India has arrested an anti-corruption activist for — conspiring to fast without permission. 1300 of his followers are also in the clink. Given the role of fasting and non-violent resistance in India’s independence struggle, it’s almost the equivalent of the Feds arresting someone for reading the Declaration of Independence without a government permit.Anna Hazare, 74, has been the spearhead of a popular movement of revulsion against a culture of corruption that extends from village officials to cabinet ministers. His current demand is that the Prime Minister and judges come under the scrutiny of the ‘anti-corruption ombudsman’ the government proposes to appoint. The government was prepared to allow the fast to go ahead if it was limited to three days, if no more than 500 people rallied in support and, in an interesting twist, if organizers provided parking for protesters’ vehicles.Gandhi would have laughed at these restrictions and seized the opportunity to publicize his cause by defying them. Hazare has done the same thing, and the 74 year old is now spending a week in jail.The real prisoner of course is the Congress Party led government of India, which is now looking clownish, tyrannical and corrupt. Also, the price of food is rising in a country in which hundreds of millions live on the edge.Sonia Gandhi, the current head of the family that one way or another has dominated the Congress Party and therefore India most of the time since 1947, picked a good time to disappear into an American hospital for medical treatment. She may be able to demand a change of course when she re-emerges, shocked, shocked! that something like this could have occurred while she was ill.It is not simply stupidity and miscalculation that have landed the government in this deeply embarrassing mess; India is awash in contradictions. Its constitution and legal system presuppose a western secular order with equality before the law. The reality of Indian life in tens of thousands of villages is feudal, with savage exploitation of the poor in many cases, and with vicious caste discrimination as well.The clash between a formal commitment to modern democracy and a very different social reality is not restricted to India. The American South in which I grew up lived under a federal constitution that mandated equality before the law, but African Americans were segregated by law and a rigid caste system restricted their lives. In northeastern Brazil, many states have been essentially under oligarchic controls; until very recently the population at large lacked the economic independence, the education and the political organization to oppose the “colonels” as the oligarchs are often called.In a truly feudal system, corruption isn’t illegal; it is the way things work. You give me a job or a handout, I give you loyalty and service. The client comes to the patron, often with money in hand; the patron uses his influence in the government (as an official or as a person to whom favors are owed) to get the permit, the permission, the job that the client seeks. Think of the French speaking aristocrats organizing jobs for their friends in Tolstoy’s War and Peace: they are not unlike some of the English speaking elites arranging matters in India today.India combines these traditional networks of ‘corruption’ with more modern forms based on political machines. In India, groups of voters who turn out to vote in a predictable way are known as “vote banks”; politicians work to get favors and subsidies for their vote banks in India just as they do in other democracies. Vote banks can be castes, language groups, ideological groups; India is such a diverse country and it is so large that many voters feel they need to vote with their ‘tribe’ in order to have any power at all.Add the ingredients: a powerful elite with quasi-feudal values, political machines, huge numbers of uneducated and desperately poor voters, internal language differences, a large and poorly paid body of government workers, and a powerful government deeply engaged in micromanaging the economy. This is a recipe for world class corruption of breathtaking complexity and power, and that is exactly what India has.Rising levels of education and affluence make many Indians impatient with this system. Interest groups who don’t like the result of government decisions claim that corruption is responsible for the decisions they don’t like (they are often correct, but that may only mean that the other side paid bigger bribes). The increasingly complex urban and modern side of India needs predictable and transparent government policies and resents the backward and feudal nature of Indian government. Meanwhile the struggle between interest groups and representatives of vote banks (which castes get how much affirmative action, for example) intensifies and every loser screams “corruption”.Unfortunately, there is no clear way to drain this large and active ecosystem (aka ‘swamp’). Deeply embedded cultural and political realities like corruption in India cannot be ‘fixed’ overnight. Mr. Hazare’s invocation of a simple and seemingly uncontroversial idea — that ‘corruption’ is bad and must be fought — puts any government in a deeply awkward spot. It is a demand which cannot be resisted — but which is impossible to satisfy. Many of the opposition politicians hysterically beating the anti-corruption drum can’t wait to turf out the Congress coalition so that they can get control of the government machinery and wallow in glorious corruption themselves.The problem of corruption in India is going to be with us for a long time; the current government’s inability to respond to anti-corruption protests or otherwise manage the problem is understandable but nevertheless disturbing. It points to one of the biggest problems that India must address if it is going to achieve superpower status in the 21st century and it is very much an open question whether it will succeed.From an American point of view, the geopolitical balance of Asia may depend on whether local politicians in India can clean up their act. Welcome to a brave new world.