carried in The Kashmir Times, Lokma...

By Praful Bidwai

No government in India has bent over backwards to please a civil society campaign as much as the Manmohan Singh government, in respect of the Jan Lokpal (ombudsman) Bill, drafted by a small group of people, including Anna Hazare, nominated by an NGO called India against Corruption (IAC). And no single individual’s act has recently attracted as much popular support as Mr Hazare’s fast for passing the Bill on terms dictated by him by an impossibly short deadline.

The result of the drama unfolding over the past fortnight is that India may have a somewhat stronger Lokpal than intended in the flawed official Bill. But the Lokpal will also probably have excessive power and inadequate accountability. A lot will depend on how wisely Parliament’s Standing Committee on legal matters handles the issue, and whether Team Anna shows more flexibility than it has done so far.

Equally important, the government’s strong-arm tactics and inept actions have set a precedent, which strengthens a particular type of civil society movements, which bypass the normal processes of democracy. They lay claim to moral authority superior to that of the elected representatives of the people and have a dangerous potential for vigilantism.

The government wasn’t sincere about the Lokpal and drafted a badly flawed Bill. But IAC’s Jan Lokpal Bill too is substantively flawed, and its method coercive and undemocratic. An all-powerful Lokpal is no magic wand against corruption. The Lokpal would enter the picture only after corruption has occurred. But to pre-empt, prevent and control corruption, especially where it affects the poor, other means are needed.

The Bill would virtually create a parallel government, a gigantic apparatus that subsumes the CBI and the Central Vigilance Commission and usurps all kinds of police, investigative, prosecution, punitive and quasi-judicial powers, with a huge budget (one-quarter of one percent of the government’s revenues). This violates the principle of separation of powers which is vital to democracy. The Lokpal would also “approve interception and monitoring of messages of data or voice transmitted through telephones, internet or any other medium …”. The Lokpal fund would be given 10 percent of the money confiscated under his/her orders. This is self-serving.

There can be no single-shot solution to the problem of corruption. 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 unequal access to centres of power and seeking rent to enable such access; a neoliberal policy regime that encourages privatisation of common property resources through sweetheart deals and a politician-bureaucrat-businessman nexus; the rise of super-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, good 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 by Aruna Roy and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. Team Anna has ignored them.

Mr Hazare has been projected as a messiah and a parallel national power centre. Team Anna demands that its Bill be instantly passed in its pristine form without negotiation—on pain of the government being toppled. This ultimatum subverts the possibility of a real debate on the Bill and imposes the will of a handful of people on the nation.

Team Anna members openly question even Parliament’s legislative supremacy. Their 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”! But majoritarianism isn’t democracy. Majoritarian movements can easily take a Right-wing authoritarian turn. It’s equally dangerous to pass off a highly coercive tactic like a fast-unto-death as normal democratic protest. Mr Hazare gave an undertaking to the police that he wouldn’t fast unto death. But Team Anna has been shifting the goalposts on this.

The government’s capitulation to the Hazare campaign had little to do with the Jan Lokpal Bill’s merits, or the genuineness of Dr Singh’s new-found respect for civil society or democratic dissent. The government capitulated, as it always does, when faced with a movement with a middle class or elite character.

The movement has since attracted ordinary people’s support because of widespread revulsion against corruption, not informed agreement with the Jan Lokpal Bill. It snowballed after Mr Hazare’s wrongful pre-emptive arrest and release. Thousands of poor people thronged Ramlila Maidan, and dabbawalas joined the protests in Mumbai.

Yet it bears recalling that the original campaign, launched in April, was Facebook- and Twitter-driven. It mobilised upper middle class people in the big cities through the technology of using free missed calls to have its supporters stay connected. A telecom company provided the technology, and somebody paid a pretty penny for the millions of calls answered. (According to the IAC website, 13 million were answered by August 15.)

The middle class has dictated terms to the government on many issues for many years: exchanging terrorists for civilian hostages on the IC-814 flight hijacked to Kandahar in 1999, and getting affirmative action under the Mandal commission’s recommendations diluted in the 2000s through groups like Youth for Equality.

The agitation against affirmative action was driven by hatred of the “low” castes and “chura chamars”. The present campaign is motivated by disdain for democratic politics and hatred of all politicians. But there’s continuity between the two movements in personnel and in slogans like “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. That’s one reason why Dalits, low-caste Hindus, and large numbers of Muslims are cold towards Anna’s movement or suspicious of it.

The unstated premise is that all politicians are corrupt. In fact, as Mr Hazare has said time and again, existing democratic politics is itself corrupt. He says he doesn’t believe in elections because ordinary people “cast their vote under the influence of Rs 100 or a bottle of liquor ….” This extremely cynical view of democracy shows utter contempt for the Indian people who have repeatedly punished corrupt or under-performing politicians. India’s democracy has numerous flaws. But the voter’s lack of awareness isn’t one of them.

There is a difference, though. The middle class strata which have planned, led and formed the core of the latest agitation have a specifically corporate character. They are all products of post-1991 neoliberal policies and belong to new service sector businesses in Information Technology, banking and insurance.

These strata worship their CEOs and have imbibed a culture of subservience to corporate hierarchy. They have had no exposure whatever to ordinary people except subordinates like peons and drivers. They are easy prey for spectacles created by 24-hour television news channels, such as Mr Hazare’s fasts, which became something akin to the cricket World Cup.

There has also been corporate involvement in and funding of the Lokpal movement. NGOs run by Team Anna leaders Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal have received millions of dollars in corporate and Ford Foundation donations. This past January, 14 industrialists including Keshub Mahindra (he, of Bhopal fame, as Union Carbide India’s chairman), Jamshyd Godrej and Deepak Parekh, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Singh complaining of a “widespread governance deficit”, and pressing for an independent anti-corruption ombudsman.

Since then, even industrialist SP Hinduja (God bless his pure soul!) has held forth on corruption and the need for a Lokpal. Strongly pro-corporate media groups have led the Jan Lokpal TV campaign.

It’s as if a large chunk of businessmen had decided to ditch the Congress-led UPA government because it’s not delivering “second generation” neoliberal policies such as reckless privatisation and dismantlement of such paltry labour protection as exists. Many industrialists are perhaps suspicious of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s mildly Left-of-centre political bent and her inaccessibility. Logically, this means they would opt for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

This fits in with the involvement of Hindutva forces in the Hazare campaign, frankly admitted by Ms Sushma Swaraj in Parliament on August 17, confirmed by Mr Nitin Gadkari’s letter supporting Mr Hazare, and reinforced by RSS pracharak-ideologue KN Govindacharya’s August 26 statement confirming deep RSS involvement.

The RSS has long tried to tap into popular sentiment against corruption. Three years ago, it roped in Mr Hazare and Baba Ramdev. It got Ramdev to set up the communal Bharat Swabhiman Trust.

Ramdev’s network logistically sustained IAC before and through Mr Hazare’s Jantar Mantar fast in April. No wonder Ramdev turned up there to claim ownership, with RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav in tow. However, Ramdev’s own fast following Anna’s, proved an embarrassment and the RSS zeroed in exclusively on Mr Hazare, according to BJP and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leaders who spoke to journalists off the record.

A movement of which Mr Hazare is the figurehead, but which is controlled externally and clandestinely, has the potential to destabilise the government from the Right. This does not bode well for Indian’s democracy.—end--