Recent interview with Arundhati Roy on the anti-corruption movement that has implications for politics, media and the national discourse
In August last year, Arundhati Roy wrote a piece that raised important questions about the Anna Hazare movement. A lot has changed since then and Arvind Kejriwal and Anna have taken divergent paths. Kejriwal will launch a political party on November 26 and in the last few months he has, along with lawyer Prashant Bhushan, taken on powerful politicians and corporates. Saba Naqvi sent Arundhati five questions on e-mail to get her views on what is an evolving situation that has implications for politics, media and the national discourse. Here are Arundhati’s very detailed answers.
What do you make of these many corruption exposes and do you see this as a healthy development?
It’s an interesting development. The good thing about it is that it gives us an insight into how the networks of power connect and interlock. The worrying thing is that each scam pushes the last one out of the way, and life goes on. If all we will get out of it is an extra-acrimonious election campaign, it can only raise the bar of what our rulers know we can tolerate, or be conned into tolerating. Scams smaller than a few lakh crores will not even catch our attention. In election season, for political parties to accuse each other of corruption or doing shady deals with corporations is not new—remember the BJP and the Shiv Sena’s campaign against Enron? Advani called it ‘Looting through liberalisation’. They won that election in Maharashtra, scrapped the contract between Enron and the Congress government, and then signed a far worse one!
Also worrying is the fact that some of these ‘exposes’ are strategic leaks from politicians and business houses who are spilling the beans on each other, hoping to get ahead of their rivals. Sometimes it’s across party lines, sometimes it’s intra-party jockeying. It’s being done brilliantly, and those who are being used as clearing houses to front these campaigns may not always be aware that this is the case. If in this process there was some attrition and corrupt people were being weeded out of the political arena, it would have been encouraging. But those who have been ‘exposed’—Salman Khurshid, Robert Vadra, Gadkari—have actually been embraced tighter by their parties. Politicians are aware of the fact that being accused or even convicted of corruption does not always make a dent in their popularity. Mayawati, Jayalalitha, Jaganmohan Reddy—they remain hugely popular leaders despite the charges that have been brought against them. While ordinary people are infuriated by corruption, it does seem as though when it comes to voting, their calculations are more shrewd, more complicated. They don’t necessarily vote for Nice Folks.
Why do you think stories that the media knew about but never carried or paid a price for carrying are suddenly coming out like a rash and new details are emerging in the process?
Just because there is a new kid in town, we mustn’t forget that some media houses and several other groups and individuals, at cost to themselves, have played a part in exposing major scams, like the Commonwealth games, 2G and Coal-gate, which shone the light on private corporations and sections of the media as well. Ironically, the Anna Hazare movement last year concentrated solely on politicians and let the others off the hook. But you’re right, there are cases in which the facts were known, but they remained unpublished until now. And suddenly it’s raining corruption scams now—some are even being recycled. Corruption has become so blatant, so pathological that those involved don’t even try very hard to hide their tracks. Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan have all played an important part in making it hard for the media to elide the issue. But the sudden rash of exposes also has to do with the growing competition between the various coalitions of politicians, mega corporations and the media houses they own. For example, I do believe there is some substance to the speculation that the expose of Gadkari has to do with Narendra Modi—backed by big business—positioning himself to become the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and trying to get hostile lobbies out of the way. Now since it’s the era of corruption and balancesheets—blood is passe. It’s strange how often you hear commentators saying that it’s time to move on from the Sangh parivar’s Gujarat pogrom against Muslims in 2002 and to look ahead. The Congress party-led ’84 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi has been forgotten too. Killers and fascists are OK as long as they are not financially corrupt? What the newest anti-corruption movement led by Kejriwal and Bhushan is doing is important work that ought really to be done by the media and investigation agencies, and by people pressurising the system from outside. I’m not sure a new political party that is going to fight elections is the right vehicle. Given how elections work in India, given the amount of money and the machinations that go into them, what does this decision to stand for elections mean? There is a reason why the big political parties gleefully invite everybody to stand for elections. They know they control the arena, they want to turn newcomers into clowns in their circus, and wear them down by having to perform endlessly before a carnivorous media.
Many have walked this plank before. If, for example, Kejriwal’s party wins just a few seats, or none at all, what would it imply? That the majority of Indian people are pro-corruption? What stands exposed in all of this, other than the grand nexus between politicians and business houses, is that the media is struggling with its role as the ‘Fourth Estate’. A new political party, however good or honest, is not going to be able to resolve that anytime soon, because that is a structural problem. The media is hobbled by its economics. Recently in an interview, Vineet Jain of the Times Group was disarmingly frank when he said the Times Group was not in the business of news, but in the business of advertising. Apart from this, we have the problem of paid news and of outright ownership. Industrialists have always owned newspapers, but the scale of the operation has changed. Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), for example, recently bought 95 per cent shares in Infotel, a TV consortium that controls 27 TV news and entertainment channels. Sometimes it’s the other way around: we have media houses own mining companies. Dainik Bhaskar, with a readership of 17 million, owns 69 companies with interests in mining, power generation, real estate and textiles. And then, of course, we have the newspapers and TV channels owned by politicians like Karunanidhi, Jayalalitha, Jaganmohan Reddy and others.
As the boundary between big business, big politics and news melts away, it’s becoming harder for journalists and reporters to do what was once considered an almost sacred duty—to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That ideal has been more or less turned on its head.
Can anti-corruption be a valid plank for a political party?
I don’t think so. Corrupt politicians have shown themselves to be hugely popular. I hope Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan’s party will have more to its plank than just anti-corruption.
