By PR Chari
Oscar Wilde has one his characters declare in Lady Windermere’s Fan, “I can resist anything but temptation.” The temptation to enter the debate on the Anna Hazare controversy is too great to resist despite several weeks having elapsed since it started. In the meantime, the chasm between the protagonists of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign and those holding it to be unconstitutional and undemocratic has widened. The latter argue that the correct forum for debating the Lokpal Bill is Parliament. Yielding to public agitations, however laudable their objectives, will establish an unhealthy precedent. On the other hand, the protagonists point out that Parliament is dysfunctional and will not act until it is compelled. The rapid enlargement of this agitation to acquire an all-India character reveals that public corruption has become so pervasive in India as to evoke national exasperation. Anna Hazare is a beacon of hope now.
All this has been reported ad nauseum in different forums. The dirty tricks department has been unleashed against Anna Hazare’s supporters, which is par for the course. The corrupt are unlikely to yield their hard-earned ill-gotten gains. So, what remains to be said at this juncture that is either new or worth saying? Three issues need, additionally, to be illumined.
First, what do Anna Hazare’s campaign for the Lokpal Bill and the huge support received for his anti-corruption campaign inform us about the Indian polity? Transparency International accords India a high rank on its corruption index, which is based on public perceptions. Clearly, there is widespread disgust in the people with public corruption in India. But, there are many who are unconcerned and unaffected. Who are they? They are identifiable as the growing minority with the ‘influence’ or ‘clout’ to wield power and patronage, which insulates them from the tentacles of the corruption network. The silent majority, however, suffers its exactions whenever the citizen has to deal with public authority. And, public authority is both insidious and all-encompassing in India with its unique system of over-legislation but under-regulation of every conceivable human activity. Clearly, public corruption is not unknown in settled democracies like Japan and the US. But, their difference with India arises because corruption in these countries occurs at the higher levels of political patronage and dispensations of large commercial favours. Exactions at lower levels are practically unknown, which is a peculiarly Third World phenomenon – China and Russia are no exceptions. But, this is especially true of India. Willy-nilly the citizen is forced to interface with authority in district and subordinate offices, police stations, civic facilities, registration offices, educational or health institutions and so on. And, as a prominent political leader keeps saying, “Every time a citizen enters an office, he will only come out after being ‘stung’.” The limited point being made here is that Anna Hazare has lit a spark that has grown into a prairie fire. But, that prairie fire would not have started and spread unless the grass was dry and combustible.
Second, is Anna Hazare’s crusade unique? Or, has all this happened before with varying degrees of success? Protagonists have given his campaign a grand remit by comparing it to the Quit India movement, an obvious exaggeration. It has also been compared more routinely with the JP movement against misgovernment and corruption in the early seventies; it gave Indira Gandhi the excuse to impose her infamous Emergency when the Allahabad High Court set aside her election. It has also been compared to the VP Singh-blessed Mandal agitation in favor of greater reservations, which led to the tragic self-immolation of many young persons. What did these major agitations achieve? One can argue that the JP movement catalyzed the break-up of the Congress party and the emergence of regional parties that are now competing for power at the Centre and in the States. The Mandal agitation led to a further splintering of political parties, with the politics of caste getting firmly embedded in the national polity. In other words, these public agitations severely challenged the basic structure of the Indian democracy. Whether this was good or bad for India would be demanding a value judgment regarding an essentially political phenomenon.
Third, can it be said that Anna Hazare’s movement is unconstitutional and undemocratic? After all, the NDA government in the Centre and those ruled by different political parties in the States were duly elected. No doubt, the elections lack total credibility. They are visibly vitiated by money and muscle power, liquor and cash are used to buy votes; and, once in office, the elected representatives are too busy with other activities to care about their constituencies. All this is true. But, does it justify forcing a duly elected government to act in a pre-determined way by exercising ‘people’s power’? Here, one might recollect the Congress-led agitation in 1959 against the Namboodiripad government in Kerala. It was directed by one Mannath Padmanabhan against its agrarian and educational policies. Indira Gandhi, then Congress President, had actively inspired this agitation. After it reached suitable proportions, Nehru decided to dismiss the State government; an action which his biographer Sarvepalli Gopal holds “tarnished Nehru’s reputation for ethical behavior.” Now, the Congress party finds Anna Hazare’s public agitation to be unconstitutional and undemocratic!
What is the greatest danger confronting the Anna Hazare ‘revolution’ in the light of these examples? Undoubtedly, it arises from his supporters getting embroiled in the minor skirmishes that will be launched by the counter-revolutionaries to deflect their attention from the main issue of public corruption. But, an equal danger arises from their getting too deeply embroiled in the minutiae – the phrases and punctuation marks of the Lokpal Bill. Hopefully, the revolutionaries will fight the dragon of public corruption with appropriate strategies. Like launching public campaigns giving details of malfeasance against specific offices and officers. And, holding dharnas before these offices and officers to highlight their misdoings.
A functioning anarchy with a million mutinies is the best prescription for reforming a dysfunctional democracy.
Visiting Professor, IPCS
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