Monday, April 11, 2011

Articles on Anna Hazare's Campaign by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Bobby Kunhu Aditya Nigam

At the Risk of Heresy: Why I am not Celebrating with Anna Hazare

http://kafila.org/2011/04/09/at-the-risk-of-heresy-why-i-am-not-celebrating-with-anna-hazare/

At the risk of heresy, let me express my profound unease at the crescendo of euphoria surrounding the ‘Anna Hazare + Jan Lokpal Bill’ phenomenon as it has unfolded on Jantar Mantar in New Delhi and across several hysterical TV stations over the last few days.

This time around, I have to say that the print media has acted (upto now) with a degree of restraint that I think is commendable. Partly, this has to do with the different natures of the two media. If you have to write even five hundred words about the Jan Lokpal bill, you run out of platitudes against corruption in the first sentence (and who can speak ‘for’ corruption anyway?) and after that you have to begin thinking about what the bill actually says, and the moment you do that, you cannot but help consider the actual provisions and their implications. On television on the other hand, you never have to speak for more than a sound-byte, (and the anchor can just keep repeating himself or herself, because that is the anchor’s job) and the accumulation of pious vox-pop sound bytes ‘against corruption’ leads to a tsunami of ‘sentiment’ that brooks no dissent.

Between the last NDA government and the current UPA government, we have probably experienced a continuity of the most intense degree of corruption that this country has ever witnessed. The outcome of the ‘Anna Hazare’ phenomenon allows the ruling Congress to appear gracious (by bending to Anna Hazar’s will) and the BJP to appear pious (by cozying up to the Anna Hazare initiative) and a full spectrum of NGO and ‘civil society’ worthies to appear, as always, even holier than they already are.

Most importantly, it enables the current ruling elite to have just stage managed its own triumph, by crafting a ‘sensitive’ response (ably deployed by Kapil Sibal) to a television media conjured popular upsurge. Meanwhile, the electronic media, by and large, have played their part by offering us the masquerade of a ‘revolution’ that ends up making the state even more powerful than it was before this so called ‘revolution’ began. Some people in the corridors of power must be delighted at the smoothness and economy with which all this has been achieved. Hosni Mubarak should have taken a few lessons from the Indian ruling class about how to have your cake and eat it too on Tahrir Square,

We have been here before. Indira Gandhi’s early years were full of radical and populist posturing, and the mould that Anna Hazare fills is not necessarily the one that JP occupied (despite the commentary that repeatedly invokes JP). Perhaps we should be reminded of the man who was fondly spoken of as ‘Sarkari Sant’ – Vinoba Bhave. Bhave lent his considerable moral stature to the defence of the Internal Emergency (which, of course, dressed itself up in the colour of anti-corruption, anti-black marketeering rhetoric, to neutralize the anti-corruption thrust of the disaffection against Indira Gandhi’s regime). And while we are thinking about parallels in other times, let us not forget a parallel in another time and another place. Let us not forget the example of how Mao’s helmsmanship of the ‘cultural revolution’ skilfully orchestrated popular discontent against the ruling dispensation to strengthen the same ruling dispensation in China.

These are early days, but Anna Hazare may finally go down in history as the man who - perhaps against his own instincts and interests – (I am not disputing his moral uprightness here) - sanctified the entire spectrum of Indian politics by offering it the cosmetic cloak of the provisions of the draft Jan Lokpal Bill. The current UPA regime, like the NDA regime before it, has perfected the art of being the designer of its own opposition. The method is brilliant and imaginative. First, preside over profound corruption, then, utilise the public discontent against corruption to create a situation where the ruling dispensation can be seen as the source of the most sympathetic and sensitive response, while doing nothing, simultaneously, to challenge the abuse of power at a structural level.

I have studied the draft Jan Lokpal Bill carefully and I find some of its features are deeply disturbing. I want to take some time to think through why this appears disturbing to me.

