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Are the change-makers here to stay?

August 20, 2011

Jantar Mantar. Delhi. April 2011. I was there.

I should probably put these words on a T-shirt and wear it proudly for posterity, lest I forget the electric atmosphere and appetite for change I witnessed in that magical time and place. Clearly, Annasaheb Hazare and members of his coterie – most of whom have enviable credentials – had captured the imagination of the nation. At least for the time being.

Cornered by Annasaheb’s potent nonviolent protest, the Union government took the unprecedented decision to discuss the formulation of the Lokpal Bill with “Team Anna.” This event in itself will be remembered as a symbolic milestone in Indian democracy. The subtext: the highest elected body of the land was meeting self-nominated civilians to discuss a legislative matter – the formation of a nominated quasi-constitutional body with extraordinary powers to investigate and prosecute charges of corruption in the highest echelons of the government. Was this really happening? Yes, it was.

Given how the government behaved during the discussions and shortly thereafter, it is quite clear that it just wanted to buy enough time to dissipate the social energy generated by Annasaheb. During the process, it also tried its best to discredit all members of Team Anna and also highlight the Parliament’s sovereign right to legislate laws. It was too late for that. Once the government cocked a snook at Annasaheb, he returned to the waiting arms of the public – yes, they were still waiting, contrary to the government’s calculations. And this time, Annasaheb wanted the protest to be larger, nothing short of a “second Independence movement.” Unbelievably, his groundswell of support had increased in the interim. In a moment of panic, the government arrested Team Anna and sent it to Tihar Jail, which currently houses the biggest corruption-practitioners of the era. This only enraged the protestors. The government sunk into a deeper panic and hastily released everybody. In the process, it gave Annasaheb the permission to stage his fast in the accommodating expanse of the Ramlila ground in the capital.

By this time, the media had fallen in love with what’s promising to be the biggest story of the year, perhaps the decade. Self-appointed intellectuals lamented that the media had amplified a feeble phenomenon, conveniently forgetting that the India media is too corporatised to chase news that’s not newsworthy. Meanwhile, a section of the media and the elite accused the movement of being “unsophisticated” (so was the French Revolution), “middle-class” (as if this in itself is a sin) and “self-righteous” (as if any of us have escaped this particular sin).

In the past few days, it has been proven beyond doubt that this movement has extended beyond the middle-class. Other than the much-highlighted dabbawallahs of Mumbai, the movement has also inspired poor people who pay bribes to Public Distribution System officials to get their allotted share of subsidised food products. Reports from rural India suggest that it is onboard, though not as vociferously as the urban areas. Indeed, appreciable segments of the urban web-enabled masses have risen from their Twitter/FB-haunches and shown up at the chosen venues of protest in every major Indian city. In the middle of work week, they’ve stood in the rain and mouthed rousing slogans such as Inquilab Zindabad and Vande Mataram.

Whether they realise it or not, these people are demanding that the government undergo a paradigm shift – they’re no longer happy with representative model of democracy; they want it to be participative. This is a mammoth responsibility, a process that transcends a single issue (corruption) or the leadership of the icon of the moment (Annasaheb). It demands the maturity to accommodate diverse, often conflicting, ideas. As a starting point, I’d ask the people wanting to make this transition to a participative democracy to consider the following mantras:

1. Set an example

If you don’t like corruption, then don’t bribe. Protests have an audience. Corruption usually doesn’t. So do you behave honourably when nobody’s watching? And I don’t just mean refusing to bribe the traffic cop. Do you, for instance, occasionally become your boss’ Yes Man? When a government servant does the same, it can be construed as a form of corruption. Think about it.

2. Don’t idolise any individual

The army background and moralistic outlook of Annasaheb Hazare has led to a greener, more prosperous Ralegan Siddhi. Unfortunately, it has also tinted the place with authoritarianism (exhaustive details available here). Despite the current euphoria, please remember that no social upheaval, however desirable and benign, should impinge on the right of the individual. More specifically, the office of the Lokpal cannot, under any circumstances, be allowed to operate with impunity. Annasaheb is already acting thus by setting a deadline for passing a new law. Should this be acceptable?

3. Consider implementation angles

So you’re convinced about the necessity of the office of the Lokpal. Fine. Now consider this:

• Give any public office a free rein, and allow enough time for it to decay, it will sprout characteristics that countermand the welfare of the people. Are you sure that an institution that interfaces with a murky political establishment, on a daily basis, will remain clean? How will you ensure that? In other words, who will watch the new watchdog? While answering this question, remember that the Lokpal Bill is likely to be amended in the years to come. It’s not enough to say that the current draft is good enough.

• The nominated members of the Lokpal will be, at best, honest and ideologically-driven or, at worst, secretly greedy. Will they therefore have the aptitude or attitude to steer what promises to be another bureaucratic institution? Will they have the managerial skills, tenacity and PR skills to run a rapidly-growing institution (assuming the entire rank and file of the government comes under its purview)?

4. Don’t belittle institutions

No matter how much make-up we apply over it, the fact remains that Annasaheb’s protest is a challenge to existing democratic institutions. Comparisons with the Mahatma are ill-advised. Gandhiji was fighting imperialism. Annasaheb is fighting a dysfunctional democracy. It’s just not the same. We couldn’t elect a new colonial master. We can, however, elect a new government. So Annasaheb’s movement can be seen to address the unresponsiveness of our elected governments. Therefore, consider:

• Theoretically, the Indian Constitution is robust and visionary. The trouble has been in its implementation. Do you think the Lokpal can wave a magic wand – which the PM lacks, by his own admission – and set things right? Isn’t it a better idea to clean up existing institutions than introduce a new one?

• The biggest achievement of the Indian political class has been its ability to numb the masses into silent surrender. Now that you’ve given this class a healthy dose of stage fright, will you not wait for a better performance? They may be more eager to put on a better show than you think. Democracies around the world have demonstrated that governments operate at the level of efficiency people demand of them.

• We’re usually asked to elect the least terrifying politician to represent our constituency. In other words, we aren’t given a real choice. But do you know that dedicated activists are clamouring for the amendment of Rule 49-O of The Conduct of Election Rules? As of now, this rule allows a voter to record his decision not to cast his vote for any candidate. This rule could be amended to call for a re-election if enough people opt for 49-O. Were such an amendment to catch the fancy of the nation, political parties will be encouraged to field qualified candidates instead of influential scum. If you’re looking for a Constitutional means to fight corruption and create a better class of politicians, this is it.

Overall, the point I’m making is this: social change-making is a fulltime occupation. Those of us who can’t dedicate ourselves to it must just do our bit to strengthen our institutions. That becomes our change-making model.

We, as a nation, may or may not implement the office of the Lokpal. But neither possibility should stop us from becoming holistic, knowledgeable and questioning change-makers.

Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.