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Posts Tagged ‘Elite’

Gandhian facade (Praful Bidwai)

In Perspective on September 6, 2011 at 12:31 pm

From: Frontline Magazine, Volume 28 – Issue 19 :: Sep. 10-23, 2011

COLUMN

Gandhian facade

PRAFUL BIDWAI

Anna Hazare’s campaign may lead to a new Lokpal Bill, but it has legitimised middle-class vigilantism and other kinds of civil society mobilisation.

NOW that Anna Hazare has declared victory, it is time to take stock of one of the most powerful recent mobilisations of people in India, focussed on influencing policy or lawmaking processes. The victory, however, is largely symbolic. The original demand of the movement, carefully built around Hazare’s fast, namely, that the government must withdraw its own Lokpal Bill and instead pass the Jan Lokpal Bill (JLB) drafted by India Against Corruption (IAC) by August 30, fell by the wayside.

Even its greatly diluted version, namely, Parliament must pass a resolution on the three contentious issues identified by Hazare, was not conceded. Under this, Members of Parliament would resolve to enact the Lokpal Bill in Parliament’s current session to set up independent ombudsmen at the Centre and in the States; with jurisdiction over all government servants; and including a law requiring all government departments to make “citizens’ charters” that set limits on the time taken to provide public services such as ration cards and driving licences, and punish breaches of the norm.

On August 27, Parliament discussed a highly truncated form of the demand and passed a Sense-of-the-House motion drafted by the Congress’ Pranab Mukherjee and Bharatiya Janata Party’s Arun Jaitley. It said: “This House agrees in principle on the following issues: a) Citizens’ charter b) Lower bureaucracy also to be under the Lokpal through appropriate mechanism c) Establishment of a Lokayukta in States. And further resolved to transmit the proceedings to the department-related Standing Committee for its perusal while formulating its recommendations for the Lokpal Bill.”

This is not a binding commitment. Nor is there a deadline by which the Standing Committee must write its report and Parliament must pass the Bill. So the motion was a face-saving formula for Team Anna. According to reports, Hazare’s core supporters had decided on the morning of August 27 that he would have to end the fast within a day if his health were not to be seriously jeopardised.

At any rate, the balance of forces had shifted over the preceding few days, with the government calling an all-party meeting, appointing Pranab Mukherjee as chief negotiator, MPs across parties defending Parliament’s legislative supremacy, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh talking directly to Hazare, and the cracks widening within Hazare’s core group. Eventually, Parliament asserted its primacy in lawmaking, but also cast a duty on the government to produce a strong Lokpal law.

Meanwhile, the entire political system was delivered a shock. Segments of it were exposed as dysfunctional. An attempt was made to set up a direct opposition between Parliament and the people. That it succeeded at least to the point of creating total panic and disarray within the government for days should occasion serious introspection.

It is easy to lay the blame for this on the colossal ineptitude of the Congress and the several near-suicidal decisions it took. Having first underrated both the middle-class support for and the amazing degree of organisation and media management by the IAC campaign in April, Congress leaders panicked and took the extraordinarily ill-advised step of establishing a joint drafting committee with Team Anna, giving it the same representation as the government – instead of a broad-based committee with diverse political and non-governmental organisation representation (NGO).

This laid the basis for Team Anna’s claim that it represents the people in a unique way, in contraposition to government – which easily morphed after the Ramlila Maidan spectacle into the assertion that it alone represents the people. Soon, Arvind Kejriwal would say that Parliament may be supreme in lawmaking, but the people come first; Parliament must listen to “Us the People”. Kiran Bedi would famously equate Anna with India. Democracy thus collapsed into majoritarianism with all its arrogance and intolerance.

Instead of fielding political veterans and skilled crisis managers, the Congress got a bunch of lawyers to negotiate the Lokpal Bill, whose technical approach messed things up. Meanwhile, Congress spokespersons abused Hazare’s team as “armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists… funded by invisible donors” (with foreign links), and alienated people further.

Even more inept was the decision to arrest Hazare pre-emptively on August 16 and lodge him in Tihar jail, in gross underestimation of public sympathy for his right of protest – apparently against official intelligence reports. The mistake was magnified when Hazare was released. He refused to leave Tihar unless he was allowed to fast publicly, thus garnering more sympathy.