The draft Jan Lokpal bill (as present on the website Indiaagainstcorruption.org) foresees a Lokpal who will become one of the most powerful institutions of state that India has ever known. It will combine in itself the powers of making law, implementing the law, and punishing those who break the law. A lokpal will be ‘deemed a police officer’ and can ‘While investigating any offence under Prevention of Corruption Act 1988, they shall be competent to investigate any offence under any other law in the same case.’

The appointment of the Lokpal will be done by a collegium consisting of several different kinds of people – Bharat Ratna awardees, Nobel prize winners of Indian origin, Magasaysay award winners, Senior Judges of Supreme and High Courts, the Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the Chief Election Commissioner, and members of the outgoing Lokpal board and the Chairpersons of both houses of Parliament. It may be noticed that in this entire body, only one person, the chairperson of the Lok Sabha, is a democratically elected person. No other person on this panel is accountable to the public in any way. As for ‘Nobel Prize Winners of Indian Origin’ they need not even be Indian citizens. The removal of the Lokpal from office is also not something amenable to a democratic process. Complaints will be investigated by a panel of supreme court judges.

This is middle class India’s dream of subverting the ‘messiness’ of democracy come delightfully true. So, now you have to imagine that Lata Mangeshkar (who is a Bharat Ratna), APJ Abul Kalam (Bharat Ratna, ex-President and Nuclear Weapons Hawk) V.S. Naipaul (who is a Nobel Prize Winner of Indian Origin) and spectrum of the kinds of people who take their morning walks in Lodhi Garden – Supreme Court Judges, Election Commissioners, Comptroller & Auditor Generals, NHRC chiefs and Rajya Sabha chairmen will basically elect the person who will run what may well become the most powerful institution in India.

This is a classic case of a privileged elite selecting how it will run its show without any restraint. It sets the precedent for the making of an unaccountable ‘council of guardians’ something like the institution of the ‘Velayat e Faqih’ – a self-selected body of clerics – in Iran who act as a super-state body, unrestrained by any democratic norms or procedures. I do not understand what qualifies Lata Mangeshkar and V.S. Naipaul (whose deeply reactionary views are well known) to take decisions about the future of all those who live in india.

The setting up of the institution of the Lokpal (as it is envisioned in what is held out as the draft Jan Lokpal Bill) needs to be seen, not as the deepening, but as the profound erosion of democracy.

I respect the sentiment that brings a large number of people out in support of the Jan Lokpal Bill movement. but I do not think there has been enough thought given to the implications of the provisions that it seeks to make into law. In these circumstances, one would have ordinarily expected the media to have played a responsible role by acting as a platform for debate and discussion about the issues, so that we can move, as a society, towards a better and more nuanced law. Instead, the electronic media have killed the possibility of any substantive discussion by creating a spectacle. It is absolutely imperative that this space be reclaimed by those who are genuinely interested in a serious discussion about what corruption represents in our society and in our political culture.

Clearly, there is a popular rage, (and not confined to earnest middle class people alone) about the helplessness that corruption engenders around us. But we have to ask very carefully whether this bill actually addresses the structural issues that cause corruption. In setting up a super-state body, that is almost self selecting and virtually unaccountable, it may in fact laying the foundations of an even more intense concentration of power. And as should be clear to all of us by now, nothing fosters corruption as much as the concentration of unaccountable and unrestrained power.

I am not arguing against the provision of an institution of a Lokpal, or Ombudsman, (and some of the provisions even in this draft bill – such as the provision of protection for whistle-blowers, are indeed commendable) but if we want to take this institution seriously, within a democratic political culture, we have to ask whether the methods of initiating and concluding the term of office of the Lokpal conforms to democratic norms or not. There are many models of selecting Ombudsmen available across the world, but I have never come across a situation where a country decides that Nobel Prize winners and those awarded with state conferred honours can be entrusted with the task selecting those entrusted with the power to punish people. I have also never come across the merging of the roles of investigator, judge and prosecutor within one office being hailed as the triumph of democratic values.

