In this article, the author observes Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption agitation through the lens of Kingdon’s ‘Multiple Streams’ hypothesis.
By Siddharth Singh, 4 Oct, 2011
It can be argued that India faces graver concerns that need far more attention than the issue of graft and corruption in the administration: issues such as farmer suicides, chronic malnutrition, religion-based violence, human rights violations, female foeticide, police excesses especially in rural India and the lack of justice in the Bhopal gas tragedy case. While activists like Irom Sharmila have been protesting against government apathy and excess for decades, it took a then-unknown Anna Hazare to upheave the political landscape of New Delhi in a matter of months. His agitation – incorrectly dubbed as India’s version of the ‘Arab Spring’ by a few international journalists - gave a semblance of the fast-tracking of an anti-corruption legislation which was in limbo for decades. Why did Anna succeed where others did not?
In order to explain why certain policy proposals emerge rather than others, political scientist John Kingdon has stated that three streams of actions need to converge: the problem stream (the problem must be clearly defined), the solution stream (feasible solutions need to be offered), and the political stream (where political consensus must be obtained). He added that chance plays a big role in the convergence of these streams. This model of Multiple Streams differed from the traditional models which have been described to be ‘linear’. The traditional models focused stepwise on, firstly, problem identification, secondly, focusing government attention to the problem (known as ‘agenda setting’), thirdly policy proposal development and finally, the adoption of policies.
However, such traditional models inadequately explain the Hazare phenomenon and the relative failure of other activists and agitations in India. Kingdon’s framework is better suited to explain the success of the ‘Gandhian’ Anna Hazare over others. He explains that the convergence of the three ‘streams’ creates a window of opportunity during which policy makers are willing to seriously consider legislation aimed at improving a situation or solving a problem. Anna Hazare’s agitation met this condition while others – such as the Bhopal agitation – have not. In order to understand why, we must first delve further into these three streams and then contextualise it.
The problem stream is related to the recognition of the problem and the conditions that affect their recognition. Scholars have stated that systematic indicators such as dramatic events and crises facilitate public knowledge of the problem.
The solutions or policy stream concerns itself with the strategies that are needed to tackle the identified problem. These strategies and proposals exist as a “soup of ideas” that are generated by a community of researchers, advocates, public officials, and the civil society. These ideas are not static, and continue to mix with other ideas, morph and evolve. The survival of the proposal is determined by their technical feasibility, administrative practicability, compatibility with the dominant values of the society, as well as the national mood and political support.
The political stream is related to the politics that affect the chosen solution. Such politics emanates from electoral compulsions and interest-groups. Proposals that are most likely to rise to the top are the ones that match national mood, are congruent with the government and administration, and also enjoy the support of interest-groups.
The meeting of these three streams results in the formation of policy. It hence becomes clear how Anna Hazare and his team garnered considerable success while – say – Irom Sharmila hasn’t.
The Indian public has been constantly informed of scams after scams at the national and sub-national level over the past few years. The hyperactive media has brought corruption to the forefront while other issues – such as the agrarian crisis and farmer suicides - have not found favour with the media. The oft-spoken of common man in India (at least, in the Indian cities and where there is high penetration of television media), already burdened with corruption in almost all walks of life, saw their frustration with the government and politicians in general peak with the 2G spectrum scam, which implicated ministers at the highest echelons of the administration.
It is here that Anna Hazare and his team was able to garner support with a ‘Gandhian’ hunger strike and a proposal for a Jan Lokpal - Citizen Ombudsman – Bill. This Bill called for a radical overhaul of the anti-corruption machinery in India, even as it concentrated powers into one department which was entrusted to fight corruption. Social media and television media was optimally utilised to sell the idea that this Bill would free India from corruption. His team convinced the people that the Lokpal Bill as framed by the government was spineless and would be ineffective. The ‘silence’ of Prime Minister Dr. Singh and distractive verbal onslaught by Congress Party spokespersons further convinced the people of the same.
The current government had stated that they would introduce the Lokpal Bill this term. However, popular mistrust of the government, parliament and legislatures by the public, coupled with a carefully constructed ‘Gandhian’ image of Anna Hazare (which has been questioned by a few journalists and scholars over his ‘undemocratic’ dictums in his village), led the public to find resonance with the radical Jan Lokpal Bill. Such a feeling was strengthened by an undemocratic and foolish move by the government to detain Anna Hazare just before his second round of protests, and lodge him in the same prison where the accused of the massive scams had been imprisoned. The symbolism of this move was profound, and the opposition claimed that this brought back memories of the Emergency period, when democracy in India had taken a back-seat under the rule of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The public was outraged and there was a massive outpouring of support to Anna and an unequivocal condemnation of the government’s move. A chicken run and a strategic shift within the government ensued. The government began working towards amending their version of the Bill ‘to give it more teeth’. On the other hand, scholarly discourse was largely critical of Team Anna’s Bill because of the behemothic size and lack of effective accountability of the proposed Lokpal. Unknown to the public was the fact that Team Anna revised their bill several times (more than 150 times, according to an Anna team member) to ‘mellow’ it down and make it more feasible due to the pressure of the academia as well as certain sections of the media. The government, on the other hand, proposed that their Bill would be reviewed by the Parliamentary Standing Committee, which had in the past amended a ‘weak’ Right to Information Bill draft and made it one of the most effective legislation to fight corruption and graft that India has seen. This Bill was passed by the parliament under the very same government in its previous term. However, public support (at least in the cities and small towns as reported by the media) of the parliament and politicians had hit rock-bottom. Anna Hazare and his team used this mistrust of the government to successfully get the parliament to accept a few terms and conditions, as no politician wanted to be seen opposing Anna in any manner.
While both the government and Team Anna changed their positions to reach their respective half-ways, the protest was perceived by the public as a success of Team Anna and a censure of the politicians. The coming to light of the scams in a big way and the political churning that ensued fit neatly into the problem and solution streams of Kingdon’s framework respectively. In order for the Lokpal to see the light of the day, the political stream would also have to meet the other two streams in the near future.
Today, there are calls of resistance against the merger of existing anti-corruption agencies with the proposed Lokpal agency. Such resistance comes from the agencies themselves, and these form the interest-groups that Kingdon mentions. Unless the positions of the interest groups don’t align with the political outlook and popular opinion, there will be no easy passage of a Lokpal Bill. It can be reasonably argued that owing to the political and public pressure, this stream will also begin to tend towards the others in the near future.
On the other hand, issues such as farmer suicides, the continuing problems of the Bhopal survivors and the excesses related to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act – ASFPA - have not found resonance with the public at large. The cause of repealing ASFPA, for example, remains controversial because many claim that it is against the interests of ‘national security’ and because of the untainted image of the Army among the public. In the case of farmer suicides, there is a severe lack of reporting in the national media. Journalists such as P. Sainath have stated that more national journalists cover a single fashion show in Mumbai than the total number who report on the agrarian crisis in India – a sector that impacts upwards of 60% of India’s population.
The three streams as laid by Kingdon’s framework hence seem to be bending towards each other fairly well in the case of the Jan Lokpal Bill, but are distant in other cases. It may become imperative for the leaders of other movements to go the extra mile to frame the issues appropriately. However unfortunately, it is chance that will play a major role in determining the success – in the form of implementation of respective policies – of agitations.
The author can be followed on Twitter @siddharth3