It is simply incomprehensible that the Congress did not depute Maharashtra leaders such as Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushilkumar Shinde or even Prithviraj Chavan earlier to talk to Hazare bypassing his hard-line supporters, and that it did not convene an all-party meeting until August 24.

Yet, a far deeper failure is involved here, in understanding the depth of genuine popular or grass-roots revulsion against corruption, in two senses. The first is corruption that ordinary people suffer in day-to-day life when they have to pay bribes just to survive or to realise a right, that of getting their entitlements, such as ration cards or freedom from police harassment.

The second is corruption in the larger sense, including plunder of public money by powerful interests through manipulation of policies and fiddling of contracts, irresponsible and unaccountable governance, and abuse of power, itself distributed in a skewed and iniquitous manner in this extremely unequal society. Both forms are related to the social and governance system, and the unequal access to privilege and power centres inherent in it. When the poor protest against corruption, they often protest against the system.

By contrast, the upper-middle-class elite or the 10-15 per cent upper crust of society does not suffer the first form of corruption, certainly not to a degree remotely comparable to the poor. And it is often the beneficiary of the second kind. Its resentment arises, if it is genuine at all, from having to pay bribes to obtain a privilege, like admission to a top-rated school or jumping the queue to get a reserved train seat.

Deep distrust

Middle-class anger is directed not at the system or the real wielders of power in the corporate world and government but at soft targets such as MPs, MLAs and bureaucrats. It is easy to single out politicians because they are typically portrayed by the media, including popular films, television channels and newspapers, as arch-villains – irredeemably corrupt, and venal and crooked by choice, just as business tycoons are glorified as wealth creators who contribute to social welfare. Underlying this is a deep distrust of representative democracy and mass politics. Our hierarchy-obsessed, casteist middle class cannot possibly accept political equality between itself and the unwashed masses.

Focussing on corruption offers a nice escape from this society’s myriad problems, including mass poverty and deprivation, stunted growth of our children, pervasive lack of social opportunity, economic servitude and social bondage, absence of social cohesion, rising income and regional inequalities, and the impossibility for millions of people to realise their elementary potential as human beings, not to speak of communalism, patriarchy, growing militarism and decreasing human security. Corruption here performs the role that population growth did a few decades ago. Then, the elite blamed all of India’s problems on the poor breeding like rabbits.

Originally, Hazare’s movement spoke narrowly to this middle class, reducing the issue of corruption to paying bribes to government officials. The campaign in April was Facebook- and Twitter-driven. It mobilised upper-middle-class people in big cities through the technology of returning free missed calls. A telecom company provided the technology, and somebody paid for the calls answered (13 million by August 15, says the IAC website).

Support for the movement snowballed after Hazare’s wrongful arrest-release. Multiple scripts got written into it as peasants, trade union workers, dabbawalas and other poor people joined the protest. But that did not transform the campaign’s quintessentially upper-middle-class character or its vigilantism. Meanwhile, its leaders mistook general support for the anti-corruption cause as informed agreement with the JLB. They built a dangerous cult of personality around Hazare as a demi-god, on whose command people were ready to fast unto death. The government deferred to Hazare’s campaign, as it always does to movements with an elite character. There were many continuities between the campaign, motivated by hatred of all politicians, and recent agitations against affirmative action, driven by hatred of the “low” castes. That is one reason why Dalits, low-caste Hindus, and large numbers of Muslims are cold towards Anna’s movement or oppose it.

The campaign uses a strongly chauvinist Vande Mataram Bharat-Mata-ki-Jai-type idiom, based on an unthinking, conformist nationalism and illiberal and conservative ideas, including hero worship and absolute obedience. This fits in with the involvement of Hindutva forces in the campaign, frankly admitted by Sushma Swaraj in Parliament on August 17, confirmed by BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s letter supporting Hazare, and reinforced by Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) pracharak-ideologue K.N. Govindacharya’s August 26 statement confirming significant RSS presence at Ramlila Maidan.

