Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal – a puppet on a string?

Like most Indians, I have been following the anti-corruption movement that has taken center stage in India over the past few months. Anna Hazare and his Friends have been staging protests seeking a tough anti-corruption law. I must confess that the attention that this movement has commanded is indeed remarkable – I would say too remarkable for comfort to be a spontaneous venting we are used to seeing all these years in India. The speed and professionalism with which Anna Fast I and Anna Fast II have been organized has not missed anyone’s notice.  Further, many have also noticed the ultra-professionalism with which the media has been handled. Contrast this with Baba Ramdev’s fast at Ramlila maidan and the chaos that descended there when police sought to disperse the gathering.

Given the fact that Anna Hazare has risen up from humble beginnings and his work has largely been in rural Maharashtra, the display of slick organizational and media management skills stands out.  Let’s face it – in India only a large national political party – either the Congress or the BJP – has the muscle and means to pull off a national event like this.  Some regional parties – for example DMK or even the AIADMK – have shown their mettle in organizing such events but that skill is limited to the state level only. The fact that Anna Hazare with a handful of his notable friends could pull this off astonishes me.

It is this feeling of astonishment that bothers me.

The more attention I pay to Anna’s movement, the more reluctant I am to endorse it. Not that I do not support anti-corruption laws.  Far from it. A dynamic democracy like India periodically needs new laws for better governance. But that need cannot be a show stopper. The very fact that senior politicians have been arrested in 2G and Commonwealth Games scams and face possible convictions under existing laws shows that India’s problems has more to do with lack of political will than inadequacy of laws.  Most reasonable Indians know and understand this.  A real anti-corruption movement should seek to provide autonomy to the enforcement agencies to go after the corrupt.  Team Anna on the other hand has been silent on this and this bothers me.

Team Anna seeks to undermine the legislative authority of India’s Parliament and arrogates to itself powers to dictate the enactment of laws.  In other words, Anna and his Friends are now dictating to Parliament what laws should be enacted, when it should be enacted – and all on the terms and conditions it has dictated; Parliament may debate, but is not at liberty to even modify the Bill!!!!  However, well-meaning the intentions of Jan LokPal may be, undermining Parliament’s legislative powers is unacceptable.  Luckily India’s MPs are not easily outdone. They have summarily rejected the deadline set by Anna and his Friends for passing the Bill. This is correct and needs to be commended.

Team Anna is not accountable to the electorate or any parliamentary committee or for that matter anybody. They are setting a dangerous precedent for any group with money and muscle to bring people to the streets to dictate their own set of laws. This would be jungle democracy.

Unlike the banana republics and paper democracies of the world, India and its citizens have enjoyed a liberal albeit poverty stricken democracy since 1947. A consequence has been that any major and contentious legislation in India is a time consuming process because diverse views and opinions have to be heard and accommodated – a fact that has only made India a vibrant democracy. Hence I do not understand the haste and urgency in passing the Jan Lokpal Bill.  Fighting corruption is one thing but setting a deadline for the legislation in our plural society will deprive the many smaller and weaker sections of society – through their elected representatives – a say in the process. This has not gone down well with many Indians. For example, see the deafening silence and hesitation of many prominent non-political Indians (especially former Justices) who are otherwise eloquent.

Negotiation is the heart of politics. Often compromise is the happy midway meeting that resolves contentious political issues.  But the Anna’s intransigence and often belligerent posturing has cast a doubt on their seriousness to negotiate. All negotiations – whether intended or otherwise – seem to predictably breakdown.

One cannot but notice the complete lack of statecraft by  Dr.Manmohan Singh’s government.  This is not the first fast-unto-death protest in India.  Probably no other government in the world has more experience in handling such agitations that India’s Central and State governments. But the amateurish handling of Anna’s protest points more to dissent within the government than real incompetence. This has only compounded Dr.Singh’s woes.

The more I look the more disquiet I get.  I am all for rooting out corruption but, Anna’s movement seems to be manufactured. I am not sure if Anna and his Friends are fighting corruption or using corruption as a weapon to fight India’s democracy. Their reluctance to submit to a Parliamentary committee, their undue haste, their insistence on having only Magsaysay Award winning Indians in the Jan LokPal Bill ( at least in the early days)  – just to name a few– definitely do not point to the former.

Their agitations, albeit peaceful and non-violent – has come at a time when the Supreme Court has been cracking down on political corruption and has ordered the CBI to investigate major scams of recent times. The 2G scam comes to mind not only because of the huge monetary loss to the national exchequer, but also because of the galaxy of important political honchos that have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.  Never before has India seen so many powerful netas, babus and corporate leaders crowded in the damp cells of Tihar for corruption. I am not sure if it is the intended or unintended consequence – the show put up by Anna has surely diverted national attention away from the court rooms where major scams are unraveling.

It is true that Anna and his Friends have attracted a huge crowds – many of them young twitterrati.  Anna’s protest has provided millions of Indians – who have been enraged by the scale of corruption in the UPA government – a forum and a meeting place to vent. It would be naïve to assume that all or most of them are committed Anna followers. They would continue to support and hit streets for anyone who calls then to fight corruption. Baba Ramdev has also attracted huge crowds. They will disperse as quickly and quietly as they gathered.

Anna’s fixation in passing his pet Jan LokPal Bill reminds me of a puppet on a string.

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