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September 3, 2011

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.


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