Lessons for India’s political opposition

Booming economies apart, India and South Africa have rampant corruption in common. While in India, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition and stooges have a host of scams to their shame, the African National Congress (ANC) is being widely pilloried for being headed by Jacob Zuma, a man who should have been tried for 700-odd charges of alleged corruption.

In 2009, Zuma got all of these charges dropped. Katja Manuela Egger, a South African and a project officer with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, says the president orchestrated his slick getaway, thanks to some well-timed nepotism. Zuma elected a national director of public prosecutions, who, in turn, ensured that the president got his whitewash.

The Business Day newspaper wrote about such appointments: “The African National Congress (ANC) is trying to make sure none of its senior members gets to be the target of an investigation that so embarrassed the party and Zuma over the past few years.”

“President Zuma is not the best person to fight corruption. The country can go the Zimbabwe way,” Egger explains.

What socks the commons in the face in both countries is that the governments are not acknowledging corruption. And even if there is some mind-speak by the leaders, it is stray and insignificant and, in case of the UPA government, rings hollow. Case in point – India’s cabinet reshuffle. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and NAC chairperson Sonia Gandhi made the right noises about throttling graft in the government, they hardly followed through with it. The corrupt ministers were given “less important ministries” and not dropped.

But, just the same, Transparency International’s ‘Corruption Perception Index’ released in October last year found India slipping to 87th rank while South Africa found place at 54 rank.

India and South Africa are both multi-party democracies. Elections are held every five years. The young nation (after apartheid), South Africa has been ruled by one and only one party, the ANC. The Congress party has ruled for more than 50 years in India. The current coalition, led by Congress, has been ruling the country for the last seven years.

But the opposition in the two countries could never possibly be more dissimilar. The BJP has been protesting the 2G spectrum allocation inside and outside parliament and has held on to its demand for a joint parliamentary committee inquiry. But it has not moved beyond rhetoric. In Karnataka, it is at the receiving end of corruption barbs.

Contrastingly, the South African opposition party has taken on the ANC, which built its credentials fighting apartheid.

Democratic Alliance (DA), a party formed 10 years ago after the merger of Democratic Party with National Party, has stepped on the gas in its fight against a corrupt regime. It has made sure that sloganeering is not the only weapon in its arsenal. The party’s gnawing its way from the bottom to erode ANC’s corruption-spread. And it is starting with municipalities.

The Economist magazine wrote last month, “With dogged patience, Helen Zille, the DA’s leader, hopes to defeat the ANC ‘ward by ward, city by city’, setting an example of integrity, good governance and efficient services.”

Egger says the move is paying off. People in South Africa believe DA is a clean party. She says DA has imbibed its lessons from the ANC’s corruption infamy integrally. It even sacked a party man who was found to have indulged in graft, zealously guarding its clean image – something that the Indian opposition seems to be missing.

It is striking to hear how DA is using new elements to fight the ANC. It has earmarked future young leaders in the party recruited through very tough written examinations and interview conducted in different steps. Once chosen, the candidates (aged between 18 and 30 years) go through a rigorous training throughout a year on public speaking, debating, improving political skills, leadership training, personal and emotional skills, read political books, write few papers, know about arts and culture and even undergo a leadership training programme. “The rigorous training is given them to make sure that they have different perspectives, and what kind of leadership they want to succeed in future,”says Egger. No party in India has such a syllabus for its leaders. Young leaders are heirs to family legacy, in opposition and ruling party alike. Even if the scions are not in politics, they are benefactors of family members’ munificence.

Zille, who is aiming big at the national level, has not forgotten grassroots politics. Her main focus is 250 seats in the municipal elections in May. “Municipal elections are very important for DA, if you win these local elections and if you can show that you can deliver and govern well, people will vote for you in national elections. The local delivery mechanism is always the municipality, which is what DA is focusing on,” Egger explains.

Zille won the Cape Town mayoral election in 2006 and by 2008, had been voted as the best mayor in the world.

In India, such focus on governance has worked, very recently in Bihar. But political parties, by and large, choose to ignore it for vote bank gimmicks.

The opposition and the ruling party’s approach has been high on rhetoric and political grandstanding and low on effectively cornering governments and spurring them to weed out corruption. Which is why after more than six and a half decades after independence, we are the 87th least corrupt country – khaleejtimes