Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Anna Hazare, Delhi Calm and the importance of democracy

There are many wonderful things about Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign, but the current draft of the Lokpal Bill may not be one of them

I'm a fairly disciplined fellow--'inflexible' if you are in a less charitable mood.  Along with that, I confess I have somewhat of an addictive personality. However, thanks to the disciplinarian in me, I'm not an alcoholic and I no longer smoke. But I do wrestle with my share of demons. Like the computer--and media in general.

Periodically, I try to cleanse my system by going on a week-long media fast. NoTV, no facebook, no blogger, no email--no computer at all. Because I'm disciplined/inflexible, I set the Dhaba on autopilot and schedule a couple of posts ahead of time. I allow myself a daily paper once or twice to avoid total withdrawal. Then I spend the time I save with the family and friends, take walks, read books--that kind of thing.  

Coincidentally, that's what I was doing for seven straight days last week while Anna Hazare was engaging in another, much more important and serious fast. I confess I heard rumours of it, and I was sorely tempted to hop on-line to see what it was all about. Regular readers of the Dhaba know that  I HATE corruption, and I'd love to see us come up with some kind of way to fight it effectively. But what good is a fast if you don't stick to it? By Saturday afternoon, when I broke my fast, Hazare had already broken his.  The family and I did head down to India Gate to 'be part of history' that evening. It was a strange scene, but I'll save that for another time. At that point, I confess, both Mrs. Batti and I were still having a difficulty explaining the whole issue to the kids. They understand corruption just fine. But the details of the Lokpal Bill? 

When we got back home, I fired up Facebook, and read 'At the Risk of Heresy: Why I am not Celebrating with Anna Hazare.' The piece is by Shuddhabrata Sengupta from SARAI. I don't always agree with Shuddha (I don't always agree with anybody, actually), but he nearly always has an interesting perspective. The central thrust of his argument is worth considering. Here's a taste:
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. 
It felt so good to see so many people all over the country standing up against corruption. But I found Sengupta's argument compelling and disturbing. Maybe that's because because in addition to two and a half collections of poetry and several children's books, last week I finally read Vishwajyoti Ghosh's graphic novel, Delhi Calm.  It's a good book--well worth reading. Set during the Emergency, Delhi Calm reminds us of what can happen when we allow the subversion of democracy for a 'good cause.' The crackdown during Emergency, after all, was justified in part as a fight against corruption, and a lot of good people supported it because of that. But in the end, however, it was about other, less noble things.  

There is little question that Anna Hazare and other anti-corruption leaders are committed, thoughtful people. I'm glad they are out there shaking things up. But let's not forget that the strength of this movement is not the righteousness of one man or the demand for a Lokpal Bill which seeks to reign in corruption by creating an institution which lets us avoid the inevitable messiness of democracy. The strength of this movement is that it has mobilised people across the country to hold our elected leaders accountable for their corrupt and profoundly un-democratic use of public resources and power. 

As this Bill--and the loose movement that is pushing it--moves forward, let's hope there is continued debate about the best way to handle what we all agree is one of the worst problems facing the country today.


  1. I'm happy to see a very moderate and middle path approach to the whole episode. Lets not get overwhelmed with the fast and post fast scenario. I'm happy that we are moving in some direction-but it may not be correct approach.

  2. Very well written post. Like the previous commentator, I am glad to read a ' middle path' approach. I especially agree with your second last paragraph.

  3. nice piece on some difficult dilemmas

  4. Thank you, thank you, for this voice of sanity at last!

  5. Kabir, pRiyA, Lina, and Sumana,

    Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad this is making sense. Back in December, I was predicting the government would fall over 2G/CWG by August. We've had more revelations since then, but now I'm not so sure...they seem so good at convincing us that 1. there is no alternative and 2. they are working on the problem. Whatever happens to UPA II, something clearly needs to be done about corruption. Let's see what comes of this.

  6. I don't believe there has been any subversion of democracy. After all, we're only discussing the draft bill. It still has to go through the Union cabinet and parliament etc. There's no rule saying that a democratic government can't draft a bill by any means possible.

    I would call Hazare's movement undemocratic only if he threatened to break into parliament and remove everyone from the government in case he didn't get what he wanted. But he hasn't said that till now and nor will he.

    After all, what is the threat? The entire movement is nonviolent and so the government can safely ignore him no matter what he says. The question of non democratic means arrives only when we talk about violence and losing our fundamental rights. None of which is an issue here.

    Bottom line: What's to prevent the government from simply ignoring Hazare? What's the very worst that could happen? Hazare would die. So what? Does that mean the sky will explode? No.

    What's the threat??

  7. @Bhagwad--As usual, you are making a lot of sense.


What do you think?