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Overruling democracy

by Praful Bidwai, 27 August 2011

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The News International

27 August 2011

No government in India has bent over backwards to please a civil society campaign as much as the Manmohan Singh government in respect of the Jan Lokpal (ombudsman) Bill, drafted by a small group, including Anna Hazare, nominated by an NGO called India against Corruption (IAC). And no individual act has recently attracted as much popular support as Hazare’s fast for the passage of the bill on terms dictated by him.

At the time of writing, Hazare hasn’t broken his fast, but offered to do so if parliament accepts his terms. The result of the drama unfolding over the past fortnight is that India may have a somewhat stronger Lokpal than intended by the government. But the Lokpal will also probably have excessive powers and inadequate public accountability. A lot will depend on how wisely parliament’s standing committee on legal matters handles the issue, and whether Team Anna shows more flexibility than it has done so far.

Whatever happens, the government’s ham-handed actions have set several precedents. One of them strengthens a particular type of potentially vigilantist civil society movements, which bypass the normal processes of democracy and claim moral authority superior to that of the people’s elected representatives.

The government wasn’t sincere about the Lokpal issue and drafted a badly flawed bill. But IAC’s Jan Lokpal Bill too is substantively flawed. An all-powerful Lokpal is no magic wand against corruption. The Lokpal would enter the picture only after corruption has occurred. But to pre-empt and control corruption, especially where it affects the poor, other means are needed.

The IAC bill would virtually create a parallel government, a gigantic apparatus that subsumes the Central Bureau of Investigation and Central Vigilance Commission and usurps all kinds of police, investigative, prosecution and quasi-judicial powers. This violates the principle of separation of powers which is vital to democracy. The Lokpal would also “approve interception and monitoring of messages of data or voice transmitted through telephones, internet or any other medium...”

Corruption doesn’t occur primarily, as Team Anna holds, because there’s no “independent, empowered...anti-corruption institution.” The real reasons include unequal access to centres of power and seeking rent to enable such access; neoliberal policies that encourage privatisation of common property resources through sweetheart deals; the rise of super-greedy entrepreneurs; increasingly compromised civil servants; poorly monitored public service delivery; and a dysfunctional justice delivery system.

Correcting these will need electoral and administrative reforms, social audit of important programmes, good grievance redressal, and new laws on judicial accountability, whistleblower protection, and rights to public services. Some of these measures have been suggested by another citizens’ group, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. Anna Hazare has ignored them.

Hazare has been projected as a messiah and a parallel national power centre. His team demands that its bill be instantly passed in its pristine form – on pain of the government being toppled. This subverts debate and imposes the will of a handful of people on the nation.

Team Hazare members openly question even parliament’s legislative supremacy. The argument is: democracy is the rule of the people, and we alone represent the people. Just look at the crowds in Ramlila Maidan and you’ll understand, as Kiran Bedi memorably said, that “Anna is India and India is Anna”!

But majoritarianism isn’t democracy. It easily evolves into right-wing authoritarianism. It’s equally dangerous to pass off a highly coercive tactic like a fast-unto-death as normal democratic protest.

The government’s capitulation to the Hazare campaign had little to do with the Jan Lokpal Bill’s merits, or the government’s newfound respect for civil society or democratic dissent. The government capitulated, as it always does, when faced with a movement with an elite character.

The movement has attracted ordinary people’s support because of widespread revulsion against corruption, not positive support for the Jan Lokpal Bill. But the original campaign, launched in April, was Facebook- and Twitter-driven. It mobilised upper-middle-class people through the technology of using free missed calls to have them answered. A telecom company provided it, and somebody paid a pretty penny for the 13 million calls answered by Aug 15.

The middle class has dictated terms to the government on many issues for many years: exchanging terrorists for civilian hostages on the IC-814 flight hijacked to Kandahar in 1999, and getting affirmative action diluted in the 2000s through groups like Youth for Equality.

The agitation against affirmative action was driven by hatred of the “low” castes, or “chura-chamars.” The present campaign is motivated by disdain for democratic politics. But there’s continuity between the two. That’s one reason why Dalits, low-caste Hindus, and large numbers of Muslims are cold towards Hazare’s movement or suspicious of it.

Hazare has repeatedly said that existing democratic politics is itself corrupt. He doesn’t believe in elections because people “cast their vote under the influence of Rs 100 or a bottle of liquor ....” This cynical view shows utter contempt for the Indian people who have repeatedly punished corrupt or under-performing politicians through elections.

There’s a difference, though. The elite strata which have planned and lead the core of this agitation have a specifically corporate character. They are all products of post-1991 neoliberal policies and belong to new service sector businesses like Information Technology.

These strata worship their CEOs and are servile towards corporate hierarchy. They have had no exposure whatever to ordinary people. They love spectacles akin to the cricket World Cup, created by 24-hour news channels. Hazare’s fast is just that.

There has also been corporate funding of the Lokpal movement. NGOs run by Hazare’s close supporters have received millions of dollars in corporate and Ford Foundation donations.

This past January, 14 industrialists wrote a letter to Prime Minister Singh complaining of a “widespread governance deficit,” and pressing for an anti-corruption ombudsman. Since then, London-based controversial businessman S P Hinduja (God bless his pure soul!) has held forth on corruption and the need for a Lokpal. Strongly pro-corporate media groups lead the Jan Lokpal campaign.

It’s as if a large chunk of businessmen had decided to ditch the Congress-led UPA government because it’s not delivering “second generation” neoliberal policies such as reckless privatisation and dismantlement of such paltry labour protection as exists. Many industrialists are perhaps suspicious of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s mildly left-of-centre political bent and her inaccessibility. Logically, this means they would opt for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

This fits in with the involvement of Hindutva forces in the Hazare campaign, frankly admitted by Sushma Swaraj in parliament on Aug 17, and confirmed by the BJP president’s Aug 26 letter to Hazare. The RSS has long tried to tap into popular sentiment against corruption. Three years ago, it roped in Hazare and Baba Ramdev. It got its ideologue K N Govindacharya to set up the rabidly communal Bharat Swabhiman Trust with Ramdev.

Ramdev’s network logistically sustained IAC before and through Hazare’s Jantar Mantar fast in April. However, Ramdev’s own fast following Hazare’s proved an embarrassment and the RSS zeroed in exclusively on Hazare.

A movement of which Hazare is the figurehead, but which is controlled externally and clandestinely, has the potential to destabilise the government from the right. This does not bode well for Indian’s democracy.

The writer Praful Bidwai, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1


The above article from The News is reproduced here for educational purposes and is for non commercial use