Frontline, April 23-May 6, 2011

Frontline Column: Beyond the Obvious

by Praful Bidwai

Hazare’s success in mobilising the normally apolitical middle class speaks of a strong revulsion against corruption and shows up huge flaws in the system. But it can also harm democratic politics.

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Anna Hazare has achieved what no political movement, campaign or party has accomplished in decades: namely, ensure the capitulation of the government on an important policy agenda. It is only very rarely that governments in India yield so completely on issues such as corruption and laws to curb and punish it. I cannot recall a single occasion since the mid-1970s when this has happened. The United Progressive Alliance was no exception to this. Indeed, it doggedly resisted even the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the 2G telecom scam and allowed a whole session of Parliament to be gutted—until it finally conceded the demand.

Hazare mobilised and energised the Twitter and Facebook-loving upper layers of the middle class and dragged behind himself the media, in particular 24-hour television channels, to a point where anchors became zealous advocates of his cause.

Through his indefinite fast on the Lokpal Bill issue, Hazare has emerged as a parallel national power centre. The fast conjured up a virtual spectacle—much like the Cricket World Cup. The government probably decided that it would be far too risky to let his campaign grow any further lest it be infiltrated, exploited or captured by its political opponents, or lead to an uncontrollable situation. On Day 4 of the fast, it conceded the demand for a joint committee for drafting the Lokpal Bill, with equal representation from government and civil society nominees.

This too is totally unprecedented. Typically, the government limits civil society representation in any advisory or consultative committee to a small proportion of the total.

Hopefully, the committee will produce a Bill that is far worthier than the officially drafted legislation, which protects corruption in a number of ways. It restricts complaints to the Lokpal to those that have been routed through the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. It exempts civil servants from the Lokpal’s purview.

The Bill gives the Lokpal no powers of prosecution and makes his/her decisions purely recommendatory, thus giving the government the freedom to decide whether to act on them or not. It also limits investigation into past corruption cases to only two years. It is not difficult to improve upon the Bill. The drafting committee can be expected to produce a legislation that gives the fight against corruption some real strength.

That said, the whole manner in which Anna Hazare and his group ran their campaign, the group’s composition, and part of its larger agenda raise uncomfortable questions. Contrary to media claims, the campaign was not spontaneous, but carefully planned and well organised. It was planned at least two months in advance to begin on April 5. A participant, who was interviewed on television, confirmed this, including the date. So did the networks run by yoga guru Baba Ramdev and Art of Living leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The organisers used a toll-free number in Mumbai and managed social networks to enthuse people to join Hazare’s fast or express solidarity with it through candlelight vigils in numerous cities.

The campaign’s organisers made their first attempt to focus on the issue of corruption one-and-a-half years ago, when they lobbied for Kiran Bedi, a former Indian Police Service officer, to be appointed as the Chief Information Commissioner after the end of Wajahat Habibullah’s tenure. They launched “India Against Corruption” and held two rallies in Delhi. One of them was held at Jantar Mantar in November last. Ramdev’s Aastha channel gave these extensive publicity. But these did not attract much public attention.

That is when the organisers decided to rope in Anna Hazare. The key organisers included Kiran Bedi, NGO Parivartan’s Arvind Kejriwal, and Ramdev, and secondarily, Rashtriya Lok Dal MP Mahmud Madani, the Delhi diocese’s Archbishop Vincent Concessao and Swami Agnivesh. Hazare has established himself as a crusader against corruption in Maharashtra, having forced some corrupt ministers to resign. With his image as a Gandhian who has a Spartan lifestyle and a high moral stature, Hazare clicked instantly.

“India Against Corruption” took off in a big way. Over 4 million Twitter messages were mobilised. So were a few hundred to several hundred citizen volunteers, including high-profile Bollywood figures like Aamir Khan, Shabana Azmi, Tom Alter and Anupam Kher. Many of the slogans of the campaign, including the branding of all 543 Lok Sabha MPs as “thieves” and defenders of corruption, betray well-entrenched middle class prejudices.

