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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