Monday, August 22, 2011

Impressions on an Agitation....

The chips were always stacked up against the Government – a poor old septuagenarian messiah vs the black hands of the Government was an unfair battle from a media coverage and public empathy perspective. It was a no-win situation for the Govt but it did not help that they committed hara-kiri and managed to make themselves the laughing stock of the nation.

Hasn’t the Congress ever thought of collective bargaining or were they so drunk in the stupor of arrogance and out of touch with the man on the street that it thought that AH was just another old man who would be forgotten quickly enough and so there was no need to indulge him in a civil fashion. For a party that merely takes orders from the top, it may have been tough to understand the meaning of moral superiority.

UPA is isolated now as it has to battle an army of protestors and an Opposition waiting to strike but they have just themselves to blame for not including a single member of the Opposition on the drafting committee. The party probably did not want to share credit with anyone else and tried going alone and now when they have egg on their face, they realize that they have to fight it out themselves.

Forget about the moral angle to the entire sequence of events; you’d think that the Congress had some kind of a strategy to fight AH but it managed to dig a hole and crawl into slowly at first and then rapidly. Without the presence of Sonia Gandhi, is the party totally rudderless (assuming that they’d have done the right thing if she were there ofcourse)? The Crown Prince has been silent throughout assuming that it’s better to blame a lost cause on the PMs head than take any action (their spin doctors still managed to give him credit for releasing Anna!!!); the same attitude that led the PM to fix the responsibility of the mishandling of the situation on the Delhi police.

For years now, we have had this spectacle of an arrangement between the ‘honest’ PM and St. Sonia taking the party together – an arrangement that worked well for them as well as onlookers. Finally, it looks like the time has come to sever this umbilical cord and get somebody else onto the throne. PM, the gentleman image has served you long enough and it’s time for a forced renunciation now – get somebody at the helm who can actually act. Rahul may not be my choice but if Congressmen can stay united only under him, so be it; no more mukhotas are needed.

Dear Rahul, if the Congress party looks at you as a future PM, you need to speak up. You cannot pick and choose your revolutions only looking at the safe areas to score brownie points; so you cannot go to Bhatta- Parsaul and Pune and make long winding assertions but choose to stay silent when your government is being thrashed around by the entire country. You let Manish Tewari and a few other jokers go berserk in their attacks and be slaughtered by the remarkable campaign of Team Anna.

We have seen enough of Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Singhvi now; they have managed to weave legal spin as much as possible but for God’s sake, show some spine, stand up and talk if you really want people to take you seriously (Ideally, this appeal should be to the PM but you know..). Are you waiting for the dust to settle down, sacrifice the PM and then step in with a noble gesture of getting Anna’s fast broken and get everyone’s applause?

There is a broad consensus that it was the Government’s bungling that has brought the issue so far but it is also the failure of the Opposition that has resulted in the ‘civil’ society taking the matter into its arms. The UPA has lost all its authority and is rudderless but where is the BJP in the midst of this entire din? It has neither taken a stance on the bill or made any attempts to resolve the logjam but has been enjoying the show from the sidelines. The party badly misses a Vajpayee kind of statesman like figure who can appeal to the masses and even talk to Team Hazare (the kind of credibility that the current Parliament lacks). Maybe a Nitish Kumar can step in and help in assuaging this public angst (would have suggested Modi but his image makes him a polarizing figure).

In the midst of all the upheaval that I see around me in the nation, it is difficult to stay unmoved and detached as a wave of emotions sweeps across the political fabric of this country. I have been oscillating from one side to another regularly unsure on what side I find myself in. Though my brain tells me that ‘Anna way or no way’ approach is not in sync with democratic principles, my heart asks me whether there was any other way?

When lakhs (let’s call it thousands for Karan Thapar’s sake) hit the roads with a sort of vengeance, can we simply disregard it hiding under the cloak of constitutionalism and Parliament? If different versions of the bill have been lying in the cans for more than 40+ years, does it not reflect the failure of the elected representatives? Yes, the people on the streets do not understand the Lok Pal and its intricacies but their protest is the only tangible way to tell the powers-at-the-top that they need to be heard (Agreed that the agitation has gone overboard on any occasions like the Anna-is-India and timeline based demands but it gives the Govt an opportunity to act mature, put aside egos and show magnanimity in handling the issue and actually win over people).

No one thinks that the bill will eradicate corruption and to that extent, the JLP bill may backfire (remember the much-maligned Anti-Defection Law was drafted by Shanti Bhushan) because of its grandiose design but the voice of the people is a voice of desperation and frustration, a voice that says we have a role even beyond the ballot box. It is this voice that the State needs to recognize and provide a platform, otherwise we will see more such agitations. If the Government had been able to communicate properly its views on the bill, it would not have come to an us vs them situation, where even strands of intelligent opposition are being attacked. This coupled with the fact that the principal opposition is not able to present an alternative has led to a vacuum in the polity, which the civil society is trying to fill, albeit in spurts.

