Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Hazare’s frustration is very widely shared. But he over-pitched his demand. The present Lok Pal Bill may be overly cautious but the alternative Jan Lok Pal draft was also not without blemish

Wrong Way to Right Matters

Fasts unto the death, well intentioned as they may be, ultimately undermine due process. Meanwhile, the hype surrounding sports highlights the need for moderation and balance.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 11 April, 2011

Anna Hazare is a good man and has reason to feel frustrated, like millions of others, at the inordinate and inexcusable delay in establishing a credible Lok Pal, or other effective anti-corruption machinery 44 years after the first legislation in this behalf was moved in Parliament. Like police reforms and action to grant autonomy to the CBI with independent and automatic prosecution powers without the grossly misused “single directive” that mandates prior government approval, establishment of a Lok Pal has languished for lack of political will on the part of all players. No party wants any of these reforms while in office. Out of office they roar like lions.

However, Hazare diminished his cause by launching on a fast unto death in Delhi along with others. Invoking Gandhi is utterly misplaced when we are dealing with a popular, not alien, government that can be removed through democratic means and is subject to judicial process. A fast unto death is coercive and undemocratic and amounts to emotional blackmail, which undermines parliamentary democracy. Farcically, a known criminal legislator, Pappu Yadav, serving a life sentence in a murder case, announced a sympathetic fast unto death in a Bihar jail in support of Hazare’s demand!

Many people have resorted to fasts unto death for a variety of causes ranging from the formation of a new state, to demanding the dismissal of a government, to stopping a project or whatever - not necessarily always estimable or principled demands – bypassing due process. Due process can be trying at times; but banishing it for quick-fix populist methods is dangerous and could lead to anarchy and counter-violence.  This is reminiscent of Ram Manohar’s Lohia “socialism of the street” which entailed mob violence to be retrospectively sanctified by legislation.

Hazare’s frustration is very widely shared. But he over-pitched his demand. The present Lok Pal Bill may be overly cautious but the alternative Jan Lok Pal draft was also not without blemish. Amendments to its proposed Bill were invited by the Government before the fast and this is where constructive critics could have played a useful role. Alas, Hazare decided to fast for his preferred procedure, a joint drafting committee composed of an equal number of officials and select civil society members with two co-equal chairmen whose report would be binding on the Government and, by inference, on Parliament. This was a bizarre proposal that showed little understanding of or respect for government or governance and sought to dictate terms by a set of unaccountable and self-selected persons. The BJP was quick to offer unctuous support with suitable quibbling, after looking the other way in Karnataka where a distinguished Lok Ayukta was stymied, tricked and again embarrassed when he probed too closely and expeditiously into the activities of mining and land mafias in that State.

In the event, after four days of fasting, along with a few hundred others, Anna Saheb wisely accepted what was broadly on offer earlier but now gazetted for good measure. A joint committee of ten persons, five nominated by Hazare, will have Pranab Mukherjee as chair and Shanti Bhushan, representing civil society, as co-chair. If a consensus is reached, the Committee will report by the end of June so that the legislative process can commence in the monsoon session. This will not and cannot preclude parliamentary scrutiny and consequential amendments. Civil society can only assist but cannot override the Government and Parliament. If a consensus proves elusive, Hazare has threatened to resume his agitation.

We abhor abductions for ransom but do not stop to ponder that fasts unto death amount to the same thing by other means. Right ends demand right means for their fulfillment. Hopefully due process will now take its course with the added pressure of the public opinion Hazare has generated. The outcome has been positive and democratic and must remain so. Nothing should be allowed to get out of hand because of spoilers and those who see opportunity for grandstanding. The warning is necessary as some rash statements have been made and various godmen and others are muscling in to claim leadership and kudos.

It is legitimate to criticize venal politicians but unfair to denigrate all politicians. Without politicians there can be no politics or political process, only dictatorship. We need to secure political and electoral reform and reform of the police and criminal justice systems to put in place an interlocking mechanism that ensures purity in public life. There is much work to do and hopefully the government has seen the writing on the wall.

While the national focus was on Jantar Mantar, the office, furniture and official car of a retired Dalit officer in Kerala was last week “purified” by sprinkling water mixed with cow-dung in a traditional cleansing ceremony. Such indignities have been perpetrated for millennia and are unlawful and unconstitutional. What does civil society propose to do about this and myriad other wrongs? Caste oppression is corruption of the soul and must be rooted out. There are hundreds of other matters on which government must be firm and act swiftly with civil society backing.

This is not to detract from corruption but to counsel balance and perspective. India is changing. We shall overcome.

A similar lack of balance was evident in the week preceding the fast when India went mad over cricket. The tendency has been long noted but reached a spectacular climax, first with the semi-finals with Pakistan at Mohali and then during the finals with Sri Lanka in Mumbai. Unbounded enthusiasm is one thing; but talk of “war” and “battles” and the exclusion of all – literally all - news from news channels and the main pages of newspapers for days on end was absurd. In the event, the skepticism expressed over Pakistan prime minister, Gilani’s visit at Manmohan Singh’s invitation was also shown to be mistaken. It was not intended to be an impromptu summit but yet not without symbolism.

The money thrown at our cricketing heroes underlines the neglect, even contempt, the nation has for other sports, which have languished on account of fitful support. Sport and physical culture are part of a nation’s fibre and it is sad that young people are deprived of the opportunity to realize their sporting and athletic potential. The Sports Ministry has been singularly lack lustre and virtually all sporting associations have been captured by non-playing politicians who have used their positions to exercise patronage and create pocket boroughs.

Sachin Tendulkar has earned the affection and respect of the nation both for his skill as much as for his humility and lovable personality. But there is an element of vulgarity in people and politicians demanding that he be awarded a Bharat Ratna. That may well happen, for sport is no less a field of high endeavour than any other. But such canvassing is best avoided so that the nation’s highest awards are not reduced to popularity contests or fashion shows.

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