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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The danger is that something could give. Anything untoward, like persistent obduracy in moving forward through democratic discussion in established constitutional fora, mischief by an agent provocateur or a sudden deterioration in Anna’s health could spell trouble.

Tragedy or Triumph?

A positive feature of the Anna movement is that it has energised a large section of people who abhor corruption. But the onus of shaping safeguards must lie with institutions.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 21 August, 2011

Anna Hazare has catalysed popular anger at widespread corruption and poor governance generally and brought large numbers, mostly middle class, on the streets. This is by itself not a bad thing and tribute must literally be paid to the man in the street for the extraordinary discipline with which the movement has been peaceably conducted thus far. This represents a triumph of democracy. Hazare is currently fasting for 15 days, with the rider that he will continue unless his Jan Lok Pal (JLP) Bill is passed by August 30. This is a coercive tactic with authoritarian overtones that cannot be brushed under the carpet despite the amusingly new escapist definition being given to an indefinite fast unto death that need be pressed only as long as the doctor orders.

The danger is that something could give. Anything untoward, like persistent obduracy in moving forward through democratic discussion in established constitutional fora, mischief by an agent provocateur or a sudden deterioration in Anna’s health could spell trouble. These possibilities are best avoided.

Responding to back channel parleys, some protestors appear willing to consider accepting that the prime minister may be brought within the JLP’s jurisdiction subject to additional safeguards and that the higher judiciary may be taken out its ambit and rendered accountable under a separate “strong” Judicial Accountability Bill. The unprecedented preliminary verdict reached on the impeachment of Justice Sen shows that some existing systems do work but need strengthening.

Those who still insist that the JLP Bill must be introduced by the Government and debated in Parliament or that the Government Bill must be withdrawn are being dictatorial. Even an advertisement by the Parliamentary Standing Committee inviting the public to submit memoranda and/or testify before the Committee has been arrogantly dismissed as a futile delaying tactic to beat the Anna deadline of August 30. This is unfolding blackmail.

A Congress MP has on his own volition sent the JLP Bill to the Standing Committee for consideration, while Aruna Roy’s NCPRI group has submitted a well thought out and far more practical clutch of five bills dealing separately with the Lok Pal, State Lok Ayuktas, a judicial accountability committee, a public grievances commission and a whistle-blowers law. All these bills and memoranda are now the property of Parliament and it is for Team Anna to appear before the Standing Committee and press its case for adoption of any or all the provisions of the JLP Bill as the epitome of superior wisdom. What could be more democratic and open? None would lose face and an honourable basis would be created for reconciliation.

A positive feature of the Anna movement is that it has energised a large section of people who abhor corruption. But these same people, and others representing a broader cross-section of dalits, tribals, OBCs, the upwardly mobile and minorities, have a wider agenda concerning land, livelihoods, feudal agrarian relations, caste oppression, disparities, employment opportunities, gender justice, etcetera. Tthese represent part of the unfinished agenda of resurgent India.

The popular energy manifested should not be allowed to dissipate but should be harnessed to address this larger agenda in collaboration with the Central and State Governments. This is a huge challenge linked to achieving high rates of growth, revivifying the countryside and tackling the social contradictions that continue to dog society. Why not mobilise youth to join in constructive action to build the rural infrastructure and farm capital assets through a national reconstruction corps in support of NAREGA, the national health and urban renewal missions, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and similar rights-based programmes like food security. All past efforts in this direction were sporadic and halting.

Unless better sense prevails, Team Anna appears headed for the precipice – setting deadlines, hurling ultimatums, scorning reason and inviting confrontation. Some of Government’s seeming mishandling of events was in part the result an effort to bend over backwards in order to accommodate Anna. But the suggestion that constitutional processes and institutions be capriciously set aside to suit individual whims and egos is dangerous nonsense. “We, the People” undoubtedly constitute the ultimate sovereign; but 1200 million people can only rule themselves through their chosen representatives who are accountable to them through elections and otherwise. To describe parliamentary processes as “theory” and mob pressure as the “voice of the people” which must be accommodated is to go back to Ram Manohar Lohia’s “Socialism of the streets” whereby matters settled in the streets must be dutifully ratified by Parliament.

Much of the media and Anna’s cheerleaders have gone overboard with sound-bytes proclaiming “a second freedom movement”, a “Gandhian struggle”, “Anna is India and India is Anna”, “right to protest and peaceful assembly denied”, and so forth. If Gandhi defied the law he cheerfully accepted the consequences. Here, Team Anna wants to defy the law without attracting the consequences. None has been denied the right to protest or of peaceful assembly, subject to legitimate and reasonable restrictions. If Team Anna chose JP Park, the 5000 attendance limit and 50 car/ 50 motorbike and loudspeaker restrictions went with the venue of their choice. The Ram Lila grounds are less restrictive and Burari, on the outskirts of the capital, also offered, least of all.

Likewise, if Anna was picked up from his residence on the morning of August 16 before he had violated Section 144 at JP Park, he was preventively detained as he had given firm notice the previous evening that he would violate prohibitory orders. The Police thought, not unreasonably, to avoid risking a public fracas later in the day should the arrest be made at the Park. Once remanded to Tiha. Anna refused to leave, prolonging what was now an act of self-detention unless permitted to go to JP Park and continue his fast there. All this made good copy but was gamesmanship. Thus, by reiterating and magnifying such snippets with much snide or politically-angled commentary, fiction hardened into hard fact. On many TV channels, official spokesman were almost invariably confined to a quarter or a third of the screen while the rest of the space was given over to repetitive, retrospective shots of crowds demonstrating in various parts of the country. Such juxtapositioning, combined with pro-Anna crawlers, distracted from official explanations or other voices and obliterated all other news in what became essentially saturation advertising for a cause that fetched high ratings.

Media hype on the Anna movement has once again distorted public perceptions to create, on this occasion, a dangerous mood of hubris and triumphalism not amenable to reason. Not too many are aware of the contents of the JLP Bill. Reckless constitutional defiance could be an invitation to anarchy.

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