Photo: Kannan B

No counter-revolution please

It is hard to sympathise with the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) open discomfiture with the anti-corruption movement launched by Anna Hazare and his followers. UPA ministers allege that Mr. Hazare’s movement is supplanting the authority of the Parliament by insisting that India’s lawmakers must pass his version of the Lokpal bill and thereby create a super-regulator unencumbered by constitutional constraints in his purported war against corruption. However, the National Advisory Council (NAC) manned by unelected apparatchiks has often worked at cross-purposes with the UPA government. Backed by the all-powerful Sonia Gandhi, NAC has frequently prevailed and pushed policies —from employment guarantee to health reforms—which not only militate against the basic notions of fiscal sanity but clearly undermine the constitutional legitimacy and authority of the government, and its putative leader, Dr. Manomohan Singh.

Nor is corruption an issue which can be dismissed in an off-hand manner. Recent headlines have been dominated by large scams while the much-wooed aam aadmi continues to suffer from the day-to-day depredations and corruptions of the local police, municipal authorities and the laggardly court system. While it is true that some of the prime suspects in major scams — from Suresh Kalmadi to A. Raja — are currently languishing in jail, it is equally undeniable that if history is any guide, these leaders are unlikely to be punished by the judicial system or, for that matter, by the people’s court.

Therefore, it is tempting to look at Mr. Hazare and his band of followers as committed and selfless activists who are forcing a much-needed national conversation on corruption. He certainly deserves credit for articulating the frustrations of the average Indian who feels disenfranchised by the political system. His personal probity is undoubted and he does not appear to be batting for any political formation. The government’s handling of Mr. Hazare’s agitation has been particularly poor and some of the attacks launched by senior Congress leaders have been vitriolic and highly personal. A populist agitation which reverberates with large sections of Indian society has only been further inflamed by needlessly provocative government actions.

Nevertheless, the methods adopted by Mr. Hazare must give pause to every Indian who retains faith in India’s constitutional democracy. As many other commentators have enumerated, his so-called Jan Lokpal bill itself suffers from many lacunae and is hardly the panacea to the ills of corruption. Worse, it appears to violate the constitutionally mandated division of power between different pillars of the state. In any case, no single body—howsoever constitutionally well-protected—can single-handedly tackle corruption which pervades virtually every aspect of Indian society.

But forget what may be wrong with Mr. Hazare’s bill for a moment. After all, the government’s proposed Lokpal bill is hardly perfect in itself and suffers from serious deficiencies which may severely handicap its functioning. What is truly troubling though is Mr. Hazare’s reliance on blatantly unconstitutional means to push forward his legislation. Instead of attempting to reform the system, he has harnessed populist disgust and attempted to hijack the entire political process. What is particularly offensive is his gimmickry resort to repeated bouts of fasting.

Mr. Hazare claims to be a Gandhian and it is quite true that Mr. Gandhi did quite cleverly utilise the moral power of hunger-strikes. However, adopting coercive tools—whether moral or military—against an imperialist government is entirely different from attempting to hold hostage a constitutionally elected one. And despite the overheated rhetoric and charged emotions, India is far removed from the black days of Emergency. India is a constitutional democracy where the right to protest is available to all her citizens. An Egypt or Tunisia she certainly is not. To talk in terms of revolutions or to draw parallels with “Arab Spring” is naively dangerous.

Furthermore, civil society is a word much bandied about these days. What is civil society? Who are its representatives? Mr. Hazare and his followers have attempted to monopolise the space for civil society but are they its only faces or voices? At least India’s parliamentarians face repeated electoral scrutiny; but here those who claime to wield moral power are essentially unaccountable.

In an ideal world, elections in a democracy are meant to be a contestation of ideas and policies. A facile answer to Mr. Hazare’s agitation would be to advise him to form a new political party and fight elections on an anti-corruption platform. Such a party, however, is unlikely to achieve significant electoral success—indeed, many of his middle class supporters may not even bother to turn up to vote. Well, in that case it might just mean that despite the protestations to the contrary, the vast majority of Indians truly care very little about corruption and are resigned to the status quo. That may be unfortunate but that’s how representative democracy functions—it does not always promote the best ideas or the most optimal policies.

Or perhaps the middle class India does care about corruption but simply feels that the current power brokers are so entrenched that reforming the system by engaging in the political process is well nigh impossible. That itself is troubling—when people feel disenfranchised by the political process, they are more likely to take recourse in extra-constitutional means. That explains to a large extent the popularity of Mr. Hazare’s movement among some sections of Indian society. How to restore the belief in the political process as an accessible agent for genuine change is a question which should exercise all Indians.

