Both Teams: People's power can only work within a structured
12th 2011, Ashok Mitra
can one say of a government which says it has committed
an error, but no mistakes? Only the other day, its spokespersons
had called the Gandhian from Pune an army deserter and
defalcator of a trust fund. A little later, it brusquely
arrested him from his residence on the weakest of pretexts.
Miracles have their place in Roman Catholic theology,
the story is otherwise in real life.
No change of heart has taken place with those who matter
in the Indian National Congress; they have agreed to
go through the charade to surrender to Anna Hazare because
they suddenly realized that the survival of their regime
was at stake. Anna per se is not reckoned as the threat,
it is the size of the crowd gathered in and around the
Ramlila grounds, convulsion over large parts of the
country and cacophony in the media.
It is as if a very large segment of the nation was conveying
a message to the government and Parliament: we have
lost faith in you, you have failed to protect us from
the scourge of both corruption and inflation, you have,
in fact, abetted acts of corruption, you are reluctant
to pass meaningful legislation to nab corrupt elements;
now this frail-looking man is telling us what to do,
he has placed demands before you that reflect our demands,
he is urging us to be no more forbearing, has convinced
us that in case established institutions of the country
fail to look after our interests, we have the right
to take over the functions of legislation and governance;
even as Anna will fast till you accept his demands,
we, the people, too will refuse to melt away or grow
quiet; we dare you to try subdue us.
That things came to such a pass is entirely the regime's
own doing. Perhaps even more than gross instances of
corruption rise, it is the nonchalance the perpetrators
of the evil deeds are displaying that has incensed ordinary
men and women. When the office of the comptroller and
auditor general, in fulfilment of its constitutional
obligations, points out where the government had gone
astray and contributed to corruption, cabinet ministers
resort to abusing the agency. Ministers and MPs are
unable to escape the wrath of the Supreme Court when
it begins to probe specific cases of financial misdemeanour;
one or two of them are put behind bars, the major ruling
party as well as the head of government continue to
disown responsibility for skulduggery within their precincts.
Sums equivalent to around $2 trillion accruing from
shady transactions are smuggled out of the country and
stashed in secret accounts in Swiss banks. Ways and
ways exist for tracing the criminals who have thereby
fleeced the nation. The government makes no worthwhile
move in the matter despite severe reprimands from the
nation's highest judiciary. In disgust, the Supreme
Court sets up its own investigation team. Instead of
expressing contrition, the authorities lodge a formal
protest on the ground that unearthing sources of black
money is a task coming under the purview of the executive.
A few months ago, when Anna was yet to grow into the
phenomenon he now is, his associates submitted, at the
invitation of the government, a bunch of suggestions
for its consideration. Maybe these had some utopian
features, but they made a few important points too.
The authorities rejected each one of these and finalized
a bill which promises to make it even more difficult
to catch the felons.
Events have, since then, taken an awkward turn. It is
axiomatic in a representative democracy that people
must not take law in their own hands. It should be equally
out of the question for them to venture to make laws
supplanting the role of the legislature. The crisis
we face is because Parliament, expected to enact an
effective legislation to eradicate all forms of corruption,
has till this day failed in that task; this failure
is linked to the executive's reluctance for such a statute;
the citizenry have remained helpless victims of depredations
carried out by thieves and scoundrels in the garb of
civil servants, politicians and corporate leaders. Ordinary
people do not quite know what to do with their fast-growing
stockpile of sullen resentment.
Out of the blue, a seemingly quixotic individual, an
eccentric-sounding Gandhian, appears on the scene and
tells them that they have the sovereign right to participate
in law-making, all they have to do is to assert themselves.
The - so-referred-to - man in the street does not have
the depth of understanding to judge whether what the
Gandhian is proposing will scotch all species of corruption,
he does not care for the minutiae of parliamentary procedures.
But, he is sure that, like him, this Gandhian too wants
no further dilly-dallying, or shilly-shallying; he,
like him, is for immediate measures; this person is
willing to sacrifice his life for the cause and implores
the people to help him out by - to use the Mao metaphor
- bombing the headquarters and bending the authorities
into submission. The people respond with wild enthusiasm.
