Thursday, April 14, 2011

Going `Potti' over corruption

by Meghnad Desai

Jawaharlal Nehru was a democrat and he had no time for fasts in a democracy. He believed that fasting by an eminent person was coercive. Master Tara Singh was one of many `fasters' who got nowhere with Nehru. But in 1953, when he refused to grant the demand for Andhra Pradesh which had been recommended by a Congress Committee, Potti Sriramulu went on fast, and, unlike many who fast, he died. All hell broke loose and Andhra had to be granted and linguistic states across India followed later.
Indira Gandhi had won a massive majority in Lok Sabha after 1971 but even so the anti-inflation crusade by Jai Prakash Narayan in Gujarat and Bihar unhinged her enough to bring on the Emergency. The rest of the tragedy is well known.
I recall these episodes because Anna Hazare's fast has led to a breakout of Parliamentary formalism among those who don't agree with him. They argue that, in a parliamentary democracy, it is the MPs who make laws not civil society zealots. But even the best democracy does not function in a vacuum. If Parliament fails to perform its function of responding to public demands, then the public has a right to register its opinion. The only way it can do so is by public marches and demonstrations, which it hopes will register its mood. In India, the legislature is passive and the executive has taken over all the functions of the legislature. It controls the legislative agenda. But if the Prime Minister confesses his inability to proceed with the problem of rooting out corruption because of coalition dharma, then the public knows that it cannot expect Parliament to do its job.
Of course, Anna Hazare and his followers are idealistic. They make impossible demands. How else can the world be changed? The realist and the constitutionalist proceed at a pace which rushes to compromise even before trying to innovate. Hence it is up to the outside world to goad parliament to do what is needed.
UPA-II faces its `Potti' moment in Anna Hazare's fast. It cannot see that the standard assurances or fulminations of its spokesmen will not suffice. The argument that it is the government's job to pass laws and the people's to wait patiently will not do any longer. The central problem is distrust in politicians, despite their elective legitimacy. The answer that some GoM will do the job and some Standing Committee will debate it in Parliament has no salience. Events since last November—the scandals as well as the breakdown of
Parliament repeatedly—have made the political process no longer credible as the solver of problems.
What we are witnessing is an innovation in Indian democratic practice. The movement is proposing an alternative draft. If there was any hope that someone within the Lok Sabha would suggest amendments, which then will be debated and passed (as happens for example in the UK Parliament as I know), I would understand the righteous anger of the formalists. But the Indian parliament does not function in that way. Little happens on the floor of Parliament except rushing to the well and chaos. Compromises are worked out off the floor of the House and deals done in Standing Committee quite opaquely.
To have a mass movement built around a draft bill is unique to India. Of course, the single bill will not solve all problems. Yet, in the arsenal of weapons the government can have along with RTI to fight corruption, the Lokpal Bill, once improved, will help. There will have to be more—reform of election finance, disqualification of convicted criminals from Parliament, prosecution of civil servants as well as MPs for corrupt behaviour.
A new generation has just discovered the joys of political action. It is faced with a smug gerontocracy which treats it with condescension. This way lies trouble. I have seen it before—in US civil rights campaigns, in the student movements in France, UK and US in 1968. Change can be forced on a system which has become moribund as the Indian parliamentary system has.
Of course, a smart system would make the changes itself and win back trust of the people. What's the chance?

Meghnad Desai is a columnist with Indian Express,

1 comment:

  1. The article by Tavleen smacks of self righteous belief in the supremacy of our electoral process and Indian democracy.

    Meghnad Desai is a bit subdued but speaks in the same vein.

    While I accept that Democracy means the supremacy of the parliament consisting of the elected representatives of the nation. Does it mean that any elected big boss has the right to take law in his/her hands and in the name of governance and swindle money in ways that the voters never sanctioned! We have seen time and again corrupt politicians are getting the better of the system and each one beats the other.
    Revolutions are born when governance fails to address the problems of the people. The people of this country have borne all the nonsense that every ruler in every State has been indulging in. It was time a Anna Hazare rebelled and carried the masses along with him. It does not mean that he is behaving like God and superceding democracy. All he is asking for is that the rulers be accountable.

    If the draft of a retired Lance Naik of the ASC and others does not measure up, the Committee has many experts like the Bhushan duo, eminent Justice Hegde, the RTI activist Kejriwal and prominent members of the ruling elite to come up with an Act which is workable. The sad part is that the UPA have not nominated any honest democrats from the Opposition which would have ensured that the Act is acceptable to all parties and does not become a political football once introduced in the Parliament.


    Vivek Bopiah