Fighting elections is certainly not the only way to influence public policy in a democratic setup. A genuine criticism of Mr. Hazare is that he has largely dismissed the pillars of Indian democracy as a ‘waste of time.’ Nevertheless, it is important to explore ways in which citizen engagement with representative institutions can be furthered. Perhaps, it may require strengthening laws like the Right to Information Act or open public hearings of parliamentary committee meetings or even institutional ways to facilitate the participation of policy and representative bodies in the law-making process.

The relative success of Mr. Hazare’s agitation should serve as a clarion call for the Indian political system.

Clearly, it is important to regain the trust of those who no longer feel vested in the Indian polity. Nevertheless, the government cannot accede to his demands or let him ride roughshod over a duly elected parliament. The consequences of such acquiescence for Indian democracy would be very troubling. And for those who see no way other than such unconstitutional gimmicks, the past record of such agitations should serve as a cautionary tale. Whether it is Jai Prakash Narayan’s “total revolution” or V.P Singh’s anti-corruption movement, they achieved little except further increasing the disillusionment with the political process by promising instant change. Indeed, Mr. Hazare’s repeated fasts and agitations have achieved few systemic reforms in his own home state of Maharashtra.

The process of change in a democracy is necessarily slow, difficult and challenging. There are no instant solutions and adopting constitutional means and respecting the political process is the only way to achieve sustainable change. The goal of eradicating corruption may be worthy but Anna Hazare’s means are blatantly wrong and ultimately dangerous. It is time this message is delivered to him: loud and clear.

3 Replies to “No counter-revolution please”

  1. sriharshav

    Perceptions are perceptions, no need to advocate them as concerns. Agreed changes in democracy takes time. But when people feel that the change is long due they resort to movements to expedite the process. It acts as balancing act in a functional democracy. But that doesn’t mean movements are against political process. No one is perfect in this world. If Anna’s methods are wrong then what kind of damage they caused to this society? What kind of consequences are being perceived? I iterate no need to advocate perceptions as concerns.

    Quite disappointing. I dont know why an entire article just to criticize someone. Situation could have been analyzed and options could have been suggested. But it just goes on mentioning “unconstitutional means to push forward his legislation”. Is govt at fault negotiating with so called unconstitutional acts of Anna.

    I didn’t understand what it means by respecting political process as the only solution. What is the rationale to think that peoples movement are against political process? What kind of guidelines framed by constitution that Anna violated? Personal criticism is easy but most ineffective way to convay any solution or ideology.

    Everyone agrees that we need to work out together to resolve issue of corruption as a nation which includes people as well as politicians. It’s a national issue that needs solutions fom several corners. And there cant be just one solution.

    Issue is so big that a simple political process can’t solve it. If so why Kashmir is pending for so many years? Why Punjab struggled for so many years? Can a political process stop child marriages? Can a political process stop communal riots? It is not a simple legislation against offenders of a particular offense. Its an offesnse that we as a nation committing every day. We all drive against traffic rules everyday. Which political process alone can stop us from doing so except a collective commitment?

    A social reform is not like an economic reform where just a political process can drive steer the nation together. Many more movements are required but not just to fight for a bill but to bring a change from grass root level in society. But certainly a good legislation is a first point for sure. Unless that is done not done in right spirit further steps can’t achieve any success however sincere the efforts may be.

    So there could be suggestions for Annas movements to make it more susceptible than dismantle it. For sure it turned out to be a good instrument to assess several social parameters of this plural society. In every movement there will be a scope for some unwanted and unwarranted behaviors o take place. But no movement can be discounted on the grounds of methods if it is peaceful, non-violent and operated within permissible legal grounds. Moreover methods are directed based on situations prevailing at that moment. And infact there is no harm in trying every possible non-violent method to curb this menace of corruption.

