 and 2010, these millionaires and billionaires increased their wealth by about 20 trillion dollars.
I have friends and family, who like the economists touting the quack "marginal-productivity theory" - associating higher incomes with higher productivity and a greater contribution to society -don't see or accept the obvious: the creating and bending of rules to favor the few to the detriment of the many that has led to this "wealth creation" and "wealth imbalance". If you have a degree from a fancy university and work for Goldman Sachs you begin to act as if the Gods had deigned that you deserved your big bank account, your sneering attitude, and your early retirement to the island of your dreams that you just bought at age 30.
The Wall Street protest, which started on September 17, has now gone "viral" with protests across the United States, mostly in big cities but with support elsewhere too, and people around the world starting protests complaining about ills specific to their own countries and communities. Over the past weekend protests were held in 900 cities around the world: from Seoul, South Korea to Auckland, New Zealand, and from Toronto, Canada to London, England. And while the young, the unwashed, and the unemployed occupy Liberty Square near Wall Street, we are told that Goldman Sachs employees this year have showered the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, with $350,000 while giving Obama a mere $50,000. Of course, it is not just the rich-can-do-no-wrong Republicans who have made the big Wall Street hauls. Democratic senators, like New York's Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, have also been predictably quiet about the New York protests. You don't bite the hands that feed you, do you?
In the US corruption is systemic. Rules are created to favor certain constituencies, and lobbying is done by an army of well-clad men and women who walk the hallways of the Capitol and the Senate buildings carrying glossy handouts, and big campaign checks. Rules of lobbying are writ in many House and Senate rules, and legislators are not supposed to accept freebies worth more than $50. However, according to Opensecrets.org, in 1998 about 10,400 registered lobbyists spent $1.44 billion lobbying Washington. In 2010, the number of lobbyists had risen to 12,964, and the amount spent on lobbying was $3.51billion. This is nothing but legalised bribery.
In India, the fight against corruption, which is unorganised, haphazard and intermittent, has now coalesced around Anna Hazare's campaign for the Jan Lokpal Bill. Corruption in India is quotidian, everywhere. It is not just the pan chewing, nose scratching, dhoti-clad lumpen, corrupt politician who is to blame but the army of babus, from the local tahsildar to the highly placed personal secretary of a chief minister, who harass, hound, and hoodwink the aam-admi. How many billions of dollars have been siphoned off by these netas and babus is a matter of speculation, with the BJP in 2009 claiming that it is anywhere between $500 billion and $1.4 trillion, stashed away in Swiss banks, over the past few decades. It's anybody's guess why the B.JP sat on this problem when it headed the NDA government, and why the BJP leaders allowed Chief Minister Yeddyurappa to sleep the last two years while the Reddy brothers destroyed Bellary, and play fast and loose in delimiting agricultural land around Bengaluru to bestow largesse on his kith and kin, is also anyone's guess.
There are no official lobbyists or laws on lobbying in India, unless it is Niira Radia acting as go-between for corporate houses and 1ninisters with clout; or retired senior bureaucrats hired by corporate houses to wheel and deal. A search for articles on lobbying in India reveals very little but the Indian variety of lobbying is scarcely the full-fledged, legislatively shaped efforts in the corridors of Washington DC or in state capitals across the US.
It is in this context that we have to consider Team Anna, and how they have struck a chord with ordinary Indians, across the country, and in fact across the Indian Diaspora. That despite harassment by the police, and manipulation by Dr. Manmohan Singh's clever and corrupt colleagues, they continue the battle is inspiring. Similarly, the fact that strong-arm methods by the New York City police have not driven America's disenchanted away from Liberty Square is also heartwarming. Whether they can sustain the battle till they win is difficult to predict, however. If they don't, we might as well get ready for street violence like in Athens, Greece or Santiago, Chile.
First published in The Pioneer, October 23, 2011