We are the world’s largest democracy but simply providing universal suffrage does not suffice – we need to evolve into a participatory democracy from an electoral democracy. Every 5 years, we vote a leader into the Assembly and Parliament but till the next election, we have no role to play in the day-to-day governance of the state. Decisions taken in the House have no relation with what happens in our lives even though they affect us. I’d see the protest not in terms of the JLP or even corruption (though it is the rallying point) but in terms of how millions in this country feel alienated in the decision making process in the country. If all this action translates into some kind of mechanism where we feel responsible (even accountable) for governmental decisions and have a concrete say in it, it would be the real victory of the agitation.

But let us not push it a point of no return where even if a compromise is desired, it cannot be achieved because the legions of supporters will not settle for anything other than total victory. The point has been made well enough for the polity to understand that citizens cannot be taken for granted and it’s time to move to a more conciliatory rather than confrontational approach; while rhetoric works well to get in mass support, a more nuanced approach is needed to break the current logjam and accept other points of view. Team Anna has to be careful not to snatch a loss from the jaws of victory by its dogmatic and sanctimonious posturing which is taking us to a rather uncalled for chaotic situation.

Unlike the Arab Spring, the objective here is not toppling a government but a strong  moral show of strength in tackling political apathy. So, once the target is achieved, there is a danger that this triumph will be short-lived and the hubris will evaporate just as quickly as it was created. The anger can crystallize into either an apolitical or political movement but it should hopefully not be an anti-political movement as it is now. Eventually, only when the politics of the land undergoes a transformation (this is where electoral reforms are a key), a true change will emerge. Otherwise, we need to keep searching for an Anna like figure to rally people around on every issue that concerns us.

I am neither in favour of the JLP or the Government bill and look forward to the debate in the Standing Committee to come up with its recommendations. The Govt is responsible for the current impasse but Team Anna and followers have been quite adamant, jingoistic and inflexible in their approach towards resolving this, so hope good sense prevails!!!

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Racing to Annihilate Corruption

As the race to annihilate corruption heats up, Anna Hazare and team have started off on their next hunger strike to combat the Government’s lackadaisical attitude on the Jan Lokpal Bill. But as the middle class, in desperate search of a messiah, follows the Pied Piper in his mission, a doubt lingers on whether there isn’t an undue haste being followed in trying to pass a Bill that has emerged as a rallying point for citizens frustrated with corruption.

Anna Hazare’s prior Jantar Mantar manoeuvre won him fans across but more importantly put the limelight on corruption in a way that we have not seen in decades. It led to the Government climbing down from its stand on the Lok Pal and instituting a combined committee to re-draft the bill. The Bill has now reached the Parliament and the Parliamentary Standing Committee has invited Anna and team to present his views on the subject.

Governments across the world are normally subject to multiple forms of pressure from all kinds of lobbies like the press, judiciary, corporates and others. The Indian civil society (if such a homogeneous group exists) has been a more passive pressure group; even the most virulent representatives like Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar have been debated in the media only and left untouched by a vast stretch of the population (middle class urban population to be more precise) but the Anna group has successfully managed to create a support base amongst this crowd.

Facebook, Twitter and 24x7 news have ensured that the public is fed on a constant diet of anti-corruption capsules. So you have slogans like “If you are not with Anna and Team, you are with the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats of our country"(Bush would approve!) and “We can’t afford to fail this time. For if we fail, we may never get another chance. It is now or never”. While I am honestly cynical about this business of eradicating corruption with a  magic wand, it must be said that despite the obvious theatrics behind all this sloganeering and ideas (my personal favourite is the Give a Missed Call and Support the Movement), it is wonderful to see people actually talking and thinking about it and forcing the Government to do something about this.

The Government’s position is an open goal post and indefensible; the UPA is at the nadir of its popularity and the multiple scams which leap out of papers and TV sets have reduced it to a motley group with zero credibility. It does not help that the PM is perceived to be a man with no voice and the voices that matter are not available on any public discourse (anyone’s seen a Sonia or Rahul Gandhi interview?). The opposition is practically non-existent in terms of performance and despite the Government giving away its advantage on a platter, the weak knead Opposition is unable to anything about it. In such a position, you cannot blame the civil society for filling in the vacuum and acting as the moral guardian. You'd think that by now our politics would be mature enough to accept dissent but the hara-kiri done in trying to tackle Anna Hazare makes the Government look totally ridiculous and out of touch with people's sentiments.