Nothing serves power better than the spectacle of resistance. The last few days have witnessed an unprecedented choreography of the spectacle of a united action. As I type this, I am watching visuals on Times Now, where a crescendo of cheesy ‘inspirational’ music strings together a montage of flag-waving children speaking in hypnotic unison. This kind of unison scares me. It reminds me of the happy synchronized calisthenics of the kind that totalitarian regimes love to use to produce the figure of their subjects. And all fascist regimes begin by sounding the tocsin of ‘cleansing’ society of corruption and evil.

When four Bombay page three worthies, Rishi Kapoor, Prithwish Nandy, Anupam Kher, Anil Dharker conduct a shrill inquisition (as they did on the Newshour on Times Now) against two co-panelists, Meenakshi Lekhi and Hartosh Singh Bal simply because they were not sounding ‘cheerful and celebratory’ (Anupam Kher even disapproved of their ‘body posture’) I begin to get really worried. The day we feel self-conscious and inhibited about expressing even non-verbally, or silently, our disappointment in public about a public issue, is the day when we know that authoritarian values have taken a firm hold on public discourse.

Of course, there are other reasons to get worried. All we need now is for someone, say like Baba Ramdev (one of the worthies behind Anna Hazare’s current campaign) to go on a fast on Jantar Mantar in support of some draconian and reactionary measure dear to him, backed by thousands of pious, earnest television supported, pranayamic middle class supporters.

Having said this, lets also pause to consider that it’s not as if others have not been on hunger strike before – Irom Sharmila has been force fed for several years now – but I do not see her intransigence being translated into a tele-visually orchestrated campaign against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The impunity that AFSPA breeds is nothing short of a corruption that eats deep into the culture of democracy, and yet, here, moral courage, and the refusal to eat, does not seem to work.

The current euphoria needs to be seen for what it is – a massive move towards legitimizing a strategy of simple emotional blackmail – a (conveniently reversible) method of suicide bombing in slow motion. There is no use dissenting against a pious worthy on a fast, because any effort to dissent will be immediately read as a callous indifference to his/her ‘sacrifice’ by the moral-earnestness brigade. Nothing can be more dangerous for democracy. Unrestrained debate and a fealty to accountable processes are the only means by which a democratic culture can sustain itself. The force of violence, whether it is inflicted on others, or on the self, or held out as a performance, can only act coercively. And coercion can never nourish democracy.

Finally, if, as a society, we were serious about combating the political nexus that sustains corruption – we would be thinking seriously about extending the provisions of the Right to Information Act to the areas where it can not currently operate – national security and defence; we would also think seriously about electoral reform – about proportional representation, about smaller constituencies, about strengthening local representative bodies, about the provision of uniform public funding for candidates and about the right to recall elected representatives. These are serious questions. The tragedy that we are facing today is that the legitimate public outrage against corruption is being channeled in a profoundly authoritarian direction that actually succeeds in creating a massive distraction.

In all the noise there has been a lot of talk about cynicism, and anyone who has expressed the faintest doubt has been branded as a cynic. I do not see every expression of doubt in this context as cynicism, though some may be. Instead, I see the fact that those who often cry hoarse about ‘democratic values’ seem to be turning a blind eye to the authoritarian strains within this draft ‘Jan Lokpal Bill’ as a clear indication of how powerful the politics of cynicism actually is.

I hope that eventually, once the din subsides, better sense will prevail, and we can all begin to think seriously, un-cynically about what can actually be done to combat the abuse and concentration of power in our society.

Allow me to pick and choose my revolutions. I am not celebrating at Jantar Manta tonight. Good night.


Of a Few, By a Few, For the Few: Bobby Kunhu

http://kafila.org/2011/04/10/of-a-few-by-a-few-for-the-few-bobby-kunhu/

I am distinctly uncomfortable with predictions – using either scientific or unscientific tools. For me it smacks of charlatanry – from astrology to psephology to stock market speculation. But with the charade that was unleashed for the past few days on news television by the mainstream media and of course at Jantar Mantar and a few other town squares across the “mainstream” Indian political landscape by Anna Hazare’s fast – I did dare to make an attempt – both at prediction and more comfortably with dissent. I foretold the outcome of the fast tableau at an emergency meeting that was convened by some co-travellers at the Salem Citizen’s Forum to debate on whether and how to show solidarity to Anna Hazare.

