Lessons from a tiger ride

People power The Jan Lokpal Bill was a simplistic solution that caught the fancy of the masses
People power: The Jan Lokpal Bill was a simplistic solution that caught the fancy of the masses

2011 HAS been a tumultuous year dominated by the failed attempt to pass a law that was supposed to sort out all our problems. While the failure to enact the Lokpal Bill might be a reason for deep disappointment for some, it can safely be said that the passage of any of the versions of the law would have been contentious. A campaign, carefully planned and choreographed, took over the mainstream national discourse in a manner that it could not ever have hoped for. However, its tall and simplistic claims of removing 90, 70 or even 60 percent corruption through the enactment of a “strong Lokpal” would have ensured its dramatic failure as well. Even if a law was passed, corruption would have continued in the midst of a continuous blame game. In fact, the biggest legacy we are going to be left with after this year-long effort is a series of claims and counter claims of what could have been, but never was.

We have now clearly understood how television can be a force multiplier that can beam a sense of urgency into every home and be a perfect advertising space for instant remedies. We are beginning to understand how it can also define ‘flop shows’ and ‘failures’, almost dismantling a movement in the course of an afternoon. Can one say that if you ‘live’ by the media, you must be prepared to ‘die’ by it as well? There is a more sober lesson on the potential role of television in people’s movements. Not all media attention is necessarily helpful.

The ups and downs also left little time or space for reflection. Popular anger against corruption was accompanied by a neat and convenient solution: a law that would place responsibility on a huge — and we assumed ‘benevolent’ — investigating police force to sort out all our problems. The fact is that no matter how good this law and how powerful the Lokpal might have been, no agency could have delivered on the kind of expectations being created, and we were creating the breeding grounds for mounting frustration and cynicism. The chaos in Rajya Sabha might just give us time to reflect and turn this into a more sustained and determined campaign based on specifics that inspires ordinary Indians to fight injustice and corruption. What are the lessons of the last year?

Joint Drafting Committee, a marriage that never was: The first hunger strike in April, while demanding citizens’ participation, made a demand that was against the principles of inclusiveness and participation. One particular group of civil society wanted to negotiate with a sub-group of the Union Cabinet to have their particular vision of an anti-corruption regime implemented. What could have been an important exercise in pre-legislative consultation and drafting became an acrimonious exercise in failed negotiations. Had this exercise succeeded, there could have been many dangerous implications for our democratic set-up. Even sectarian groups, with the requisite numbers and the capacity to put pressure, could demand that the government sit with them to draft a law that reflects their vision.

Speaking for the people: The second hunger strike in August was preceded by an unjustified attempt by the government to snuff out democratic protest by refusing to give permission and space for the hunger strike, and then arresting Anna Hazare. People across the spectrum spoke out to protect the democratic right to protest. Large numbers also turned up to support the anti-corruption campaign. The support the movement drew perhaps gave the leadership the feeling that the Jan Lokpal Bill was supported in every detail by the people. A new language of a protest group claiming to speak for “the people” emerged, which had even more dangerous implications for democracy.

The euphoria in mid-August was palpable. But one wonders how seasoned activists and political analysts perceived an impact that was predictably impossible. Crowds did come, but with what intent? The solution that the campaign offered to eradicate corruption was too simplistic. The law, however potent, would have just begun the process of the accountability of public office. There is much more to corruption than that. The simplistic targeting of only politicians, the remedies to hang the corrupt, did have a certain appeal for some.

The rhetoric got progressively sharper and moved further away from the need to define corrective action. The media rode on higher TRPs and converted Ramlila Maidan into a mass television studio. The cameras acted as a stimulant and the statements became more strongly condemnatory as the people at the dharna responded with approval.

The government could not have done more to dig itself into a hole. First, the shocking sycophancy with Baba Ramdev was followed by the irate State putting Hazare in jail. Neither of them were mature acts and the government lost both face and credibility. The people were bewildered and enraged by a government that could not respond with a sense of consistency and maturity. The inefficiency on top of corruption was the icing on the cake. The government should have had a series of all-party meetings on this issue and even its discussions with civil society should have been more inclusive, open and consultative. Although this was a Bill widely debated, the space for open honest debate was restricted in many ways.

The response of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) to the Lokpal Bill and suggestions made for a basket of measures was deliberately misunderstood and several whispering campaigns surfaced as accusations. Substantive arguments about the law again got diffused into personality debates and simplistic one-liners. The ‘sense of the House’ resolution in Parliament seemed to offer grounds for a national consensus, but the support received at Ramlila seemed to give Team Anna the feeling that they had a complete mandate from the people. With the Jan Lokpal Bill so much in focus and repeated assertions from Team Anna of “no compromise” on any of its formulations or on the time-frame it had set, it was clear that the Winter Session would be stormy and contentious. The most disturbing assertion that came out of Ramlila was the fact that Team Anna seemed to feel that it was speaking for “the people”. The implications of that were even more dangerous than the Joint Drafting Committee.

Lesson learnt: If you ‘live’ by the media, you should be prepared to ‘die’ by it as well

Where numbers should and should not be the benchmark: There is no doubt that the events in Parliament during its extended session were a disappointment. Parliament clearly left behind its unity displayed at the time of the ‘sense of the House’ resolution. The government also formulated some progressive provisions in the Grievance Redress and Whistleblowers’ Bills, along with bringing the Lokpal and Judicial Accountability Bills to Parliament. However, it has become obvious that each one of the four important Bills will require sustained attention to get them passed even in the Budget session.

Just as it was wrong to evaluate this movement by numbers at Jantar Mantar and Ramlila, it would be wrong to condemn it to failure at the MMRDA grounds. In fact, once Parliament was in session, the protest in Mumbai should have been seen as no more than the voice of one important civil society group.

But revolutions for social change need to be in the public domain. The worry is that the sensational rise of the anti-corruption campaign hyped up by media attention will now turn into disappointment with public action. There are some issues related to “people’s politics” that need reflection. This is a people’s movement that spoke repeatedly of “people’s power”. Paradoxically, it envisioned the setting up of a powerful institution of State power as the solution. In addition, it saw law as a solution, with little attention to society and its inherent inequality of power.

The second question is of dissent. There is a continuum about the freedom debate. The eternal question of where does my freedom end and yours begin can only be rooted in equality, not only in speech but in action. Because much as we may dislike or reject another point of view, persons expressing that point of view have the right to articulate. We only retain the right to reject their points of view in substance.

The most important lesson for all of us who argued against plurality as betrayal is to stretch the logic further to see what disastrous consequences may ensue. We can then argue that one religion must be the right religion, one political ideology the right ideology, and after a series of such arguments, the grounds for a fascist dictatorship could be prepared.

Our collective challenge is going to be to persevere with the momentum and emerge with an understanding that fighting graft needs more sustained struggle and personal commitment. While we must ensure appropriate legal enactments are made, it is time this movement started focussing on the need for citizens to participate in shaping the movement through personal battles against injustice and corruption. No law or agency of State can be a substitute for that. Even though the Lokpal may not have been enacted, the people will continue to act.

Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey are NCPRI members.


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