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Jan Lokpal: an alternative view

by K N Panikkar, 22 April 2011

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From: The Hindu, April 19, 2011

K. N. Panikkar

Given the scale of corruption in India, the constitution of a Jan Lokpal will be a welcome initiative. But the proposed Lokpal has the makings of a super-monster.

After 42 years of hesitation and uncertainty, an institutional mechanism to deal with the all-pervasive incidence of corruption in India is in sight. What apparently moved the state machinery was the agitation spearheaded by Anna Hazare, which drew spontaneous support primarily in the metropolitan cities. Within five days of Anna Hazare starting a ‘fast unto death’ at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, the Government of India conceded his demand to constitute a committee to draft a bill to establish the institution of a Lokpal at the Centre.

This was quite different from the past practices of the Indian state. Remember Potti Sriramulu, who at the end of a prolonged fast sacrificed his life for the formation of Andhra Pradesh. And Irom Sharmila has been on a hunger strike for more than 10 years, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

Nevertheless, the developments leading to the constitution of the committee to draft a Lokpal bill, and the provisions of the draft bill, raise fundamental questions about the working of Indian democracy. Some of these questions demand urgent attention before a bill is piloted in Parliament.

In the matter of deciding the composition and the terms of reference of the committee, Anna Hazare appears to have exercised decisive influence. He chose the “representatives of civil society” and the government accepted his suggestions. The committee consists of five “representatives of civil society,” and five Union Ministers representing the government. Welcoming the initiative, the Prime Minister has said that the “coming together of the government and civil society is a step that augurs well for democracy.” But it should be apparent that no democratic principle was followed in the constitution of the committee. The civil society representatives were handpicked by Anna, and the government nominees do not reflect the diverse political opinion that is represented in Parliament.

A Magsaysay award winner, Anna Hazare brought to the movement against corruption his considerable reputation and the moral strength derived from his social work in a village in Maharashtra, Ralegan Siddhi. But the methods he has adopted to press his demand have raised eyebrows. Many people believe that the hunger strike he undertook and the ultimatum he served were coercive in nature and have no place in a democracy. The attempt made by some of his followers to equate him with Gandhiji need not be taken seriously, as neither his ideas nor his methods justify such a claim. Nevertheless, his Gandhian credentials have earned him recognition from the state and civil society. Although he claims to be apolitical, he entertains a deep distrust of politics and politicians.

Paradoxically, he has sought the help of the political system to deal with the malaise of corruption. If he had chosen the moral path, he would have addressed the social conditions that made corruption possible. Yet, supported by a few civil society activists and projected by a section of the English media as a saviour of the nation, Anna acquired a larger-than-life stature that appeared to have punctured the government’s self-assurance.

His agitation has been lionised by some people as a second freedom struggle. But it appears to have escaped general notice that “the assertion of a few to represent the majority” without any representative character is essentially anti-democratic. The emotional, even unthinking, support that Anna Hazare commanded is understandable, given the widespread corruption indulged in by the political elite and the bureaucracy.

However, it is the timing of the agitation rather than the moral content of the campaign that accounts for the popular response. The neo-liberal policies pursued by the ruling elite had opened up the possibility of corruption in the massive transfer of public assets and the promotion of corporate interests through political patronage. Both the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the United Progressive Alliance under the leadership of the Congress were bedfellows in promoting privatisation and inviting foreign capital to modernise India. The unprecedented levels of corruption in recent times are a concomitant of the economic conditions created by liberalisation.

Corruption is a complex issue that is embedded in bureaucratic rigidity and issues of economic access and political power. In this sense, the state is the main promoter of corruption. It cannot be reduced to a question of morality alone, nor can a solution be found by punishing individuals as a deterrent. Such a solution, however, will be most welcome to the state and its functionaries, and even to the liberal intelligentsia. It appears that corruption is a great unifier. For Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption platform attracted the former police officer Kiran Bedi and Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh, along with communalists like Ram Madhav and religious entrepreneurs such as Baba Ramdev and Sri Ravi Shankar on the same platform. Not only were communalists and rightwing elements part of his entourage, but Anna extended his ‘blessings’ to the likes of Narendra Modi by praising the Gujarat model of development, ignoring in the process the moral problem that is so dear to his heart.

It is tragic that a person who believes that morality is neutral is being celebrated as the ‘saviour’ of the nation in some quarters, including the government. But the state’s favorable demeanour towards Anna is not surprising. So long as Anna Hazare, or for that matter anybody else, does not raise systemic and institutional issues, and only champions reformist measures, the state will have no problem in promoting them. In fact, the state’s attempt will be to ‘instrumentalise’ them.

As a result, Anna Hazare and his committee may end up as apologists for the state-run machinery of corruption. For it is not the absence of law that prevents action against the guilty, but the absence of a political will to do so. For a crisis-ridden government, the periodic appearance of the likes of Anna Hazare, and their reformist agendas, are safety valves. The government functionaries who are sharing the table with Anna now may help create another fortress around the beleaguered state.

The committee that was quickly constituted on the basis of mutual consent between Anna and the government has started its deliberations. More than one draft bill was presented at its first meeting, and therefore it is premature to discuss the provisions. Yet, there are some visible directions. Anna Hazare’s authoritarian approach to social problems, as is evident in the social ambience created in Ralegan Siddhi, and the principle of centralisation of authority that the state follows (in the matter of the National Council for Higher Education and Research Bill, for instance) find a common resonance in the drafts. They envision the Lokpal functioning in a social vacuum as a super-judicial authority, undermining the existing judicial system — which, all said and done, has withstood the pressures and preserved the rights of citizens. There is nothing in the draft to suggest that the Lokpal will bring to bear a greater sense of transparency and accountability of the system than what the existing institutions have so far achieved.

The aim of the bill is not to prevent corruption but to punish the corrupt. In this respect, the draft does not provide an approach that is qualitatively different from that of the existing institutions of the state. Only when a transparent system is put in place will the prevention of corruption become possible. Social audit does not necessarily create such transparency. The process of decision-making has to be fundamentally altered in order to ensure transparency. The targets should be the conditions that make corruption possible; that requires a complete overhauling of the existing mode of government management.

Given the scale and influence of corruption in India, the constitution of a Jan Lokpal will be a welcome initiative. But the proposed Lokpal has the makings of a super-monster. By absorbing all existing anti-corruption agencies, the Lokpal will have complete powers of independent investigation and prosecution. It will be an institution with overriding powers — but without any accountability. As such, it goes against all norms of democratic functioning. If the Jan Lokpal is to live up to its jan character, its authoritarian and centralised structure should be dispensed with and it should be turned into an instrument of people’s empowerment. A beginning towards this end should be made at the formative stage itself by sending the draft bill to every panchayat for discussion, so that nation’s conscience is truly aroused.

(Dr. K.N. Panikkar, a former Professor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, is at knpanikkar [at]

See also a video recording of Professor K N Panikkar speaking to the media on in New Delhi on 22 April 2011