27 August 2011

Anna, Bapu, Corruption, and Democracy - An Appeal

Anna Hazare's fast unto death from 16 August 2011 at Ramlila maidan, New Delhi,  is a crusade against corruption that has taken the nation by storm. The unprecedented peoples participation was neither expected by  the organizers of India Against Corruption (IAC) nor the Government of India. Much has been said in favour and against  (for a repository of some of the write-ups see  Jan Lokpal Bill and Anna Hazare). I am not reviewing any of these positions here. I just have a few independent observations to make.

First, Anna's fast and the non-violent nature of the movement has its roots with Bapu, the father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi.  This brings into our domain the parallels with other recent people power based non-violent struggle such as the Tunisian and  Egyptian revolutions or the Burmese struggle (see the two Reith lectures by Aung San Suu Kyi on Liberty and Dissent).

Second, different sections of the polity impute different meanings and have identified it in some way. It brings with it a hope for a just and fair society. Even those who disagree with team Anna's version and their method or approach agree that corruption needs to be done away with it. Put in other words, it is a call for doing away with vested interest. This is easier said than done as those powerful entities who have been benefiting will oppose. A protracted battle and dilly dallying is only expected.

At the core of contention is the Lokpal Bill against corruption, which was first introduced in the Parliament of India 42 years ago in 1968, but even after a number of modifications has not seen the light of the day. In recent years, the civil society spearheaded by IAC has come with an alternative Jan Lokpal Bill (Peoples Ombudsman Bill) and wants this version to be discussed in the parliament so that it forms a base for strong anti-corruption laws. The National Campaign for Peoples' Right to Information (NCPRI) have come up with another version. Some of the major differences in these three versions are with regard to the inclusion of the Prime Minister, inclusion of lower level Government functionaries, inclusion of civil society's that receive public funding, and separation of judiciary among others. One feels that good points from all versions can be taken to come up with a strong Lokpal Bill.

While discussing corruption, I want to take a small digression as this reminds me of a lecture given by one of my teachers (Professor Sourindra Barik, a Sahitya Akademi award winner in 1988)  when I was in college about 25 years ago. He said that  tacit toleration or in a sense acceptance of corruption is a matter of degree. For instance, if you want to meet an official and if the peon is preventing you from meeting the person then you grease the person by offering two paans or a five rupee note and you may not be happy about it but brush it aside and think that ye chalta hai (it is fine). But, after meeting the officer if you are told that your work will be done only if you pay (say, Rs.10,000 or some amount that you consider is substantial)  then it will not be at a toleration/acceptance level, but you still cannot do anything about it - either you pay  and get your work done or wait endlessly. In the current movement, the support of people is to show their solidarity to something they did not know what to do. Having got an opportunity, they are saying it loud  and clear that our toleration/acceptance levels have breached and please do something about it. 

This takes us to our last, but not the least, point - the relevance of democracy. On the one hand, we have a non-violent people-based movement. On the other hand, we have the movement raising some questions on parliamentary propriety.  The question before us in a democratic polity is whether people are supreme or is the parliament supreme - a catch 22.
A democracy is by the people for the people and of the people. But, then it cannot be based on peoples whims and  fancies - however  reasonable the propositions may be.  To weed out vested interests, there are some norms and institutions.  There is a basic structure required for a democracy to function. They are, as laid down in our  Constitution,  the separation of powers between the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary and then we have the fourth estate - the media.   The question here is if the persons  (or, a dominant section of them) manning the important institutions themselves espouse some powerful vested interest then how do we go about. 

Business as usual is not an option. In the current scenario, there is a need for peoples power indicated through the crusade against corruption to converge with Constitutional propriety. How? In this seeming disagreement, deliberative processes should be initiated to to bring about agreement and order. Some possible suggestions are the following.

First, all parties agree for a strong anti-graft law. Second, the Government agrees to initiate the deliberations in the Parliament in a sincere, honest and transparent manner and discuss all versions and takes the best points from all of these.  Third, transparency requires that the deliberations are open to public so that they know who takes what positions (if possible to include the positions that the Bureaucrats take while providing suggestions).  Fourth, this important discussion requires an open voting by each individual  based on her or his own judgment and constituencies requirement. In short, no party can issue a whip on this.  Fifth, as this is an open-ended discussion that all political parties have committed to, the outcome of the voting will not be construed as a vote for or against the Government. Sixth, all peoples representative should discuss with people from their constituencies as also the civil society and others to form a reasoned opinion.  Seventh, provision may be made by the Government to interact with different representatives of the civil society as and when the situation warrants.

Before I end, I should commend the civil society and their representatives for getting this process on. As I see, this is going to be a long drawn-out struggle. Quoting Robert Frost I can only reiterate: "And miles to go before I sleep,  And miles to go before I sleep." Hence, my humble request to Shri Anna Hazare. Sir,  please  give up your fast. If you so desire, continue it in a limited way, as per your Doctor's advise.   But, please do give up your fast.

Long live Democracy! Long live Mother India. 

(Those interested may see my earlier blog In Defense of Anna Hazare written on 13 April 2011 during his first round of fasting that led to the formation of a joint committee for drafting an anti-graft bill, but differences between them led to the Government and the civil society coming with two versions, and hence, the current logjam).

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