The Hazare movement’s legitimisation in media and society creates an unhealthy precedent. Other intolerant movements can create a lynch-mob mentality and demand death to the “traitors” or the building of a temple at Ayodhya – because the People want it. That is positively dangerous.

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Perils of Anna’s success (Praful Bidwai)

In Commentary, Uncategorized on August 22, 2011 at 6:34 pm

From: prafulbidwai.org

Frontline, April 23-May 6, 2011
Frontline Column: Beyond the Obvious

by Praful Bidwai

Hazare’s success in mobilising the normally apolitical middle class speaks of a strong revulsion against corruption and shows up huge flaws in the system. But it can also harm democratic politics.

** ** ** ** **

Anna Hazare has achieved what no political movement, campaign or party has accomplished in decades: namely, ensure the capitulation of the government on an important policy agenda. It is only very rarely that governments in India yield so completely on issues such as corruption and laws to curb and punish it. I cannot recall a single occasion since the mid-1970s when this has happened. The United Progressive Alliance was no exception to this. Indeed, it doggedly resisted even the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the 2G telecom scam and allowed a whole session of Parliament to be gutted—until it finally conceded the demand.

Hazare mobilised and energised the Twitter and Facebook-loving upper layers of the middle class and dragged behind himself the media, in particular 24-hour television channels, to a point where anchors became zealous advocates of his cause.

Through his indefinite fast on the Lokpal Bill issue, Hazare has emerged as a parallel national power centre. The fast conjured up a virtual spectacle—much like the Cricket World Cup. The government probably decided that it would be far too risky to let his campaign grow any further lest it be infiltrated, exploited or captured by its political opponents, or lead to an uncontrollable situation. On Day 4 of the fast, it conceded the demand for a joint committee for drafting the Lokpal Bill, with equal representation from government and civil society nominees.

This too is totally unprecedented. Typically, the government limits civil society representation in any advisory or consultative committee to a small proportion of the total.

Hopefully, the committee will produce a Bill that is far worthier than the officially drafted legislation, which protects corruption in a number of ways. It restricts complaints to the Lokpal to those that have been routed through the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. It exempts civil servants from the Lokpal’s purview.

The Bill gives the Lokpal no powers of prosecution and makes his/her decisions purely recommendatory, thus giving the government the freedom to decide whether to act on them or not. It also limits investigation into past corruption cases to only two years. It is not difficult to improve upon the Bill. The drafting committee can be expected to produce a legislation that gives the fight against corruption some real strength.

That said, the whole manner in which Anna Hazare and his group ran their campaign, the group’s composition, and part of its larger agenda raise uncomfortable questions. Contrary to media claims, the campaign was not spontaneous, but carefully planned and well organised. It was planned at least two months in advance to begin on April 5. A participant, who was interviewed on television, confirmed this, including the date. So did the networks run by yoga guru Baba Ramdev and Art of Living leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The organisers used a toll-free number in Mumbai and managed social networks to enthuse people to join Hazare’s fast or express solidarity with it through candlelight vigils in numerous cities.

The campaign’s organisers made their first attempt to focus on the issue of corruption one-and-a-half years ago, when they lobbied for Kiran Bedi, a former Indian Police Service officer, to be appointed as the Chief Information Commissioner after the end of Wajahat Habibullah’s tenure. They launched “India Against Corruption” and held two rallies in Delhi. One of them was held at Jantar Mantar in November last. Ramdev’s Aastha channel gave these extensive publicity. But these did not attract much public attention.

That is when the organisers decided to rope in Anna Hazare. The key organisers included Kiran Bedi, NGO Parivartan’s Arvind Kejriwal, and Ramdev, and secondarily, Rashtriya Lok Dal MP Mahmud Madani, the Delhi diocese’s Archbishop Vincent Concessao and Swami Agnivesh. Hazare has established himself as a crusader against corruption in Maharashtra, having forced some corrupt ministers to resign. With his image as a Gandhian who has a Spartan lifestyle and a high moral stature, Hazare clicked instantly.