For a cricket obsessed national psyche reeling in the inebriation of the recent world cup victory – Anna Hazare was pitted to win this match comfortably – I was willing to place my bet on my prediction. And here I am trying to reckon the how and why of this prediction for me and the numerous friends and acquaintances who have been trying to rope me into joining facebook groups and sign electronic petitions in support of Anna Hazare’s crusade (or is it revolution?). And others who were indignant at my facebook post of Manu Joseph’s irreverent article or at Sudeep’s post in his diary.

Win-win

Well, it is not just Anna Hazare and his team who won this match comfortably. All actors who joined the show have won the match. Everyone – the “civil society” that sat on fast at Jantar Mantar and other places, the Corporate media, the glamour world, the Government, political establishment of all hues and shades – everyone who bothered to join the game. It was like bathing in the Ganges during the Maha Kumbh – everyone’s sins were washed away. And of course nobody in their right minds regardless of political affiliations or ideologies could take a position “for corruption”!!! A veritable Bush-ian position — either you are with Anna Hazare or you are with corruption. And yes, India Incorporated has won the match and it is time for celebrations!

The timing of course was impeccable. The drama was enacted exactly for five days in the interregnum between the cricket World Cup finals and the first Indian Premier League match leaving no scope for other infotainment distractions!

The timing also seems to be impeccable for reasons apart from TRP. India Inc. was facing a credibility crisis and the crisis had managed to drag the office of the most iconic representative of the lot – Dr. Manmohan Singh into every dreadful business. And then every representative of India Inc. seemed to be at the receiving end of the crisis – corporate houses to media icons. From Kashmir to Tamil Nadu – Manipur to Chattisgarh – people in the margins seemed to be mobilizing themselves trying to take their fights into their own hands. Mere cricket was not enough. A more serious national diversion was required – a diversion that would also help in subverting the multiple simmering discourses on democracy.

So what happened?

Anna Hazare announced a fast-unto-death – hold your horses – demanding that “the government agrees to form a joint committee comprising 50 per cent officials and the remaining citizens and intellectuals to draft the Jan Lokpal Bill,” – nothing less, nothing more. In other words Anna Hazare announced a fast unto death till people he thinks are qualified for the job are included in the group that is responsible for a legislation that is within the incumbent Government’s agenda. And going by the tenor of his letter to the Prime Minister dated 6th April 2011 is anything to go by, he would also like to have a say in the composition of the committee/Group of Ministers that has oversight over the process of this particular legislation.

So, what Mr. Hazare is praying for is a corruption free India and he hopes to get there through his version of an Ombudsman Legislation and he is on a hunger strike to ensure the composition of the team in charge of setting this legislation in place. Well, this throws up more disturbing concerns. Physically he conducted this prayer in the backdrop of a buxom picture of Bharat Mata bejeweled to the hilt including the proverbial crown standing on a white flex board Indian map!

So, Mr. Hazare and his friends went on hunger strike to realize this prayer with the blessings of the likes of Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar. This was one particular dais that was truly homogenous in its caste-community-class composition. I was reminded of the historian Bipin Chandra’s analysis attributing the onus of thrusting the Hindutva Right on the Indian political mainstream on Jayaprakash Narayan and his anti-emergency coalition.

What was the response?

Obviously the Prime Minister expressed his dissatisfaction over Anna Hazare’s decision to go on a fast without forgetting to assert his profound respect for the man. Others soon joined the bandwagon. From the ruling United Progressive Alliance allies to the opposition National Democratic Alliance all of them joined the Anna Hazare choir and aptly expressed disgust over the prevailing state of (corruption) affairs. Left parties — mainstream as well as others, could not resist it either. Team Anna Hazare got its first wicket when Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar quietly resigned from the Lokpal bill related group of ministers (there has to be at least one resignation in the recipe for revolution). And once everyone had their fair bit of airtime at the crease – the Government threw in the towel. It accepted almost every demand that team Anna Hazare made and celebrations are afoot with India Inc. on that glorious road to that exhilarating freedom from corruption. At the end of five days of high drama everyone is happy with this victory to democracy and ready to live happily ever after.

