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

Saturday April 09, 2011 10:10:31 PM, Shuddhabrata Sengupta

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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 of 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 priviledged elite selecting how it will run its show without any restraint. It sets the precedent for the making of an un accountable ‘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 choregraphy of the spectacle of a united action. As I type this, I am watching visuals on Times Now, where a crescendo of cheezy ‘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 Its not as if others have not been on hunger strikes 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.






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