‘The protest made the government open to dialogue’

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By Rohini Mohan

Harsh Mander
Harsh Mander
National Advisory Council member
Photo:Tarun Sehrawat

Was the agitation a revolution or a fad?
Comparing it to Egypt and Libya was out of proportion. Unlike in those undemocratic countries, here, nobody was afraid of being stopped while walking into a protest. And it’s different from other candle-light vigils. It’s not about one case, but against a malaise, an idea. It made each of us introspect as to how we have participated in protesting corruption in our lives. When we buy a house, or register something, will we now say we won’t pay in black? Corruption is a complex ethical issue, and this should be the beginning of a larger reflection about social reform.

Why didn’t you join the protest?
On principle, I feel it was democratic dissent, and therefore legitimate. But my vision for democracy and good governance does not end at having an uncorrupt government but also a secular, just and egalitarian government. Some groups in this agitation are not known to adhere to these democratic principles. This is why I had personal reservations about coming out on the street, but I stand by the right to protest, and was glad that people did.

Is the Jan Lokpal Bill naive and anti-democratic?
During the agitation, drafters of the civil society Bill had valid criticisms about the government Bill — more accountability from politicians and bureaucrats, Lokpal as a one-stop shop for all citizens’ grievances about corruption, and more transparency in the selection of the Lokpal. At the same time, the Jan Lokpal Bill assumes overwhelming power. You just can’t have adjudication, investigation and prosecution all under one institution. There will have to be checks and balances. The voices demanding Jan Lokpal are being idealistic, but why not? The job of the agitation was to initiate action. Now the process of drafting and discussion will begin. It will make the weak Bill and the strident Bill compete to give us a strong, sensible Lokpal.

Is the civil society making unreasonable demands?
It’s hard in popular imagination to go into specifics. We can’t expect details of the Bill to be argued out in newsrooms and on the street — these are spaces for emotion and drama. It’s the job of the joint committee including some intellectuals, the NAC and the elected leaders to go into specifics. But without the strong street movement, the government would not be open to dialogue today.

Was there an attempt to bypass politicians wholly?
The Jan Lokpal Bill and its proponents might be misguided in attempting to bypass politicians, but when the government showed some interest after four decades of watering down anti-corruption laws, the fast was ended, the impatience was gone. It’s a good process of negotiation between citizens and leaders. The NAC, Sonia Gandhi and Congress leaders sat down with the members of the movement to see if we could bridge the gap.

Was the movement anarchic?
Why should we feel threatened if people come out on the street? That’s what democracy is about. To expect nuance in a mass movement is too much. It is bound to be nonlinear and chaotic. How can you control what people want, and how they show it? Moreover, the indefinite fast came after all other methods were tried and failed. This is a reminder that government should engage with people constantly. By asking that the movement should have been more sophisticated, or less coercive, we are suggesting that the agitation should have been even less spontaneous. I don’t think so. I’m glad it was messy and authentic.

Rohini Mohan is a Special Correspendent with Tehelka
[email protected]

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