Cracking Anti-Corruption "Coalition" the Express way.

On 7th April Indian Express (IE) front page story had this to say about Anna Hazare’s indefinite fast for fulfilling his close to 4 decades crusade against corruption, Crack appear in Anna’s team, Govt. plans to reach out”. It seemed to take almost malicious satisfaction when it reported that “the first cracks in his coalition surfaced with criticism over provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill and the method being used by activists to try and push it through”. The “first cracks” seem to suggest that more were expected; and ‘Some’ appears to have been deliberately omitted when talking of criticism over “provisions of the Jan Lokpal bill”. What may look like nitpicking will not be so on closer scrutiny. It says Aruna Roy, Nikhil De & Shekhar Singh stated, “Bypassing democratic processes for political expediency however desirable the outcome, may be detrimental to democracy itself. Thus our focus is not on ensuring that there is 50% representation for civil society with members of the GoM who are entrusted with drafting the Bill, but to demand that the Government immediately announce its intention to pass a strong Lok Pal legislation based on wide public consultations”. While Santosh Hegde, ex-supreme Court judge & current Lokpal of Karnataka, is supposed to have said, “I would not like to say much else. While I say that the government’s Lokpal Bill is of no use, I am not completely with the Jan Lokpal Bill, too, although it’s much better. I would certainly say that the government should talk to civil society and incorporate their views while the civil society should also participate in any such discussion with an open mind. It has to be a two-way street”. Neither what Roy nor what Hegde said may be construed as “stepping out of line” of some pre-agreed course. In fact, calling anti-corruption crusade a “coalition” itself is a sophistry. Coalition suggests adjustments, compromises, & minimum agreement reached between disparate elements. Reality is far from it. Since the Nav-Nirman (new beginning) movement of 70s by university students against the corrupt congress led government in Gujarat that came up with an iconic slogan –Chiman Chor (Chiman bhai Patel, Chief Minister, is a thief)-, which later spread to other parts of India as Sampoorna Kranti (total revolution) under the leadership of Jayprakash Narayan; India has seen many agitations in myriad forms against corrupt governance. Hazare’s fast has brought together the collective frustrations, disenchantment & anger of Indians against the venal, insensitive system in what looks like a never before moment. Therefore, the so called “differences” within the civil society should be seen as healthy democratic disagreement over details rather than as “cracks in the coalition” IE story chooses to paint. As if that story was not enough, the IE of 9th April says, “At the core of what is presented as a Jantar Mantar rainbow coalition against corruption is, in fact, a carefully orchestrated campaign that was rebuffed last year and has now struck back with a vengeance — deploying a fasting Anna Hazare to armtwist the Centre into an unprecedented agreement…….. The Centre is now wary of not just creating a precedent but also having to deal with the ability of such “movements” to turn into vigilante movements, like the Mandal anti-reservation stir in 1990. It is watching the semantics worryingly move from Gandhian and Vivekanand-inspired imagery and costume to calls from the stage of “hanging” the corrupt and feeding the MPs to vultures. All on live TV—with even anchors and reporters proudly declaring their membership in the movement of the moment”. Such spin to coverage of the anti-corruption movement that sprang to magnificent life due to unending string of colossal corruption scandals in the last year or so, smacks of not “Objectivity” or “balance” but of a hidden agenda for discrediting the movement.
Shekhar Gupta, Editor of IE, weighed in also on 7th April thus, “Yet the Jan Lokpal Bill, as this “civil society” draft is known, is a mishmash of unworkable and dangerous ideas which no government could seriously consider allowing in as legislation”. If dangerous ideas are unworkable, is there anything to fear them? He turns his attention then to the experiment with such an institution in various states. Despite state level anti-corruption ombudsman in as many as 18 states, it has done little to curb corruption there, and Gupta holds, “….Jan Lokpal Bill, however, addresses few of the real problems that dog those investigations”. He does not identify “the real problems” but is ready to conclude that if turned into an act, the Jan Lokpal will become law unto itself –potentially a super evil with no checks & balances-, and quotes a lawyer that it will be “a supercop-superprosecutor-judge, all rolled into one”, to sum up his horror. Why should a newspaper editor react in “horror”, which one would imagine is reserved for corrupt politicians and bureaucrats?
