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Opinion

Arab Spring, Indian Summer?

For sheer drama, the Arab Spring is a hard act to follow. But as an indicator of democracy's long-term prospects in the developing world, the coming Indian Summer will be just as profound.

By Rob Jenkins / August 1, 2011



New York

With the world understandably fixated on the Arab Spring, India's own season of discontent has gone largely unnoticed. The globe's largest democracy, India lacks a dictator to topple. But its activists are bringing about regime change anyway. More than six decades after the British departed, India is shedding the last vestiges of the colonial state.

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Over the next few months – especially during the "monsoon session" of Parliament that begins Aug. 1 – India will witness major milestones in replacing archaic governance structures with something the British Raj promised but rarely delivered: the rule of law.

For sheer drama, the Arab Spring is a hard act to follow. But as an indicator of democracy's long-term prospects in the developing world, the coming Indian Summer will be every bit as profound.

Two momentous changes to Indian governance are under way, driven by powerful social movements. The more visible of the two seeks to end the impunity with which India's current rulers, like their imperial predecessors, plunder the nation's wealth. Independent India inherited powerful institutions and a Victorian governance culture that places senior officials above the law. The prime minister enjoys de facto control over government investigative agencies.

The coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is drafting legislation to create an independent vigilance body called a "Jan Lokpal," or "people's guardian" – a superombudsman with the authority to investigate and prosecute officials suspected of abusing their public positions for private gain. It would effectively abolish the executive branch's viceregal prerogative.

Hunger strikes and protests

A hunger strike in April by a neo-Gandhian anti-corruption campaigner, Mr. Anna Hazare, forced the government to include representatives from civil society on the bill's drafting committee. This is all taking place amid public outrage over a multi-billion-dollar telecom-licensing scandal. Details have been captured on audio recordings that reveal extensive collusion among lobbyists, politicians, and name-brand journalists.

The activists and politicians drafting the ombudsman bill disagree on several issues, notably whether the prime minister and senior judges should be under the new institution's jurisdiction.

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