Assertive citizen as a threat to democracy. Now, that’s original!

Thinkers India Inc propagating a "vote-in-and-boot-out" democracy is tantamount to corruption of another kind – intellectual deceit

bvrao

BV Rao | April 15, 2011





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It was around 8 pm on the night of Friday, April 8, the dying hours of Anna Hazare’s fast.

Delhi police head constable Rajendra Kumar was on duty at Jantar Mantar. Standing by himself he was watching the protestors from the periphery. The crowd was emotional, noisy, swelling by the minute. But Kumar was relaxed.

"Jantar Mantar par haal mein itni badi bheed dekhi aapne (have you seen such a big crowd at Jantar Mantar of late)?" I asked Kumar.

"Bheed toh bahut dekhi hai, lekin yeh bheed achchhi hai," he said. "Na maar-peet, na loot-paat, na lathi-vaathi. Padhe likhe hain, achchhe uddeshya ke liye anshan kar rahe hain...aur karna bhi chahiye…bhrashtachar ki vajah se jeena mushkil ho gaya hai (I have seen big crowds, but this is a good crowd…no violence, no looting…they are educated…they are fasting for a good cause…and it’s needed…corruption has made life difficult for all of us)," he said.

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Hazare's supporters throng Jantar Mantar (Photo: Ravi Choudhary)

Kumar, in his own way, had placed and profiled the crowd. This crowd was different. It was educated and well-behaved. Without actually articulating it, he was referring to the class difference between this crowd and the Jantar Mantar regulars. He may or may not have identified himself with the crowd, but he had no problem identifying with its cause. "Raashan mein milaavat, school mein sipharish, jahan jaao bhrashtachar…(adulterated rations, influence for school admissions…corruption everywhere)," he railed.

That is so unlike many from Intellectual India which has branded, derided and dismissed this five-day agitation  ("uprising" and "revolution" are very strong words) as just another middle-class phenomenon worthy of notice only because it was "dangerous for democracy".

Citizen asking to be heard before making one of the most important laws the country currently needs is dangerous for democracy? For an intelligentsia normally busy with coining new terms to describe old trends, this was stunningly original. I can almost predict the topic of the next flood of position papers and doctoral dissertations: 

"Assertive Citizen As A Danger To Democracy: How To Save The Country From Its Middle Class Peoples."

For a country which has perpetually run itself down for its collective apathy to issues of concern – even here it's the middle class that has always been Accused No. 1 – such a reaction to the Jantar Mantar agitation is baffling. Normally it’s the politician’s vocation to divert, derail and confuse issues. But they received copious, perhaps even unsolicited, help from all corners of Thinkers India Inc.

Thus everything about the agitation was spurious: the man (Anna Hazare), the method (fast unto death) and the content (of the draft bill put out by India Against Corruption). Anna, it was said, cannot appropriate the leadership of the fight against corruption because thousands of others were doing their bit already. You see, just like Mahatma Gandhi can't be called the icon of the freedom movement because there were so many other leaders! One editor recounted a short conversation between Anna and a protestor to suggest why Anna was no big shakes: "Somebody asked Anna a beautiful question. 'Anna, why don’t you fight an election?' Anna said, 'Because, I will lose my deposit'."  That was proof that Anna had no electoral following or constitutional standing and hence he should have no voice in spearheading or forcing legislation. I agree, beautiful question indeed, especially in a country led by a prime minister who has steadfastly avoided election! 

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Illustration: Ashish Asthana

The method got equal condemnation. Fast unto death, we were told, was pure and simple blackmail. It had no place in a democracy because no less a person than B R Ambedkar had outlawed satyagraha as the "grammar of anarchy". But they forgot to mention that in the same breath Ambedkar had also warned: "If we wish to preserve the constitution in which we have sought to enshrine the principle of Government of the people, for the people and by the people, let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path and which induce people to prefer Government for the people to Government by the people, nor to be weak in our initiative to remove them."

