A postcard from… Mumbai

Baroness Ros Scott has been away visiting family for the past fortnight, and has let us have some thoughts on what she has found there…

As a politician, starting the day with newspapers and coffee is a habit that is hard to break. Indian newspapers are a joy, with their old fashioned use of English – “the altercation ended in fisticuffs”, “the ruffians were apprehended” and a diet of celebrity gossip and above all, politics. All Indian media give detailed blow-by-blow accounts of the machinations of politicians in the national and state governments and, although there’s a lot going on, not much really seems to happen. Progress in India happens despite the politicians, not because of them.

The new politics which have emerged after independence was based on caste, religion and regional loyalties, to which family ties have now been added, with the Gandhi dynasty merely the most prominent example. The newspapers are full of stories of sons, daughters and in-laws of senior party figures being given candidacies over the heads of long-term party loyalists.

And whereas at home, our politicians are condemned as venal and corrupt on the basis of an expenses scandal, here there are reports of scores of candidates in forthcoming State elections with criminal records for offences ranging up to, and including, murder.

In short, what I’ve seen here in India mirrors, but on a gigantic scale, that which I’ve seen in other Commonwealth countries such as Bangladesh and Jamaica, namely huge old-fashioned bureaucracy and corrupt politicians, combined with a glacially slow judicial system.

Corruption has been this year’s issue in India, with a movement for social reform emerging from a sense of frustration with Indian politicians. The activities of anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, and the huge support he has been gained in recent months has forced the political establishment to take the issue seriously. An already watered down Lokpal Bill, designed to put into place an anti-corruption ombudsman, got through the Lok Sabha (equivalent to our House of Commons), but fell in the Rajya Sabha (the Council of States, broadly equivalent to our House of Lords), amid a welter of recriminations.

There is a real danger that the impetus for reform will dissipate, as ‘Team Anna’ struggles to capitalise on its support. Anna himself is in hospital, suffering from months of Mahatma Gandhi-style campaigning and fasting tough even for someone considerably younger than his seventy-four years. Out of naivety, inexperience or over-enthusiasm, or a combination of all three, ‘Team Anna’ has made a series of tactical errors, allowing itself to be seen as too much the creature of one particular political party, the Hindu nationalist BJP. And on top of that, one of their leading activists has been, irony of ironies, charged with evading stamp duty of approximately £160,000 on the sale of a property.

It would be a huge mistake for India’s political class to continue to ignore the corruption issue. Voters may be justifiably cynical about their politicians, but India is a country where democracy itself is taken very seriously, and the growing disconnect between the governed and the governing will continue to grow as the population becomes better educated and less tolerant of their politicians bad behaviour. An emerging middle class has a better capacity for organised protest can either be harnessed positively by such people as Anna Hazare, or could take a more dangerous form.

* Baroness Ros Scott is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, a former Party President and now President of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors.

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