April 09, 2011

The Anna Hazare Revolution Is a Triumph of Democracy

Indian Express editor in chief Shekhar Gupta, Centre for Policy Research president Pratap Bhanu Mehta and others calling the people-led success of Anna Hazare, a subversion of democratic institutions need to shed their narrow definition of democracy.

Today is a landmark in the Indian history. For the first time since our independence, the people of our nation have been able to force the government to its knees through unpreceedented and spontaneous mobilisation of millions of people within a remarkably short span to replace a weak anti-corruption bill with one potentially so strong, it could alter the face of governance forever in this country.

Yet, some people are questioning the movement and the process that led to this change. Their primary grouse is that it subverted democratic institutions like the elected members of parliament who represent the common public. Here's a sample:

Indian Express editorial dated 7-Apr: "[Jan Lokpal Bill] is a mishmash of unworkable and dangerous ideas which no government could seriously consider. [...] a belief that [Civil Society] alone can speak for “the people” and elected representatives cannot, is dangerous."

Indian Express editorial dated 8-Apr: "The danger is that such passive-aggressive tactics as a fast to cast a demand as that of civil society’s subverts the constitutional framework."

Indian Express editorial dated 9-Apr: "What, after all, is civil society, and what privileges one group over another to speak for the nation? The only irrefutable proof that you represent the people is that they have voted you in, through a free election."

Pratap Bhanu Mehta in IE dated 7-Apr: "the movement behind the Jan Lokpal Bill is crossing the lines of reasonableness [sic]. It is premised on an institutional imagination that is at best naïve; at worst subversive of representative democracy."

Institutions Have Not Been Subverted

First of all, let's be clear: no government institutions have been subverted, be it the constitution or the parliament. The civil society activists have obtained an *equal* role in the drafting committee, not a majority role. How could this be called a subversion when the elected government gets to keep half the strength and co-chairmainship of the committee?

The gvernment notification ensures that it's not an unofficial committee with no constitutional validity. In fact there's even a precedent to it, as reported by a government source in a news report today -- the committee to disability act was also made up of civil society institutions alongwith government representatives.

It would have been subversion had Anna Hazare said, here's the Jan Lokpal Bill, you better make it an official act or I'll fast to death. But the architects of the movement didn't say that. They argued for a joint constitutional committee whose drafted bill wil be submitted to the cabinet and then after their approval will be tabled in the parliament. Where is the subversion in this?

What is Democracy?

Yes, legislature is the primary prerogative of democratically elected government but to say that the joint drafting committee route is undemocratic would be to remain stuck on a narrow definition of democracy.

Does democracy only mean a government elected by the people? Once elected can they do anything they wish regardless of public support for their decisions? Does the fact they they were voted to a majority give them a license to exploit the country to the best of their advantage?

Unfortunately, in India we have become so accustomed to this meaning of democracy that even our academics and newspaper editors who should know better consider anything else outside of this narrow definition undemocratic.

Wikipedia offers a far more meaningful definition: "Democracy is a form of government in which all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law."

Equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law is precisely what is being sought by Anna Hazare and his supporters in this case. As long as Anna Hazare has the support of the common public how is this process undemocratic?

Anna Hazare Represents The Entire Nation

If there's one thing that stands out crystal clear in this entire episode is that Anna Hazare only provided spark to a fuel of deep anguish against corruption which was already spread all over the nation.

How else does one explain mass mobilisation of thousands of people thronging to the Jantar Mandar and growing in number every passing day, hundreds of solidatory demonstrations, rallies and candle light vigils across the nation, millions of messages on social netowrking sites Twitter and Facebook and strong support across a vast multitude of people from celebreties to the housewives, corporates and school children all over the country.

Yes, the media helped without doubt but media cannot create a movement out of thin air. The fact of the matter is, we are a people sick and tired of experiencing corruption in all walks of life every single day. We've had enough and Anna Hazara, for the very first time, offered us a solution.

So who are these newspaper editors and policy experts saying that the process is unrepresentational as Anna Hazare does not represent the common man just because he doesn't happen to be a elected politician?

After witnessing the scenes on TV does anyone really need proof that the campaign is representational? If one does, an HT-C Fore survey published in HT today shows that the movement has complete backing of people with 84% saying they support Anna Hazare's crusade against corruption. Why then do these democracy purists believe that being elected through a vote is the only criteria for representation?

What Do People Do If Democratic Institutions Fail?

Those arguing that all policy must originate strictly within democratic institutions should suggest what to do if those institutions fail the public as they indeed have in the case of corruption in India. We can surely vote out of the office the leaders we don't like but what if there were no clean choices available while voting?

The only recourse left is to force the policy makers to change if they are not willing to bring in the change the public so desperately wants. As Pratik Kanjilal argues in today's op-ed in Hindustan Times: "In desperate times, when all other options have been exhausted, moral coercion becomes a valid political act." Practically speaking, there was no other way, the government would have brought in a strong Lokpal bill.

By overturning the government on the issue of joint drafting committe, Anna Hazare has achieved a triumph of democracy with no parallel in recent history. It needs to be celebrated rather than questioned. Of course, it's only a beginning of a much longer process but what a beginning! I leave you with this song: "Aarambh Hai Prachand" from the film Gulaal (2009).

0 Comments so far      

Post a Comment

<< Blog Home