“India Against Corruption” took off in a big way. Over 4 million Twitter messages were mobilised. So were a few hundred to several hundred citizen volunteers, including high-profile Bollywood figures like Aamir Khan, Shabana Azmi, Tom Alter and Anupam Kher. Many of the slogans of the campaign, including the branding of all 543 Lok Sabha MPs as “thieves” and defenders of corruption, betray well-entrenched middle class prejudices.

This is the same social stratum, the top 15 percent of the population, which rarely votes in elections, and has contempt not just for politicians, but for the political process of democracy itself. This elite does not experience corruption or is at its receiving end in the way the bulk of the poor are. But it has convinced itself that corruption is the primary drag on India’s progress towards Great Powerhood.

In many ways, it is the same social group that had led the anti-Mandal and anti-affirmative action agitations of the past. This class is fiercely individualistic and by and large believes the poor are what they are because they, unlike itself, are not enterprising enough. It was no surprise that some staunchly elitist organisations like the Delhi Medical Association and Residents’ Welfare Associations—notorious for its anti-poor stance during the demolition drive in Delhi—turned up enthusiastically to back Hazare.

The antecedents of some of the key individuals are open to question. Ramdev, for instance, works closely with RSS pracharak KN Govindacharya in the Bharat Swabhiman movement and is himself close to the Sangh ideology. Bedi scarcely hides her ambition to play a larger-than-life role in social and political affairs. Ravi Shankar too propagates deeply conservative ideas. Hazare himself is politically naïve and adheres to a crude, chauvinist form of nationalism—as his lurid and outsized depiction of Bharat Mata on a map of India and his glorification of Shivaji suggest.

Hazare claims to be a Gandhian, but told his admirers that it is not enough to gaol the corrupt; they must be hanged. He said: “You might wonder how a Gandhian like me is talking about violent methods like hanging, but in today’s context, the need is not of Mahatma Gandhi but of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.”

The Hazare campaign poses other problems too. Its own draft Lokpal Bill will concentrate too much power in the hands of one person, without the checks and balances that are central to democracy. The accumulation of boundless privileges and placing of all kinds of agencies under the Lokpal would violate the principle of separation of powers. He/she will be more like the cartoon strip hero Judge Dredd, who dispenses instant justice while riding an enormously powerful motorcycle.

The Lokpal’s appointment is to be recommended by all manner of people, including Nobel Prize winners of Indian origin, recipients of the Indian government’s Padma awards, and yes, Magsaysay prize winners, a category to which some of the campaign’s leaders belong. None of them, barring the Lok Sabha Speaker, is an elected representative of the people, with legitimacy deriving from the election.

However, this is part of a larger obsession of the campaign: it claims to speak in the name of the people. Civil society organisations are self-created, voluntary and self-appointed. They cannot lay claim to democratic legitimacy based on the principle of representation or accountability. They must not arrogate this role to themselves.

Various political parties, especially the Nationalist Congress—whose president Sharad Pawar Hazare has long targeted, and who resigned from the Group of Ministers on corruption—and the Samajwadi Party have criticised Hazare’s campaign on this ground and for interfering with the legitimate function of Parliament to enact laws. Yet others have condemned its arrogance and its bypassing of the political institutions of democracy on the ground that India has a functioning democracy.

This point is only partly valid. India’s political system is marked by numerous failures and inability to deal with major issues of concern to the people, including predatory neoliberal policies, dysfunctional public service delivery, and widespread corruption. Our political parties do not respond to this dysfunctional state of affairs and have failed to mobilise the public on relevant issues. People like Hazare have stepped into the vacuum. Their agenda is problematic and can lead to dangerous forms of vigilantism. Nothing will stop the likes of Hazare, and more dangerous, Ramdev, from branding specific individuals corrupt and demanding their resignation by applying the pressure of middle-class mobilisation and by exploiting the elite’s distrust of politics itself.

Hazare has already undercut the National Advisory Council which was debating an alternative Lokpal Bill. The NAC enjoys legitimacy because it was appointed by an elected government. Other institutions too could soon be weakened or bypassed.

Yet, so long as the political class continues to malfunction and refuses to address issues of urgent relevance to the people, such movements will grow, jolt the system, and create parallel power centres, which regrettably are accountable to nobody.

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