So, what am I cribbing about in this hunky dory script of universal happiness?

What qualifies as corruption?

Firstly, the notion of corruption itself in the imaginations of both Anna Hazare’s version of the Lok Pal Bill and that of the Government’s seems to be in tandem – very simplistic and all that it would require to set things in correctional mode would be a school”master”ish cane – oops legislation. In other words, given the quantum of punishment and stringency of the legislation, the Lok Pal will ensure that from the Union Telecom Minister to the lowly Train Ticket Examiner will desist from taking bribes and more importantly everyone from the greedy telecom companies to the eager railway passenger will forthwith stop trying to bribe them regardless of their greed or need. This imagination of corruption somehow seemed to suit everyone who joined the Anna Hazare bandwagon from Lalit Modi to Barkha Dutt to Rahul Bajaj. Because this imagination would effectively prosecute Madhu Koda & Raja, while Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram would remain the knights in shining armour. Somehow the forces or agencies that facilitate structural spaces in which corruption thrives represented for me by the present composition of the Union Cabinet seems to be outside the ambit of these collective imaginations of corruption.

The freedom fighters

Next, the question of agency. Anna Hazare himself dubbed his hunger strike as the second freedom struggle – and of course – his corporate media promoters sold the idea to all like-minded wannabe freedom fighters. Though I am not sure of the numbers, a few hundred or even thousand people expressing solidarity was projected as the entire nation on the road to revolution and this was repeated over and over again reminding one of the adage that a lie repeated often enough becomes truth.

In what can only be described as complete lack of imagination and an insult to both the peoples of Egypt and India – the hunger strike was dubbed as India’s Tahrir Square! The joke is that one of the Anna Hazare acolytes who turned up for the Salem Citizen’s Forum meeting wanted the forum to take up the cause because the local Tamil media had totally ignored the hunger strike!! So much for the national character of the strike.

But Barkha Dutt did one better. She did a special show of The Buck Stops Here on Anna Hazare at Chennai and her voiced reason for the choice of location being 2G scam having become the buzzword for corruption. To add insult to injury – she declared her profound love to the Tamil people! If only she had done a little bit of homework or watched her own channel, she would have realized that the 2G scam hardly plays any role in the Tamil Nadu voters’ choice. Though, corruption does figure in the priority list of the Tamil Nadu voter – but a corruption that neither she nor her colleagues in Corporate Television media would acknowledge and rather would gloss over.

The fences that feed on the crops

Now, at the culmination of the hunger strike drama – a committee has been notified to draft the Lokpal bill. The composition of the committee itself reveals the seriousness of the drama. The government representatives include P. Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal – lawyers who have represented the interests of Corporate India as individuals (board members) and lawyers in and out of power. The lesser said about the process in which the civil society representatives were arrived the better – for there was hardly a process and all of them are all active participants in the Anna Hazare drama.

In 2003, as the editorial coordinator of the Citizen’s Report on Govrnance and Development (a full-time civil society position), we celebrated the marked shift in the social composition of the Parliament which many of us saw as deepening of democracy. In 2011, a motley bunch of homogenous people claim to be the sole representatives civil society and the Government of the day conveniently recognizes them – it smacks of a shift towards an oligarchic dispensation swinging between a Prime Minister who prefers not to face direct electoral challenges and a self-appointed civil society messiah.

What is even more bizarre and insulting is the repeated argument that there is no one else in the country more eligible to take on corruption than Anna Hazare. The argument insults the multitudes that have been carrying on their struggles in various parts of India.

Overriding the Constitution

More than that the drama insults Constitutional mechanisms and processes thereunder – thereby insulting the very notion of “We, the People”. The need for a Constitutional process is to ensure institutional transparency and accountability. Whatever might be the pitfalls of political culture of transparency in India – the only institutional mechanism of making day to day governance accountable are the Constitutional processes. For instance the Right to Information Act is applicable only to State actors – so regardless of the Government notification and the bona fides of the actors concerned – how do Citizens ensure accountability from the self-appointed civil society guardians – or are they so sacred as to remain outside the scope and need for accountability.