So, Team Anna has stepped into the Opposition’s shoes and done great service in pitching across an important voice missing all these years – the voice of the electorate. The ruling party realizes that he has the masses behind him and so needs to be taken seriously and so we had the charade of a Joint Drafting Committee that arrived on a consensus that nobody understood. But somewhere in the din of the Anti-Corruption movement (is it one?), there is a concern that the movement is side-stepping its own principles and attempting to bulldoze its own version of the bill in undue haste, bypassing the norms of democracy.

Team Anna has called the proposed bill a Joke Pal and ridiculed its namby-pamby way of trying to tackling corruption. This may be true but the fact that is that the team has a chance to voice their concern in the Standing Committee of the Parliament and so changes can still be incorporated. The RTI Act which was widely touted as a victory of the civil society movement underwent 153 amendments in the standing committee before emerging into the form it now finds itself in.

The team would also be well-advised not to mix the business of governance with popular support and attempt to play to the gallery. It is ridiculous when top cop Kiran Bedi comes to NDTV and suggests that the NDTV opinion polls and their own polls indicate the mass support behind the movement and so their version must be passed; the team even talked about a referendum to gauge public support on their stand. The notion of a people's court to settle issues in a plural society is fraught with dangers. Is public support (assuming that the support exists beyond urban netizens) and rhetoric the basis on which public policy needs to be drafted in this country? If this was the criterion, you’d probably have death penalty as a popular form of punishment and moral policing as an important police activity…

The Jan Lokpal Bill has undergone 40+ revisions and Arvind Kejriwal says that they are open to suggestions but the Team is critical of the Government for not accepting their bill in toto and does not seem to be receptive to any changes in it. Not supporting the Anna movement does not tantamount to supporting the Government at all; staunch public warriors like Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander have expressed serious misgivings about the form of the proposed bill and have in fact even proposed an alternative in the form of a basket of reforms to tackle corruption (haven’t seen much reporting on this other than in the Tehelka).

Democracy is a messy business but it’s probably the best way to clean the mess that we find ourselves in. It is naive and even arrogant (at times) to assume that this is a black and white debate and that there is only one set of people who knows what is best and so the rest should follow. The Mumbai blasts in the 90s led to the demand of a stringent anti-terrorist law and POTA replaced the TADA but now in hindsight, most parties have taken a position against it and agreed that there needs to be more safeguards to protect its misuse while many others have said that the existing Criminal procedure Law in the country is good enough to handle the issue.

We have seen the Lok Ayukta in Karnataka, the CAG in the 2G and CWG scams and institutions like the Election Commission and the higher judiciary make an overall impact on the state by their interventions; so we may not necessarily require a super cop to manage our affairs here. A Frankenstein monster who bosses over everyone can be a terror but does the bill have relevant safeguards ( look back at the terror unleashed by Edgar Hoover as the first director of the FBI) or will it even actually do what it set out to do - tackle corruption? This is debatable but is there a room for even such a debate or are the emotions running so high that we cannot tolerate anyone questioning the proposals?

Anna Hazare’s role in pushing corruption to the forefront of the Indian political debate is arguably immense but there is a danger of overdoing his actions and pushing the envelope just too far that is making many his supporters/well-wishers wondering whether the wise men have not chewed off more than they can swallow. The hysteria created in the initial fast has sky rocketed the expectations of the public and they want the death knell to be sounded now but can the artists keep performing for an audience that has begun to relish the idea of a magic wand and may not be willing to accept the complexities of the process involved?

Yes, the final objective is noble but that does not absolve us from acting responsibly and taking the right path. No one says that the path needs to be dismantled but there is a line that needs to be drawn between what can be the role of unelected and unaccountable civil society member and a Parliamentarian? I know we are skeptical about the role of the Parliament but let’s not forget that the same set of people implemented the RTI Act and many other important pieces of legislation.

The parliamentary way of doing things is understandably not the fastest or most glamorous way to do so (the Dravid rather than Sehwag way) but in a democracy, the fairest way to proceed is deploying faith in the parliament, while pressure groups continue to exert their influence on Governments. We cannot bypass institutions in favour of individuals; it may work perfectly well in one scenario but it sets a precedent which becomes difficult to follow. So, yes, Anna and team must continue with all their good work but it must draw a line between the rule of the civil society and that of an elected representative and not become a mirror opposite of the Government in its actions.

To quote Aruna Roy –
I think it’s democratically and politically immature to demand that one take a simplistic and black-and-white position on this. This is what governments have always being doing with us. You are seen as either with them or against them. For instance, if you fought for land rights you were described as a Maoist and a votary of violent revolution. We cannot do the same thing ourselves, but we are. We are not allowing ourselves the luxury of the rich debates and nuanced thinking that has been our strength. Pluralism has been the strength of the so-called civil society. We cannot sacrifice that. I don’t care what happens to the Government but it’s wrong for the people of this country, it’s wrong for democracy and that’s why we have decided to speak from the NCPRI. 
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