  2. brigajay


    1. Team Anna has achieved stupendous success in mobilising the masses to put pressure on the government to have a strong Lok Pal Bill introduced in parliament most probably in the winter session. Their larger aim is of course the fight against corruption and ensuring a honest and dedicated political setup in the country. These goals are definitely laudable and need of the hour, but is team Anna moving in the right direction? If not then what is the right direction?
    2. Jan Lokpal Bill. The government can introduce a strong Lokpal lBill in parliament taking into account all recommendations received from team Anna, Aruna Roy, Jai Prakash Narayan and others. This is what the UPA spokesperson has assured and has been reiterated by Mr Abhishek Singhvi. The parliament has also conveyed the pulse of both the houses of parliament to the standing committee. The chairman of the standing committee has further stated that though it has been given three months to finalise the Lokpal Bill, it will work overtime and beat the deadline. So what more does team Anna want? The least they can do is wait for the winter session of parliament to commence. If the UPA or any other party demonstrates their opposition to the bill then team Anna, backed by the people of this country can take them on by means of a Ram lila ground encore or active canvassing at the hustlings as an when elections or by-elections are announced. Anna Hazare’s declaration that, congress (UPA) has not given him a written assurance that they will get the jan lokpal bill passed in the winter session is outright ridiculous in a democracy. As per the constitution of India each member of the respective house has to vote according to his or her conscience and not as per party whip. Team Anna is implying just that i.e. UPA should ensure issue of party whip to have the bill passed. Anna must understand that even if the UPA wants to issue a party whip on the issue, it cannot commit that in writing. The other parties like the BJP have also merely assured him of support for the lokpal bill not that 100% NDA or BJP members will vote for the bill. Thus a BJP tilt becomes obvious. To a question during press conference in Hisar, Arvind Kejriwal could only uncomfortably murmur that they (team Anna) are not opposing Mayavati, though she is an opponent of the jan lokpal bill, because she does not have the numbers to have the Jjan lokpal bill passed in parliament. This beats logic. The righteous thing would be to canvass against all those who oppose the jan lokpal bill as had been stated by Anna during his fast at the Ram lila ground, wherein he exhorted the masses to force the MPs of their respective constituencies to ensure their party supports the Jan Lokpal Bill or face extinction at the polls. Now that stand has been conveniently modified, to vote against the Congress/UPA only. Lallu Yadav and Sharad Yadav had also opposed the bill so had Jayalalita but there is no word against them or their parties.
    3. Let me make a dispassionate attempt at examining sincerity of team Anna towards effectiveness in fighting against corruption. The monster named corruption can be effectively maimed in the following ways, in descending order of impact on corruption :-
    a. Cleanse the society leading to a socially evolved society by a mix of social education and indoctrination and stricter implementation of existing laws. If an Indian does not spit in Singapore or give bribes in UK so should he not in India either on his own or because of fear of the law.
    b. Ensure cleanup of the political system or implementation of political reforms. One major step towards achieving this would be debarring charge sheeted or History Sheeters from contesting elections. Another effective step would be in the form of directive to courts to dispose off pending cases against elected members of parliament/legislative assemblies on priority by establishing special courts to deal with their cases in a time bound manner. Team Anna can also help by floating a political party, winning elections and showing by example how to correctly govern the country. It is a tough option and failure here could send them into oblivion. To achieve something significant one has to stick ones head out even at the probability of it getting chopped.
    c. Bring back lakhs of crores of Rupees stashed in Swiss Banks and other cash havens. This is probably not on team Anna’s radar. Not being on the radar leads one to contemplate, is it because t this could point fingers at the government and opposition alike. The iron is hot so why doesn’t team Anna want to strike. In the current global scenario Germany and USA have succeeded in getting these details and the Germans are ready to share the details they have extracted by paying a Swiss Bank official and some details are also available with wikileaks.
    d. Appointment of Lokpal and Lok Ayukts. I have put this lower down because firstly appointment of Lokpal andLlok Ayukts would not only be tedious, but finding the right apolitical candidates acceptable to all would be a daunting task. The administrative apparatus to implement their charter and ensuring the members themselves remain above board and apolitical would require quite an effort. The CVC and Election Commission despite their relative independence from the government haven’t made much of a dent in cleansing their respective domains.
    e. Right to Recall. Anna Hazare has intimated that their next step would be to cleanse the political morass by campaigning for right to recall politically elected candidates, who do not perform in accordance with the will of the electorate or are dishonest. This again is a laudable initiative but practically very difficult if not impossible to implement. USA, Germany and many Latin American countries have a right to recall Act, but it is rarely used and extremely difficult to execute. Nitish Kumar has implemented a recall bill in Bihar, but only in respect of elected representatives of civic bodies and for member of the legislative assembly. This bill requires 2/3rd of the electorate to vote against the elected member of a civic body to ensure his recall. Mobilising such huge masses would be well neigh impossible. In any country it would be a herculean task to mobilise over 75% of the electorate to vote as only then we can expect a 67% negative vote against the elected representative to be recalled. Let us look at a successful recall in USA. In 2003 recall of Governor of California, Gray Davis and simultaneous election of Arnold Schwarznegger demonstrated to the American people, the power of a little used tool of direct democracy – ‘The Recall’. We must look at the extreme circumstances under which it was successful. Davis had inherited a 9 billion USD budget surplus, which during his term had turned into a 38 billion USD deficit. College fees had to be raised, health clinics were closed, various licence fees had to be doubled or tripled and there were electricity shortages. A Republican Congressman had to contribute 1.6 million USD of his own money to pay people to gather signatures on petition to recall Governor Davis. They had to collect 9,00,000 valid signatures to force the vote as Californian law requires at least 12% of the number who voted in the last election to qualify a recall. It is definitely an important tool of direct democracy which a Nation must have in it’s armoury, however it’s protagonists must be fully aware of the difficulty in its implementation, especially in a developing country like India.
    4. I would sincerely implore team Anna to give their fight against corruption a relook and concentrate on measures which will have quantifiable results in bringing down corruption and retrieving black money. Annaji certainly needs better advise and focus.

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