In what can be termed an ironic twist – the draft Jan Lokpal Bill brings in newer categories of eligibility to the selection committee for appointment of Lokpal – Magsaysay Award winners and Nobel laureates of Indian origin. I keep wondering why these awards and why the insistence on “Indian” origin (I hope Sonia Gandhi reads this). Maybe it is mere coincidence that many of the faces that have appeared in this drama have a Magsaysay award tucked under their belt (and a sacred thread over their shoulder).

Meanwhile in its enthusiasm for a corruption free India and prescriptions for stringent punishment and easier prosecution– Anna Hazare and team seem to have no qualms in sacrificing precious civil liberty provisions inbuilt into the criminal justice system and prescribed by the Indian Constitution. While Baba Ramdev, one of the mentors of Anna Hazare’s crusade advocates capital punishment for the corrupt, the draft bill itself blurs the line between investigation and adjudication. It makes the Lokpal a super cop with adjudicatory and delegated legislative powers.

If the Jan Lokpal bill is accepted – it would achieve what the Malimath Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System could not – subversion of the Criminal Justice system. At the risk of repetition, I would point out that the bulldozing by Malimath Committee could be stopped because that committee and the implementation of its recommendations were subject to Constitutional procedures. What would emerge would be another draconian legislation which would be used to hound and prosecute political dissent – this time “corruption” would replace “terrorism” and “Maoism”. And this time the law would be presumed to have the sanction of a purported civil society.

Of a lesser concern is the fact that Republic India’s record at social reforms through criminal legislations has been abysmal – if in doubt – look at the implementation of the Dowry Prohibition Act or the SC/ST Atrocities Act. Dowry is as prevalent as ever while India Inc. continues to lynch Dalits and dispossess Adivasi

Who Loses?

The major casualty in this whole drama was democracy itself. Through short cuts and “royal avenues”, the power goes back into the hands of a select few, undoing a process of over sixty years of democratization of the country. Those few decide what is in the best interest of the country, and what is not. No prizes for guessing the class and caste composition of this select few.

Tailpiece

Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar is in for stiff competition for the next Bharat Ratna from Kisan Bapat Baburao Hazare – a very difficult choice indeed between before the nation. Or are we looking at two awardees next season? That could be a fitting “double climax” for the viewers of live Indian English Television!



‘Anna Hazare’, Democracy and Politics: A Response to Shuddhabrata Sengupta

http://kafila.org/2011/04/10/anna-hazare-democracy-and-politics-a-response-to-shuddhabrata-sengupta/#more-7311

In an earlier post, (hits to which have broken all records on Kafila), Shuddhabrata Sengupta has raised some extremely important points in the context of the media-simulated coverage and celebrations around the ‘Anna Hazare’ movement. I agree with the central argument made by Shuddha – which is about the authoritarian, indeed totalitarian implications of the proposed Jan Lokpal Bill (though, as many commentators to the post have pointed out, the Bill really remains to be drafted and passed in parliament).

I have no doubt whatsoever that any demand that simply seeks a law of the sort that has been raised by the movement (even in the proposed form), is completely counterproductive. Indeed, it is naive. Matters like corruption or communalism cannot simply be legislated out of existence through tougher laws. Inevitably, they will lead us up to China type situations where you will end up demanding summary trials and executions. Even in the best of cases, a law and state-dependent mode of addressing such problems, adds to the powers of a corrupt bureaucracy. I also agree with his (and Bobby Kunhu’s) criticisms of some aspects of what they have both chosen to designate as ‘mass hysteria’ of sorts – I certainly do not agree with this description but that need not detain us here. I am interested in something else here and that has to do with the way the movement has struck a chord among unprecedentedly large numbers of people – mainly middle class people I am sure, but the support for it is not just confined to them. In fact, on the third day of the dharna at Jantar Mantar I received an excited call from a CPM leader who works among the peasants in villages of northern India in the Kisan Sabha, about the response to the movement he had encountered in his constituency. I doubt that this was a support simulated either by the government or by the electronic media.