As long as governments worked 'for' the people and preserved the constitution, Ambedkar said, there was no place for anarchy. Thus he squarely placed the onus for preventing anarchy on the governments, not on the people. And since governments sat on the Lokpal Bill for 42 years, allowing corruption to eat into the very vitals of the nation, perhaps Ambedkar would have seen the Jantar Mantar anarchy in a different light. But that minor detail was missed out. 

Then there was this ludicrous criticism that Anna's demand for a joint drafting committee would undermine institutions of democracy. From the exalted portals of the National Advisory Council even Aruna Roy sounded this note of caution without pausing to think how this extra-constitutional agency has undermined the high office of the prime minister of India. It needs some convincing to be told that when Ambedkar spoke of preserving constitutional institutions, Sonia Gandhi’s NAC was the exact model in his mind.

How a joint drafting committee would "subvert representative democracy" is beyond comprehension because nowhere in the constitution is such a committee prohibited. The committee would only come up with a draft that would have to pass through the institutions of representative democracy to become law. Activists and think tanks propagating a "vote-in-and-boot-out" form of democracy is tantamount to corruption of another kind – intellectual deceit.

Policy wonks who make a living cooing constantly in the government's ears seemed to suggest that collaboration with civil society other than theirs was dangerous while some members of parliament wondered how the people could dictate policy to parliament. A cricket cliché, nobody is bigger than the game, might help our legislators put things in perspective. Else we could point out to them that corporate bodies such as CII, FICCI and COAI are not exactly charitable trusts…it's another matter that even charitable trusts are not exactly charitable trusts anymore!

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A candlelight vigil held at Jantar Mantar by Hazare's supporters (Photo: Ravi Choudhary)

When all these attempts to derail the agitation only saw it gaining ground rapidly, the attack changed tack to the content of the draft bill. They said the Jan Lokpal Bill would unleash a demon in the form of a supercop-superprosecutor-superjudge. It didn’t matter that Anna Hazare was totally incidental to the agitation (the right symbol at the right time) and his draft bill completely irrelevant to the debate (you could throw it into the bin and come up with an all-new one, all that he was asking for was to be heard). The anger was against the surging corruption and the political conspiracy to kill the Lokpal Bill in the womb no less than eight times. A record to put Kans Mama to shame!

After the government capitulated in four frantic days, the attack shifted back on to the middle class and its "candlelight fetish". A middle class that doesn’t react is a danger to democracy and, as a columnist wrote recently, a middle class that reacts is a bigger danger to democracy! So, what might we do? Ban candles? Bomb the middle class?

Everybody now wants to know if this movement will ultimately succeed. That is what the spurious debate has done: diverted our attention from the great successes already achieved. The government was brought around in all of four days. The first-ever joint committee has been notified – and the expected constitutional quake has not happened, all institutions are holding on fine, thank you. For the first time in decades we proved to ourselves that we hold the power to make governments shiver. We have ensured that the Lokpal Bill will not be stillborn for a ninth time. We have also ensured that when it goes to parliament only the foolhardy will oppose a reasonably stringent Lokpal.

We have discovered a new paradigm in assembly and protest. Internet, mobile and social media can set off viral protests instantly if the issue is as uniting and as urgent as corruption is right now. Yes, there is the danger that such campaigns might have a huge urban bias as now. But let’s not hold that against the middle class, we can’t ask them to put their protests on hold till the last mile connectivity reaches every village. Which it will in the next few years anyway. Oh, yes, in spite of the fact that I did not much cherish Anna and his team working their way into the joint committee (we already know their views, so they should have stepped aside in favour of other luminaries), there is a lot to be happy about.

As I stood there that Friday night at Jantar Mantar, on the "50m of road between a wall and a public urinal" I did not smell the stench. I got a whiff of direct democracy. I don’t know if it will change India for the better. But I do know that India doesn’t need saving from its citizens, even if they are middle class.

For more analyses of Anna Hazare's agitation, pick up the latest issue of Governance Now magazine (April 16-30). For purchase enquiries, call Mr Niaz at +91 88609 01537.

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