As if all this was not enough,  Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president-Center for Policy Research, joins the one-sided melee on Express pages with an Op Ed piece, Of the Few, By the Few. Central theme of his exertions is premised on the fact that at the heart of constitutional democracy lays the electoral process, and people elect their representatives in parliament and legislatures, which embody their supreme Will. Holding this “supreme Will” hostage to “a sense of unbridled virtue can also subvert democracy”, he feels. His sense of outrage at this is seen here, “The morality of fasting unto death for a political cause in a constitutional democracy has always been a tricky issue. There is something deeply coercive about fasting unto death. When it is tied to an unparalleled moral eminence, as it is in the case of Anna Hazare, it amounts to blackmail”. While he concedes that “There may be circumstances, where the tyranny of government is so oppressive, or the moral cause at stake so vital that some such method of protest is called for”, yet he avers, “but in a functioning constitutional democracy, not having one’s preferred institutional solution to a problem accepted, does not constitute a sufficient reason for the exercise of such coercive moral power”. There are 3 lessons to be learnt here. First, his quarrel is not with method per say, but with the occasion. Does the colossal corruption eating at the very innards of the constitutional democracy satisfy some arbitrary test of being vital? This is a debatable point, and a matter of subjective judgement and agitational taste.  Second, when he talks of one’s preferred institutional solution, he presupposes that there is a bouquet of solutions available from which a particular choice is sought to be foisted by Hazare and his supporters. India’s experience of past 61 years as an independent republic shows that no such alternatives exist. Had it not been so, there would not have been corruption scandals of exponentially growing magnitudes that would still have the power to shock our inured sensibilities.  Mahavir Tyagi while participating in the debates of Constituent Assembly prophetically held that corruption will be a systemic issue in parliamentary democracy: “All democracies are run by professional politicians’ and I am afraid that is the main cause of their failures, because such people begin to live on democracies. It becomes with them a profession, the Statecraft’, becomes their only source of living. That is the bane of democracy and I want to make the future generations aware of this. It creates professional politicians’ – those whose earning depend on politics, with the result that they cut themselves adrift from all creative professions. If this democracy is also to be run by such persons who will have nothing else to fall back upon, and who live on Ministries or on the memberships of the Parliament, then this democracy is doomed”. Then he went on to add, “But the picture from the villagers’ point of view is dull and dead. I cannot give argument to convince the villager that from 26th January 1950 his lot will be better. Nor is there anything tangible through which he can better understand this Constitution; because we give the villager nothing but the vote, which we will take from him after two years. That is the only thing we give him. So, I submit that it is only when those who till the soil are enabled to run this Constitution that they would appreciate it to be their charter of rights and freedom”. It is a great pity that what Tyagi could see in foresight, it is still difficult to grasp with the benefit of hindsight. Who says that everyone is wise after the event? Lastly, one comes to the presumption of “Functioning Constitutional Democracy”. Tyagi has already dealt with this issue. Does collecting votes ritually every 5 years or so constitute a functional democracy? It gives a semblance of functioning democracy by creating an illusion that ruling policies will change if one set of faces of rulers is changed with another. It has taken rather long for this illusion to fade, but it appears to be now at breaking point. One will visit this crucial point in a moment after considering some other important issues.
