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.

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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.

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.

Many voices have emerged to complain about involving "extraconstitutional" actors in the law-drafting process. But involving civic leaders is hardly antidemocratic. It can be a useful counterweight to the influence of corporate lobbyists, who participate intensively in the drafting of much legislation. Others fear creating an institution that can subvert democracy by allowing the electorate's verdict to be overturned by an overzealous people's tribune. Yet, countries such as New Zealand have managed to create powerful, independent oversight institutions without disenfranchising citizens.

A summer of mass protest is planned if the Jan Lokpal ombudsman bill is not to the activists' liking – which the initial draft almost certainly won't be. A hugely popular television yoga guru known as Baba Ramdev, whose rally against corruption was broken up by police in June, has promised another fast unto death if action is not taken to plug loopholes. Expect India's independence day – Aug. 15 – to be marked by civil disobedience.

The second element of regime change is even more explicitly targeted at colonial-era governance. For the first time in independent India, a government is serious about replacing the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, which allows the state to dispossess landowners for almost any "public purpose."

The act's few landowner protections are easily trumped by countervailing emergency provisions. Compensation for landowners is pitiful. The key official who engineers these transactions – the district collector – is an imperial relic of vast authority whose extractive function is unsubtly encoded in his job title.

Activists have long demanded reforms to the Land Acquisition Act. A protracted campaign against the World Bank-funded Narmada Dam in the 1980s and '90s highlighted the callousness with which the Indian state uproots entire communities in the name of development.

The current effort to replace (rather than just tidy up) the act has been set off by popular revulsion at the more recent state practice of gifting forcibly acquired land to corporations, both foreign and domestic, to establish export enclaves known as "special economic zones." Nearly 600 such zones, which often feature luxury housing and other high-end amenities, are in various stages of completion across India. Their alleged economic benefits are widely regarded as an insufficiently "public purpose" to justify such blatant land-grabbing.

The state's forcible acquisition of land for private industry has sparked protests across India. The brutality of the state government in West Bengal – more than 30 people died in clashes between protesters and police in 2007 – contributed to this May's defeat of the Communist-led government that had ruled the state since 1977. A violent standoff is taking place in neighboring Orissa State, where land has been acquired by the government on behalf of a South Korean steel conglomerate.

A detailed proposal to overhaul the Land Acquisition Act has been issued by the National Advisory Council, a government think tank chaired by Sonia Gandhi. Widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, she is president of the ruling party and the current prime minister's de facto boss. The proposed legislation would vastly increase compensation to landowners and for the first time provide statutory relief to nonlandowners whose livelihoods are nevertheless adversely affected. It would also impose a higher public-purpose standard for compulsory land acquisition and set community-resettlement norms.

Momentum behind the activists

The fate of these two regime-changing reforms is uncertain, but more promising than cynics might imagine. The prime movers of both the Jan Lokpal ombudsman and land acquisition bills are the same activists who in 2005 drove passage of India's Right to Information Act, which superseded the Official Secrets Act of 1923.

Activists have had to prod the various branches of government to dismantle the colonial state. In 2009, in response to public-interest litigation, the Supreme Court struck down anti-gay-rights provisions of the Indian Penal Code enacted in 1860. In 2001, Parliament amended the Indian Divorce Act of 1869 to grant Christian women – each major religion operates under its own "personal law" – the same divorce rights as men.

To advance the agenda of accountable, rights-based governance, several key activists have embedded themselves within the state through appointments to official oversight and policy-guidance bodies. This core of dedicated reformers has pioneered a new model for channeling people's perspectives directly to the heart of policymaking.

India's vibrant social movements have seized on the dissonance between modern expectations of freedom and the provisions of colonial laws to advance the seemingly never-ending process of making subjects into citizens. Indians are consolidating democracy, making it durable by making it their own – a feat that people in the Middle East will soon realize is even trickier than unseating autocrats.

Rob Jenkins, professor of political science at Hunter College and associate director at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, City University of New York, is researching how politics influences the realization of rights in India.


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