The government is frightened, a shiver goes down its
spine. It can ignore the nation's highest court, which
has no army to march to force the authorities to carry
out judicial directives. People's power is a different
proposition. It is not practicable to shoot down thousands
of people; to do so is to invite chaos in the country.
Even if law and order is finally restored and the crowds
disperse, sooner or later, the election season will
arrive, multitude after multitude will march to the
polling booths, and vote out the regime. The government
swallows its pride. Procedural rigidities are shelved,
Parliament has a free-ranging discussion and passes
a resolution endorsing the broad principles underlying
the Gandhian's demands for consideration of the standing
committee concerned. It is as though our system is accommodating
a fourth institution - the will of the masses - to the
already existing three, the legislature, the executive,
the judiciary. That it is only a strategic retreat on
the part of the government is evident from the pinpricks
it is aiming at Anna's associates. But it will be awesomely
difficult to renege wholesale on all the promises that
have been made.
Still, should this be the pattern of the nation's law-making
process from now on? If so, it is likely to be only
the beginning of a Humpty-Dumpty tale. The next target
may well be the executive authority. For instance, district
magistrates and their junior officers can be considered
incompetent, relief work, it will be complained, is
being poorly managed, the rural employment guarantee
scheme is in a mess, the public distribution system
has broken down; the neighbourhood youth - proxy of
people's power - may intervene and teach the dumbfounded
officials how to perform more efficiently. Nothing wrong
there, it will be argued; do not members of the public
volunteer to help the forces of law and order to maintain
the flow of road traffic in rush hours?
What about the judicial sphere? Delayed justice apart,
there are innumerable instances of miscarriage of justice,
the canker of corruption has affected the judiciary
too. Such a state of affairs, it will be decided, must
end. The concept of a people's court has been afloat
for long. Although not exactly a revolution, is not
what Anna has ushered in a quasi-revolution? So why
not supplement the on-going network of official judicial
system by thousands of people's courts dotting the country?
Moreover, in case of doubts regarding the integrity
of individual judges, why not a people's judge - whatever
his qualifications, but handpicked by the local populace
- to seat next to the judge under the shadow of suspicion?
The Gandhian has opened the floodgate of a new awareness:
as people are sovereign in a democracy, they have the
right to directly exercise this sovereignty irrespective
of the contents of the Constitution; since it is their
creation. It all sounds so cosy. Problems do not, however,
go away. What about a situation where one set of people
disagree violently with another set or many other sets?
There will then be several focal points of people's
power, with widely diverging notions of law-making,
law enforcement and judicial fairness. If each of the
differing groups is allowed to exercise its sovereign
rights, the sequel will be murderous anarchy.
People's power is a beautiful idea, but it can work
only within the format of a structured system. The Anna
accident has been provoked by the insensitivity and
incompetence of those in authority in New Delhi. While
it leaves lessons, it should also make the nation realize
the perils from excesses indulged in the name of the
people's will. Substitute the image of Anna Hazare by
that of a fascist-minded rabble-rouser urging the gigantic
crowd assembled on the Ramlila grounds to march with
him to lock up that nuisance, the Parliament House.
To return to where one began. The mess we are now in
is largely because of the misdoings of the principal
ruling party at the Centre. Indian democracy is in danger
on account of it. It will be idle to assume a chastened
Congress party will now play a key role to ward off
further attacks on the basic structure of the Constitution.
A party must cherish democratic convictions before it
can defend democracy. The Congress, alas, does not fit
the bill. The BJP carries the albatross of Hindu fundamentalism
and has a hankering for the Dark Ages; the Congress,
on the other hand, is a feudal, authoritarian outfit,
its president chooses her son, a total greenhorn, as
the party's general secretary with not a squeak within
the party; the offspring struts about as if he is already
the supreme leader of the nation. Perhaps his most intense
wish is to see the crowd in the Ramlila grounds switch
over to him; he can then rule the country forever.
This article was published in The Telegraph, 9 September