This is the same social stratum, the top 15 percent of the population, which rarely votes in elections, and has contempt not just for politicians, but for the political process of democracy itself. This elite does not experience corruption or is at its receiving end in the way the bulk of the poor are. But it has convinced itself that corruption is the primary drag on India’s progress towards Great Powerhood.

In many ways, it is the same social group that had led the anti-Mandal and anti-affirmative action agitations of the past. This class is fiercely individualistic and by and large believes the poor are what they are because they, unlike itself, are not enterprising enough. It was no surprise that some staunchly elitist organisations like the Delhi Medical Association and Residents’ Welfare Associations—notorious for its anti-poor stance during the demolition drive in Delhi—turned up enthusiastically to back Hazare.

The antecedents of some of the key individuals are open to question. Ramdev, for instance, works closely with RSS pracharak KN Govindacharya in the Bharat Swabhiman movement and is himself close to the Sangh ideology. Bedi scarcely hides her ambition to play a larger-than-life role in social and political affairs. Ravi Shankar too propagates deeply conservative ideas. Hazare himself is politically naïve and adheres to a crude, chauvinist form of nationalism—as his lurid and outsized depiction of Bharat Mata on a map of India and his glorification of Shivaji suggest.

Hazare claims to be a Gandhian, but told his admirers that it is not enough to gaol the corrupt; they must be hanged. He said: “You might wonder how a Gandhian like me is talking about violent methods like hanging, but in today’s context, the need is not of Mahatma Gandhi but of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.”

The Hazare campaign poses other problems too. Its own draft Lokpal Bill will concentrate too much power in the hands of one person, without the checks and balances that are central to democracy. The accumulation of boundless privileges and placing of all kinds of agencies under the Lokpal would violate the principle of separation of powers. He/she will be more like the cartoon strip hero Judge Dredd, who dispenses instant justice while riding an enormously powerful motorcycle.

The Lokpal’s appointment is to be recommended by all manner of people, including Nobel Prize winners of Indian origin, recipients of the Indian government’s Padma awards, and yes, Magsaysay prize winners, a category to which some of the campaign’s leaders belong. None of them, barring the Lok Sabha Speaker, is an elected representative of the people, with legitimacy deriving from the election.

However, this is part of a larger obsession of the campaign: it claims to speak in the name of the people. Civil society organisations are self-created, voluntary and self-appointed. They cannot lay claim to democratic legitimacy based on the principle of representation or accountability. They must not arrogate this role to themselves.

Various political parties, especially the Nationalist Congress—whose president Sharad Pawar Hazare has long targeted, and who resigned from the Group of Ministers on corruption—and the Samajwadi Party have criticised Hazare’s campaign on this ground and for interfering with the legitimate function of Parliament to enact laws. Yet others have condemned its arrogance and its bypassing of the political institutions of democracy on the ground that India has a functioning democracy.

This point is only partly valid. India’s political system is marked by numerous failures and inability to deal with major issues of concern to the people, including predatory neoliberal policies, dysfunctional public service delivery, and widespread corruption. Our political parties do not respond to this dysfunctional state of affairs and have failed to mobilise the public on relevant issues. People like Hazare have stepped into the vacuum. Their agenda is problematic and can lead to dangerous forms of vigilantism. Nothing will stop the likes of Hazare, and more dangerous, Ramdev, from branding specific individuals corrupt and demanding their resignation by applying the pressure of middle-class mobilisation and by exploiting the elite’s distrust of politics itself.

Hazare has already undercut the National Advisory Council which was debating an alternative Lokpal Bill. The NAC enjoys legitimacy because it was appointed by an elected government. Other institutions too could soon be weakened or bypassed.

Yet, so long as the political class continues to malfunction and refuses to address issues of urgent relevance to the people, such movements will grow, jolt the system, and create parallel power centres, which regrettably are accountable to nobody.