On 30th January this year, when many of us were participating in a largish demonstration in Delhi demanding the release of Binayak Sen, precisely on that day a huge demonstration was held on this issue of the Jan Lokpal Bill. The fact that all the usual suspects like us were there at the Binayak Sen demonstration, meant that there were innumerable others, not the usual suspects, who were there at this other rally. Yes, some people could have been in both places, but by and large, the presence at the two rallies was very different. And there was no ‘media-simulated mass hysteria’ at that point. If Arnab Goswami and Times Now (and other TV channels) have now picked up the issue, that can be read as trying to appropriate a movement that was gathering strength independently of them. (By the way, it is also instructive to see the anger of the demonstrators at India Gate against Barkha Dutt in the video postes by Anirban in a comment on Shuddha’s post.) And if one looks at the cast of characters who have been associated with the mobilization, there are many (including Anna Hazare himself) who have been working tirelessly in villages and towns across the country. And while I hold no brief for Anna Hazare or the others, to reduce the entire movement to a media-simulated, anti-political middle class urge is to completely misread the signs.

What is disturbing in Shuddha’s post is the attribution of a kind of conspiracy where, apparently, UPA government and the electronic media have been complicit in ‘orchestrating’ this movement. I think this claim not only does not stand up to any actual scrutiny of facts on the ground but is, on the contrary, based on the mode of reasoning that is a staple of political rhetoric:

“We have been here before. Indira Gandhi’s early years were full of radical and populist posturing, and the mould that Anna Hazare fills is not necessarily the one that JP occupied (despite the commentary that repeatedly invokes JP). Perhaps we should be reminded of the man who was fondly spoken of as ‘Sarkari Sant’ – Vinoba Bhave. Bhave lent his considerable moral stature to the defence of the Internal Emergency (which, of course, dressed itself up in the colour of anti-corruption, anti-black marketeering rhetoric, to neutralize the anti-corruption thrust of the disaffection against Indira Gandhi’s regime).”

This passage is then followed up by a reference to the regime sponsored mass mobilization of the cultural revolution in China. Suggestions like these are taken to new heights in Bobby Kunhu’s post when he says:

“The timing also seems to be impeccable for reasons apart from TRP. India Inc. was facing a credibility crisis and the crisis had managed to drag the office of the most iconic representative of the lot – Dr. Manmohan Singh into every dreadful business. And then every representative of India Inc. seemed to be at the receiving end of the crisis – corporate houses to media icons. From Kashmir to Tamil Nadu – Manipur to Chattisgarh – people in the margins seemed to be mobilizing themselves trying to take their fights into their own hands. Mere cricket was not enough. A more serious national diversion was required – a diversion that would also help in subverting the multiple simmering discourses on democracy.”

What is the evidence for any of these claims? Give me any event, and I can guarantee you that I will cook up a conspiracy scenario (of the kind that Shuddha and Bobby do) with circumstantial ‘evidence’ of this nature. Our discomfort at certain kinds of mobilization cannot and must not become a reason for us to pass off that discomfort in rhetorical claims about the mobilization.

It is interesting that Shuddha and Bobby Kunhu posit this movement as one that is directed against democracy, in terms almost identical to those of Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Mehta argues:

“But the claim that the “people” are not represented by elected representatives, but are represented by their self-appointed guardians is disturbing. In a democracy, one ought to freely express views. But anyone who claims to be the “authentic” voice of the people is treading on very thin ice indeed. It is a form of Jacobinism that is intoxicated with its own certainties about the people. It is not willing to subject itself to an accountability, least of all to the only mechanism we know of designating representatives: elections.”