Even with the enactment of people oriented progressive legislations like Right To Information Act (RTI) or Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) or Forest Rights Act (FRA), it is one uphill task to bring government machinery to account for its deeds. Government too has introduced a draft Lokpal bill in parliament. Its provisions are so feeble and enervated that its main purpose was seen to merely assuage the rising discontent among urbanites rather than any real intent at curbing corruption. Coming as it does at the end of 10 such attempts of successive Indian governments in over 40 years since 1969, rankled many. Mehta may be content with calling this stonewalling, “The obduracy of the political leadership is testing the patience of citizens”, or with criticising the moral stance of Hazare as “We should not turn a complex institutional question into a simplistic moral imperative”. Corruption makes the already burdensome life of poor people unbearable, while for others it adds to transaction costs and irritation. It is for them not an institutional but an existential question. It is a question that brooks no interference from academic niceties. The Jan Lokpal bill seeks to give people the power to complain about corruption, for Lokpal to act on those complaints in a time bound fashion, and seeks to equip her with necessary wherewithal of investigative and prosecutorial powers to discharge effectively obligations placed on the office. It is likely that extreme impatience with pervasive graft that has for too long been allowed to subvert our democracy may have prompted inclusion of certain provisions in the people’s draft, which may be untenable with constitutional provisions or may sow the seeds for another kind of tyranny. This is certainly a cause for mature and reasoned debate. But to trash this effort as a whole by saying that these drafts “of the Jan Lokpal Bill are, very frankly, an institutional nightmare”, or “but the general premises that underlie the various drafts border on being daft”; contributes little to the debate for finding solutions to this insidious problem. It also belittles a genuine apprehension Mehta has voiced regarding Jan Lokpal Bill: “Having concentrated immense power (in Lokpal), it then displays extraordinary faith in the virtue of those who will wield this power. Why do we think this institution will be incorruptible? The answer seems to be that the selection mechanism will somehow ensure a superior quality of guardians. Why? Because the selection committee, in addition to the usual virtuous judges, will have, as one draft very reassuringly put it, two of the most recent Magsaysay Award Winners”. This is a valid point. Corruption has not left even the higher judiciary untouched. Recently allegations have emerged about amassing of wealth by close relatives of current chairman of NHRC & retired Chief Justice of India during his period at the helm. This shows that manner of selection of Lokpal is a tricky issue and needs closer attention. But Mehta’s other contention, “The demand that a Jan Lokpal Bill be drafted jointly by the government and a self-appointed committee of public virtue is absurd”, doesn’t show his scholarship in good light. What is so absurd about it? Democracy is about process of consultation. If such consultation is formalised through joint drafting, what is wrong with it? In parliament, even a single member can bring a private bill for consideration of the house. Mere joint drafting of a bill doesn’t turn it into the law of the land. It still has to be passed in both houses of parliament by “elected representatives” of people in whom Indian Express has reposed such great trust. So, why will joint drafting subvert constitutional democracy? Gupta & Mehta’s arguments thus don’t hold much water.
Yet, there is a larger issue of what breeds such corruption. Transfer of wealth through gigantic corruption is possible only when there is monumental accumulation of wealth in the hands of few made possible by a system, which is operated by the powerful elite. Mehta says, “B.R. Ambedkar was surely right, in one of his greatest speeches, to warn that recourse to such methods (threat of coercive fast unto death) was opening up a democracy to the grammar of anarchy”. Ambedkar made that statement in reference to M K Gandhi, who had successively used that threat against him to rescind his stand seeking separate electorates for untouchables. In a far larger context, on 25th of November 1949, Ambedkar made a statement of great perspicacity and of astounding relevance in the current context than the one cited by Mehta : “We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is complete absence of two things in Indian Society. One of these is equality. On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality, on the economic plane we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty. On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up”. Anna Hazare and by implication our nation has taken one more step in the right direction by starting a movement against corruption. It is a right step and it needs an unstinted support of all of us. But it is only symptomatic treatment. Symptomatic treatment has its place and value when emergency measures are called for. But very soon we need to address the profound issues that Ambedkar, Tyagi, and others raised some 61 years ago. It is not really the case that Hazare and activists have gone too far. It is that they have taken first steps on a really long march.

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