I think the middle-class definition of corruption—as a sort of accounting problem—isn’t necessarily everybody else’s definition. Corruption is a symptom of a widening gap between the powerful and the powerless which, in India, is one of the worst in the world. That is what needs to be addressed. Moral policing, or even actual policing, can’t be a solution. What is that meant to achieve? Making an unjust system cleaner and more efficient? Setting up a parallel government with tens of thousands of police and bureaucrats, which is what the Jan Lokpal Bill envisages, will not solve the problem. Have our police and bureaucrats shown themselves to be guardians of the poor? Which pool will these new, honest souls be culled from? In a country where a majority of the population is illegitimate in the ways in which they live and work, the Jan Lokpal Bill could easily become a weapon in the hands of the middle classes—“Remove these filthy illegal slums, clear away these illegal vendors crowding the pavements”—and so on. The point is how do we define corruption? If a corporate house pays a thousand crore bribe to secure a contract for a coal-field, it’s corruption. If a voter takes a thousand rupees to vote for a particular politician, it’s corruption too. If a samosa-seller pays a cop a hundred-rupee bribe for a place on the pavement, that too is corruption. But are they all the same thing? I do not mean to suggest that there shouldn’t be a grievance redressal mechanism to monitor corruption, of course there should be. But that will not solve the big problem, because the big players only become better at covering their tracks.
For a political party to view the politics of this vast and complex country through the lens of corruption is—to put it politely—inadequate. Can we understand or address the politics of caste and class, ethnicity, gender, religious chauvinism, the whole of our political history, the current process of environmental devastation—and the other myriad things that make India’s engine work, or not work—all through the narrow, brittle lens of corruption? They can only be addressed if you know your people, if you have vision and ideology, not by just changing the props or costumes activists wear on stage when one or the other group accuses them of something or the other. Being against corruption is not in itself a political ideology. Even corrupt people will say they’re against corruption.
Change will come. It has to. But I doubt it will be ushered in by a new political party hoping to change the system by winning elections. Because those who have tried to change the system that way have ended up being changed by it—look what happened to the Communist parties. I think the insurrections taking place in the countryside will move towards the cities, not under any single banner, not in some orderly or revolutionary way, necessarily. It will not be pretty. But it’s inevitable.
Sections of the ruling class see the current exposes as ‘anarchy’. After the Ambani, KG basin and oil issue was raised, there were some commentaries about Kejriwal and “his leftist” friends. Your comments on this.
By ‘anarchy’, I presume they mean chaos, which is not what anarchy means. May I say that what the ruling classes are engaged in today, that is anarchy, by their definition. (By the way, I don’t know which of Arvind Kejriwal’s friends is a ‘leftist’.) Or are we now supposed to collapse ‘chaos’, ‘anarchy’ and the ‘left’ into one big ball of wax?
I want to make just one very simple suggestion, and it is far from radical. Let’s say it is just a common minimum programme. We have become a country that is more or less run by private corporations. Let’s look at two of the biggest corporations who rule us today: Reliance and Tatas. Mukesh Ambani, who holds a majority controlling share in RIL, is personally worth $20 billion. RIL has a market capitalisation of $47 billion. Its business interests include petrochemicals, oil, natural gas, polyester fibre, SEZs, fresh food retail, high schools, life sciences research and stem cell storage services. It has a controlling interest in 27 TV news and entertainment channels. It has endowed chairs in foreign universities worth millions of dollars.
The Tatas run more than 100 companies in 80 countries. They are one of India’s largest private sector power companies. They own mines, gas fields, steel plants, phone, cable TV and broadband networks, and run whole townships. They manufacture cars and trucks, own the Taj Hotel chain, Jaguar, Land Rover, Daewoo, Tetley Tea, a publishing company, a chain of bookstores, and a major brand of iodised salt. The Tatas are also hugely invested in foreign universities.
I don’t think that there are corporations like these elsewhere in the world—none with this range of business interests, that control our lives so minutely, that can hold us to ransom and can shut us down as a country if they are unhappy with the deals they are being given. This is the biggest danger facing us.
What our economists like to call a level playing field is actually a machine spinning with a centrifugal force that funnels the poor out like disposable residue, and concentrates wealth in fewer and fewer hands, which is why 100 people have wealth equivalent to 25 per cent of the GDP and hundreds of millions live on less than `20 a day. It is why most of our children suffer from severe malnutrition, why two lakh farmers have killed themselves and why India is home to a majority of the world’s poor.
Whether you are Communist, Capitalist, Gandhian, Hindutva-ist, Islamist, Feminist, Ambedkarite, Environmentalist, whether you are a farmer, a businessman, journalist, writer, poet, or fool, even if you believe in privatisation and in the new economy—whatever—if you have a modicum of concern or affection, leave alone love, for this country, surely you must see that this is the clear and present danger? Even if these corporations and politicians were scrupulously honest, it is an absurd situation for a country to be in. Unless mega corporations are reined in and limited by legislation, unless the levers of such untrammelled power (which includes the power to buy politics and policymaking, justice, elections and the news) is taken away from them, unless the cross-ownership of businesses is regulated, unless the media is freed from the absolute control of big business, we are headed for a shipwreck. No amount of noise, no amount of anti-corruption campaigns, no amount of elections can stop that.
You have in the past described the system as “hollowed out”. In that case do you see all this as a pantomime?
Pantomime is a harsh word. I see what is happening now as part of the unrest, anger and frustration that is building up in the country. Sometimes the noisiness of it makes it hard to see clearly. But unless we look things in the eye—instead of heading off in strange quixotic directions—we can look forward to the civil war, which has already begun, reaching our doorsteps very soon.