This can be said of any movement and any popular struggle; indeed, Mehta has made it his vocation to argue for liberal, procedural democracy every time there is a mass movement. From Mehta’s point of view – and from the point of view of the powers-that-be – this is a perfect argument for their intention is absolutely clear. They do not want the boat rocked under any circumstances. Every form of dissent must be tamed and brought within the ambit of the rotting structure of the parliamentary system, under whose sign every single act of fleecing of the people has taken place – Suresh Kalmadi, Sheila Dikshit, the Bellary brothers, the heroes of the 2G spectrum scam (and of course the Nira Radia folk!). We have been silent witnesses to the political system - to which Mehta sings paeans and whose virtues Shuddha seems to have suddenly discovered – lying prostrate before the marauders and looters of public money. Now, I understand where Pratap Mehta is coming from but Shuddha, when you say the following, I am stumped:

“Finally, if, as a society, we were serious about combating the political nexus that sustains corruption – we would be thinking seriously about extending the provisions of the Right to Information Act to the areas where it can not currently operate – national security and defence; we would also think seriously about electoral reform – about proportional representation, about smaller constituencies, about strengthening local representative bodies, about the provision of uniform public funding for candidates and about the right to recall elected representatives. These are serious questions. “

Electoral reform! And who will contest the elections, dear Shuddha? The same lot who from the Right to Centre to Left have now distinguished themselves by their service to corporate capital and their fleecing of the public exchequer? Here you almost begin to sound like a bourgeois policy-maker (or political theorist) advising saner and more responsible methods. I am also surprised that you find the threat to democracy coming from a movement that makes its demands to the government and the parliament, and makes them in the most peaceful, non-violent manner possible! After all, it is the parliament and the political parties that will have to draft the Bill (or give the draft the final shape) and pass it in parliament. What can be more democratic than that? For even the people behind the current draft of the bill know that this cannot but go through a period of negotiation, scrutiny and democratic debate, if the Bill has to become law.

I think it is also important to underline that for many years now, in India at least, issues have been posed outside the domains where formal politics takes place. Think of all the important issues that have been raised over the last two decades: the question of land acquisition, mass displacement of populations, nuclear energy, communalism and the anti-communal struggles, Right to Information, Forests Rights Act…none of these issues, have either been raised or even debated in parliament except under mass pressure. Was there even a squeak from the worthies of Left and Right who populate the parliament and legislatures, each time the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam was raised? Was there a squeak when innumerable villages and towns like Harsud and Tehri, drowned for the sake of the luxurious consumption of the metropolitan middle classes? So, your sudden faith in the system and its democracy, and your claim that only those who contest elections can be really ‘representative of the people,’ really surprises me.

The current movement, to me, is only a sign of the fact that there is no faith any longer in any of the institutions of parliamentary democracy among large sectors of the Indian population. Increasingly, their issues emerge through those whom you and Mehta dismiss as the ‘self-appointed representatives of the masses’. Indeed, I fear that if movements of this kind are also dismissed, and with the political class long out of reckoning, there is really no other option that the large masses of people will be left with except to support non-democratic Maoist-type outfits. I cannot help recalling here the long debate on Maoism that we had on Kafila where I had, among others, argued about the efficacy of democratic struggles in stalling many an SEZ project. Not one of those struggles Shuddha, had the prior permission of the state and its certification of being led by a “legitimate elected representative” of the people. They were democratic struggles nevertheless, at least in my sense of the term.

Mass movements throw up their own leadership, and sometimes the pulse of the masses is sensed by a charismatic leader. To de-legitimize this phenomenon by claiming the formal electoral process as the only reflection of democracy is to limit democracy to its most formal liberal procedural version. I think we need to remember that the Right to Information Act itself, is a product of a movement which has indeed gone far beyond the confines of a purely liberal provision and has invited some of the most violent reprisals from the those whose corrupt practices it affects. People have been killed – often with the connivance of political parties and their leaders – for using the provisions of the RTI. These people have no other recourse but work with ‘self-appointed’ leaders – usually a term deployed by power for those who have not received the official stamp of approval by the state.

3 comments:

Hindi SMS said...

Annaji, you just remain as a crusader for Anti Corruption movement and kindly do not break your Mind for any political out fit. You should know that without any Political Party, neither you nor any one can get the Jan Lokpal bill passed in the Parliament and implemented in this Country. Respect your age and act accordingly. Too much strain is not good for your Health.

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