For the past few days, the media has been enthusiastically covering the fast that Anna Hazare has undertaken to press the government to institutionalise a strong and autonomous Lokpal, a matter that has now been pending for more than 40 years and which has assumed grave urgency in the light of corruption exposes of unprecedented scale and the rapid decline in recent years of every democratic institution into a morass of corruption. This morning, the Indian Express carried an article by Pratap Bhanu Mehta which lambasts Anna Hazare's fast, civil society activists and the public in a rather thorough manner. The writer terms the movement behind the Jan Lokpal bill unreasonable, impatient, and subversive of democracy and questioning the morality of fasting unto death for a political cause, terms it blackmail. The Jan Lokpal is not the only and the best solution to the corruption challenge, he says, and is in fact an institutional nightmare which will weaken democratic institutions and create a centre of power with no safeguards against the abuse of power.
I am stunned that any right thinking citizen of India could be so brazenly biased in his opinion on a matter that is finding greater and greater support among all sections of civil society with every passing day. Possibly, the bias springs from the inherent superiority that most intellectuals feel vis a vis the aam aadmi, gullible fool that he is !What else could be the reason why the the writer chooses to overlook the fact that it is unbridled vice which for several decades has so subverted democracy that all our institutions, processes and systems have completely lost credibility? Have the perpetrators of such vice been reasonable? Are they ever to be held to account, or are we to exercise infinite patience and wait for subverted systems to correct themselves?
Does the writer believe that such extreme measures as a fast unto death would have been resorted to had the democratic processes and institutions that he so fondly cherishes responded to the deep concerns and anxieties of civil society? Is it the case that the Jan Lokpal bill has been sprung up on the government overnight? For more than 40 years, civil society has been attempting to make itself heard on the subject, but to no avail. Even now, when every Indian worth his salt is deeply agitated over the massive scale of corruption that riddles the country, has the duly elected government responded with the alacrity that it should have? Anna’s fast is an expression of the deep anguish that all of us are experiencing at the utter indifference and callousness of our duly elected representatives and the government. For it to be described as coercion and blackmail reveals a mindset that is seen today in large swathes of our so called democratic institutions ----- one of complete disconnect with the Indian masses.
Under certain circumstances, the writer says, a fast unto death may be called for. Such circumstances exist today in the country. The government’s tyranny finds expression in many ways. In contemporary India, it finds expression as the colossal loot of the country’s wealth even while millions live in a state of deprivation. Not only is wealth being looted and carted out of the country, there is a shameless attempt to brush it all under the carpet, to say that the scams unearthed by constitutional authorities never took place, to brazenly challenge the reports and findings of all those authorities and organisations that are bringing massive evidence to drive home the inescapable fact that corruption is flourishing in the country like never before. If these are not the circumstances calling for unusual measures by civil society, what are?
It is no one’s case that the Jan Lokpal is the best and the only solution to the corruption challenge. The civil society representatives who have drafted the Jan Lokpal bill include people with long years of experience in different aspects of governance, and none of them could be said to be so lacking in intelligence and understanding as to harbour the delusion that the Jan Lokpal is the panacea for all ills. Corruption is a multi headed monster, and will need more than one weapon and more than one form of attack to be wiped out. The Jan Lokpal is one such , and it is nothing but obfuscation of facts to first present it as the architects’ fond delusion of being a panacea and then to tear it to shreds on that ground.
Is the writer aware that many of our law enforcement agencies enjoy many and sometimes all of the powers that the draft bill proposes to vest in the Jan Lokpal? What is objectionable to the writer is not perhaps the fact that the Jan Lokpal will have these powers but that these powers will extend to bureaucrats and politicians and judges, to be exercised not with prior permission of these very institutions but suo moto. That a bureaucrat cannot be prosecuted without prior permission of the very government he is a part of does not strike the writer as incongruent, the fact that the Jan Lokpal will have the power to do so is seen as “concentrated power”!
The fallacious argument is also forwarded that the incorruptibility of the Jan Lokpal is envisaged in the bill to be ensured by the selection mechanism. This argument is advanced perhaps to give the writer the opportunity to highlight what he imagines is a clinching argument ------ the selection mechanism cannot serve as a safeguard because it is a self serving device of the architects of the Jan Lokpal bill, envisaging as it does the inclusion of Magsaysay awardees, some of whom are associated with the Jan Lokpal bill! The writer forgets that the Magsaysay Award is given in such areas as public service, and no self - serving individual would conceivably be held eligible for such an award.
In any case, the safeguard that is built into the draft bill is the provision for removal of the Lokpal on such grounds as corruption, misconduct etc which process can be initiated by any citizen, quite unlike parallel provisions for judges and bureaucrats at whose hands the citizen may suffer but whose removal he cannot initiate.
Having stated that the bill is work in progress, the writer proceeds with an attempt to demolish it. Would it not have been more useful if he had highlighted the strengths, and saved his constructive suggestions, if any, for the time when the drafting committee begins deliberations? That the bill must have its strengths, even if the writer doesn’t have the courage to state it, is an inescapable conclusion or else he would have summarily dismissed the bill, not trained his guns on a few provisions.
That representative democracy would be weakened by the Lokpal is a statement as misleading as the writer’s claim that the civil society activists who are desirous of institutionalising a powerful and autonomous anti - corruption body are contemptuous of democracy. Only those who aspire for a truly democratic country where the ill gotten wealth of a few is not instrumental in subverting democratic processes would work towards an institution that penalises the corrupt, deprives them of their ill gotten wealth, and strengthens the credibility of all democratic institutions by ensuring that only the honest flourish. If a corrupt Prime Minister is held accountable to the Lokpal and is no longer certain of remaining in office on the strength of supporters who are beneficiaries of a corrupt regime, does the democratic process get strengthened or weakened? Would an honest and incorruptible Prime Minister be in any way threatened by the Lokpal? In an environment where corrupt bureaucrats flourish because they collude and connive with their political bosses to rob the public exchequer, would representative democracy be weakened by a Lokpal who can act independently of the bureaucracy and its political masters to penalise such bureaucrats?
That the elected representatives alone must make policy in a democracy is a dangerous argument, because it overlooks the fundamental premise of a democracy which is that the source of all power is the people. The people may, if they so choose, make themselves heard on any policy matter. The elected representatives must hear them, and cannot put forth the argument that having once been elected, they have become the repository of all wisdom and know better than the people they represent. Under circumstances when some of the elected representatives are themselves not above the suspicion of having acted in a manner deleterious to public good, it is no surprise that people wish to participate directly in the policy making process. To say that an expression of the will of the people through public protests, including fasting, is tantamount to dictating public policy is itself tantamount to questioning the freedom of the people, in a democratic set up, to express their will except through their elected representatives.
And finally, it is because the elected representatives have consistently and for more than 40 years ignored the demands of civil society to institutionalise a strong and independent anti corruption mechanism that people have lost patience, not because they are impatient per se with democratic processes and institutions. That the Lokpal when it is set up is well - designed is for all stakeholders including the writer to ensure. That it becomes instrumental in promoting healthier politics wherein all those decisions that are needed to work towards a stronger democratic set up are taken is the objective.