On April 8, 2011, the day before Anna Hazare broke his fast, I was in Cairo to present the ‘Indian model’ for Egypt's future to liberal members of the democracy movement. After the conference, a few of us wandered off to Tahrir Square, where a massive demonstration had broken out.  Through a twist of fate, I found myself suddenly on the podium, offering good wishes to the 37,000 protesters from the people of Al Hind. In the next three minutes I tried to convey a lesson from India’s democracy: it is not elections, not liberty, not equality that finally matters; it is the rule of law. Corruption persists in India because the rule of law is weak.

That night at three am I woke up to the sound of gunfire. I thought they were bursting crackers. There was a knock, and my host whispered that the Army had moved into Tahrir Square and I should be prepared to flee as my ‘three minutes of fame’ was posted on YouTube. Filled with fear, I quickly changed, picked up my laptop and passport, and waited. I must have fallen asleep because the next moment it was 7 o’clock and I was still alive. I saw a cloud of smoke above Tahrir Square and switched on the TV to learn that the Army had left as quickly as it had come, leaving two dead.

I returned home much relieved. My Egyptian adventure made me look at India through a fresh, new mirror. Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption in India and the democracy movements in the Middle East have challenged the state. Although I share Anna Hazare’s rage against corruption, I feel ambivalent about his methods. However, the arrogant grandees of the political class, who from their private jets and black SUVs, tried to smear his anti-corruption movement do not understand the limited nature of political power in India.

India has always had a weak state and a strong society. Because political authority was either too distant or irrelevant to its daily life, we never allowed state power to be so concentrated, as in China, that it could reach deeply and change its basic social institutions. The type of despotic governments that emerged in China or Russia, which were able to divest the whole society of property and personal rights, have never existed in South Asia. Hence, India’s history is of relative political disunity while China’s is one of strong empires.

Not surprisingly, India became a chaotic democracy after Independence. In the 1960s Gunnar Myrdal called it a ‘soft state’. Today, India seems to be rising from below, marching towards a modern, democratic and market-based future without too much help from the state. It is quite unlike China, whose success has been scripted from above by an amazing state that has built incredible infrastructure.

What is this society that has held India together for centuries? Jawaharlal Nehru defined it in three words:  village, caste, and family. India’s society consists of the over half a million autonomous, self sufficient villages; more than two thousand, hierarchical jatis or sub-castes; and the joint family. What is significant about our society are two features—one of them is hierarchy; the second, is the idea that the group is more important than the individual. India’s society is changing as the country urbanizes, and power is shifting from a traditional, rural to an urban civil society, in which the media is playing an important role.
The Indian state evolved from a tribal society. Early on, the tribal raja’s authority was limited by his kinsmen. The land did not belong to the king but to the clan families, such as the Kurus and Panchalas, whom we remember from the Mahabharata. Even when sovereign states emerged in the 6th c BC, like Magadha, the king’s power continued to be limited by dharma or the law, and by the Brahmin who interpreted the law. The law did not spring from the king as it did in China, but was above the monarch, who was expected to protect dharma. The Raja who violates dharma is called a mad dog in the Mahabharata, and the epic calls for a revolt against him.
What this quick tour through history and geography teaches us is that a successful nation must have an effective state and society. A weak state tolerates corruption, creates uncertainty in peoples’ minds, and weakens the rule of law.  People generally tend to obey the law because they think that it is fair and that it applies to everyone equally. But if policemen, ministers, and judges can be bought, then people lose confidence in the rule of law. This is the danger that widespread corruption poses in India. When people see the powerful and rich get away, then they lose respect for the rule of law.

The arrest of Suresh Kalmadi in connection with the Commonwealth Games scam and the arrests of Andimuthu Raja and others in the 2G scam--these reflect the triumph of civil society, including the media, against corruption. These are good omens for the future of the rule of law in India. But this triumph will not be complete until we bring these arrested persons to trial and sentence the guilty speedily.

As for Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption, it has a clear and specific objective. It wants to bring a law and an institution that can catch people in high places. The political class has stone-walled a Lok Pal bill for over forty years. Anna Hazare’s original version of the bill, Jana Lok Pal, was hugely flawed, but with persistence, it now appears that India will soon have an effective Lok Pal in the future. A Lok Pal bill is not a panacea but it is a big step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, I feel grateful that India has succeeded in becoming a constitutional democracy and I do not have to fear the Army as I did in Egypt. It is also a secular democracy--liberals in Egypt fear that their own movement might be hijacked by Islamists via the Muslim Brotherhood. Even more remarkable, India has gone and become the world’s second fastest growing economy. Egyptians persistently asked me how they could emulate India’s economic success, and also become an IT based back office of the world. My Egyptian adventure makes me realise that India, warts and all, has done well on balance.