Special to ‘Financial Chronicle’, 25 August 2011

by Praful Bidwai

The government seems to be yielding ground to Anna Hazare’s campaign on the Jan Lokpal Bill. On the eighth day of his hunger strike, it conceded his demand to bring the Prime Minister under the legislation’s purview and Manmohan Singh wrote to him, urging him to end his fast and offering that the multi-party Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Personnel Committee would ask the Lok Sabha Speaker for permission to study the. Bill. The government's seniormost minister, Pranab Mukherjee, has been holding talks with Anna's aides.

This is the farthest that any government in India has gone to accommodate the demands of a mass agitation. The Hazare campaign has been totally uncompromising in its insistence that the official Lokpal Bill be dropped and its own Jan Lokpal Bill be passed in its entirety by August 30, on pain of the government being toppled. The government had earlier suggested that some features of Anna's Bill could be added as amendments to the government's legislation. Team Anna’s stand so far has been that setting up the Standing Committee is a mere "a delaying tactic" because its recommendations aren’t binding; Parliament itself must discuss the legislation.

Anna’s aides know they have the upper hand. Not only did the government mishandle the whole agitation, by pre-emptively arresting Hazare and then releasing him. It didn’t anticipate that he would refuse to leave jail, and even less that his team would mobilise the huge numbers of people that it did in several cities through the social media and the technology of using missed calls to have its supporters stay connected.

The key to understanding the government’s overall response lies in two factors: panic at what started as a middle class mobilisation; and second, the successful tactic of passing off a highly coercive method such as an indefinite fast as normal democratic protest. In the past, successive governments have ignored far bigger and sustained mobilisations on vastly more important issues such as land and food rights or displacement.

Hazare’s early success in mobilising the normally apolitical middle class, in particular its Twitter- and Facebook-loving upper layers, was remarkable. He dragged 24-hour television channels behind himself to a point where anchors zealously advocated his cause. His fast in April conjured up a virtual spectacle—much like the World Cup. Remarkably, the same middle class has dictated terms to the government on a range of issues: releasing terrorists in exchange for hostages on the hijacked Kandahar flight, getting affirmative action diluted through groups like Youth for Equality, and cornering subsidies meant for the underprivileged.

Since then, support for Hazare has snowballed—not least because of popular revulsion against corruption, on account of which ordinary people suffer. Also important was Hazare’s image as a simple, unassuming Gandhian, in contrast to our venal lawmakers, many of them millionaires or in service of Big Business.

Hazare has projected himself as a messiah and emerged as a parallel national power centre. His followers openly question even the legislative supremacy of Parliament. 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”! Such thinking is dangerous.

The government’s Bill is admittedly flawed and weak. But Hazare has no real solution to the problem of corruption. The Lokpal would come into the picture after corruption has already occurred. But to pre-empt, prevent and control corruption, it is necessary to look into many places, especially where it affects the poor. The Jan Lokpal Bill would create an exceedingly powerful apparatus, a virtual parallel government unaccountable to the people. It would subsume the CBI and the Central Vigilance Commission and usurp all kinds of police, investigative, punitive and quasi-judicial powers.

That doesn’t make sense in a democracy, where the executive has its autonomous function, subject to checks and balances, and to the overall separation of powers. Team Anna is completely wrong to demand a huge budget for the Lokpal—one-quarter of one percent of the government’s revenues.

Corruption doesn’t occur primarily, as Team Anna holds, because there’s a “lack of an independent, empowered, … anti-corruption institution”. The real reasons include a neoliberal policy regime that encourages privatisation of common property resources through sweetheart deals and a politician-bureaucrat-businessman nexus; the rise of greedy entrepreneurs; an increasingly compromised civil service; poorly monitored public service delivery; and a dysfunctional justice delivery system.

Correcting these will need electoral and administrative reform, social audit of important programmes, effective grievance redressal, transparency in appointments—and new laws on judicial accountability, whistleblower protection, and rights to public services. Some of these measures have been suggested in an alternative draft prepared by Aruna Roy and the right to information campaign. Team Anna is hostile to this.

Equally questionable are the methods deployed by Hazare’s campaign—with an ultimatum which sabotages the possibility of a real debate on the Bill and imposes the will of a handful of people on the nation. Majoritarianism isn’t democracy. Majoritarian movements can end up supporting Right-wing and authoritarian forces. Unfortunately, sections of Indian business are myopically backing Hazare, oblivious of the consequences. They will have to regret this.—end--