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Monday, April 11, 2011

Fast Times in Modern Democracy?

Anna Hazare’s “fast unto death” is a throwback to more innocent times when the oppressor was colonial, clearly identified and vilified. Today, it is infinitely more complex. Hazare on a protest fast may evoke a longing for the black and white simplicity of yesteryear. The nostalgic appeal has sparked a cyber rush among young chatterati who wander aimlessly through the hills and dales of social networks, seeking company, making connections, buying and selling ideas and products.

If you cut back to the 1080i high definition picture of modern life with its 5.1 surround sound track, you’ll find that Hazare and his handlers have cleverly manipulated an old symbol made famous by Mohandas Gandhi. Calling it a fast against corruption, Hazare has touched a chord among young cyber savvy Indians, who see in the old man’s protest a chance to fulfill their youthful aspirations to revolt against the system. Budapest in the 1950s; Paris and Chicago in the 1960s; Beijing in the 1980s; Prague in the 1990; Cairo and Tunis recently and now Delhi.

Clearly, the seemingly innocent khadi-clad activist and his wily handlers have managed to rally young netizens. By calling it a fight against corruption, they have cleverly deflected the glare from the hard political demand underlying the fast: give civil society activists a role in framing laws; a demand no government can concede without violating its oath to uphold the Constitution.

The notion that civil society activists must be given a say in the framing of the anti-corruption law is misbegotten. No matter how righteous the cause; no matter how pious the protest, activists have no locus standi as lawmakers. The Constitution is very clear on the separation of powers and reserves the law making function to elected representatives.

Stripped of its saintly posture, Hazare’s protest is a challenge to the Constitution. Dreamy and romantic netizens, who have been set all a-twitter by it, don’t seem to realize that Hazare and his handlers have been active since the 1970s. Styled as people’s movements, these groups have never embraced the Constitution as the final arbiter of political, social, economic and cultural diversity. Theirs was always a higher cause.

The Constitution has helped India negotiate diversity, poverty and various challenges to emerge as one of the world’s fastest growing countries. Its government now has a seat at the high table of international diplomacy; its economy has lifted millions from abysmal poverty; its political system consists of the exercise of the largest franchise in the world blessed with a “throw the rascals out” mindset of the electorate.

Hazare’s crusade draws ideological inspiration from Hind Swaraj, the Gandhian diatribe against modernity. Corruption seems to be merely a cause recruited in the long-term campaign against modernity. It’s a clever choice because indeed corruption is public affairs topic one.

Fed up with incessant reports about large-scale corruption, influenced by the Jasmine scents of Tunisia and Egypt, hundreds of young people have rallied to the cause. In North Africa, the targets were clear cut: long ruling dictators. Here there is a democratically elected government. Even if the protest can draw hundreds of thousands of people into the streets; even if the most righteous, learned and saintly people turn out; they cannot challenge the legitimacy of an elected government.

What Hazare and his fellow travelers are saying is not new; they’re on a well-charted path laid out in Gandhi’s book. They damn the entire political process as corrupt and seek to replace it with high-minded vigilantism. Even if it is composed of angels and saints, a vigilante group has no place in a modern constitutional democracy.

This article appeared in The Economic Times, April 10, 2011.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Is the Jan Lokpal Bill the answer?

Posted on Apr 07, 2011 at 12:12pm IST

What is Anna Hazare really campaigning for? To Indian citizens, his courageous display of moral outrage represents a crusade against corruption. This is a time when the ruling UPA Administration is beleaguered not only by the surfacing of a number of big-ticket scams but also by its inability to act firmly against the people seen to be the perpetrators. No wonder, then, that Hazare’s fast has become for angry Indians a potent symbol of protest against dishonesty. And it is this that has become a clarion call for citizens raising their voice – online and offline.

However, the majority of his newfound supporters are probably not aware of the precise nature of Hazare’s demands. He is asking for a drastically revised version of the Lokpal Bill, the draft legislation that seeks to set up a body to investigate accusations of corruption against individuals and institutions within the government and the administrative machinery around the country. Or, against public servants.

An alternative version of this Bill, dubbed the Jan Lokpal Bill, has been drafted by, inter alia, former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan, former IPS officer Kiran Bedi, Justice N. Santosh Hegde, renowned advocate Prashant Bhushan and former chief election commissioner J. M. Lyngdoh. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this version: it seeks to virtually bypass the involvement of the government in the process of creating the Lokpal body.

Thus, the selection committee it envisages would include, among others, all laureates of Indian origin, the last two Magsaysay Prize winners of Indian origin, the two seniormost judges of the Supreme Court and of the High Courts, and Bharat Ratna award winners. The Administration would be represented by the chairpersons of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, the Chief Election Commissioner and the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Clearly, this version sees no role for the people who have been democratically elected to govern the country. The message runs deep: to adopt such a system would be to acknowledge the failure of democracy as an institution, and install a vigilante-oriented body that can act on its own discretion in terms of what and whom to investigate and has police powers to prosecute perceived transgressors.

There is a naïve idealism imbued in this alternative structure, implying that the women and men who will be members of the Lokpal will be perfect citizens with no agenda other than weeding out corruption. But its powers will be sweeping, and with no checks and balances, what will prevent such a body from turning into a motivated, witch-hunting mchanism? The wheels of the administration may grind frustratingly slowly, but that also reduces the chances of the kind of arbitrary prosecution that India saw during the Emergency.

For instance, among the activities that the Bill considers as evidence of corruption are:

1. Gross or willful negligence; recklessness in decision making; blatant violations of systems and procedures; exercise of discretion in excess, where no ostensible/public interest is evident; failure to keep the controlling authority/superiors informed in time.

2. Failure/delay in taking action, if under law the government servant ought to do so, against subordinates on complaints of corruption or dereliction of duties or abuse of office by the subordinates.

3. Indulging in discrimination through one’s conduct, directly or indirectly.

It is not difficult to see the room for interpretation here, leading to persecution rather than prosecution. In effect, the Jan Lokpal Bill wants to arm the Lokpal with powers that combine the Legislative, the Judiciary and the Administrative. The way its creators see it, it can set policy, investigate and prosecute, and sit in judgment.

Step back further, and a larger question presents itself. Are democratically elected and constituted institutions no longer to run this country? The extreme measures proposed in this ‘people’s version’ are a measure of the unhappiness, frustration and anger within civil society at what appears to be the tacit complicitness of government in corruption. However, to demand sweeping powers on the basis of moral outrage is another matter altogether.

None of this is to disparage the purity of Anna Hazare’s mission - or the Indian citizen’s eagerness to join hands with him in what is perceived as a crusade against corruption. But in its present form, the Jan Lokpal Bill may only substitute one monster with another.