Agony and ecstasy

Between the lines

When a civil society exhausts its patience, it comes out on the streets. It is angry, but peaceful. Such was the phenomenon one witnessed in India a few days ago. The country was ablaze with passion, petulance and purity for four days. The mood was to overhaul the entire system which people considered rotten to the core.

Thousands of them gathered from different walks of life in several cities and felt good in responding to a Gandhian, Anna Hazare’s call to weed out corruption. He had gone on fast unto death to force the government to set up a 10-member committee, with half of them from civil society, to redraft a bill, pending for the last 42 years, to establish an institution of Lokpal (an ombudsman) to ensure punishment to the corrupt, whether in politics, judiciary or elsewhere.

It was a catharsis of civil society which felt wanting within itself and helpless in doing anything against corruption from top to bottom. Hazare’s campaign had given civil society an opportunity to participate in a struggle to redeem itself. Exasperated over a string of scams, resulting in a loss of thousands of crores of rupees to the public exchequer, the society had lost faith in democratic polity. Hazare revived that faith.

When the government accepted Hazare’s demand for a joint committee, following which he broke his fast, the peaceful mass of people, essentially from the middle class, was convinced that corruption would be eliminated. Maybe, people are expecting too much. Maybe, they consider the Lokpal as the end by itself, not the means to end corruption. Whatever their preference, their belief in Hazare is total. They are fully behind him because they see in him a person who would see the end of corruption, an irritant in their daily life.

Cynics and critics have joined hands to run down the movement because it sought to circumvent the institutions available under the constitution. But they miss the point that such outlets — Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement was one in 1975 — take place because institutions have not been responding or destroyed by the rulers.

Indira Gandhi demolished them at the Centre in 1975-77 during the emergency. Chief ministers have done away with them in states. The administration has now been reduced to a system which is run by the nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, agencies and criminals. Whether a chief secretary or the investigation head, he awaits word from the above.

What can people do? True, they can cleanse the government by electing honest, conscientious candidates. But how do they do that? There has to be a political process to bring in better people. That process has become so expensive that the campaign of a parliament candidate costs at least Rs 10 crore, if not more. Political parties are not willing to jettison even criminals from the list of candidates. (Some 25 per cent are criminals in the current parliament).

Reforms

The Election Commission has been trying to convince the parties to keep out criminals but without any success. What it means is that there has to be electoral reforms to enable honest people to have a level-playing field. Money and muscle men who have distorted the democratic process must be kept out.

Reforms may not form part of the Lokpal bill’s new draft which the government and civil society have agreed to finalise by June 30. Hazare has said that it must become a law by August 15. Yet, I see a lot of resistance on the part of the ministerial team headed by Pranab Mukherjee. The government does not want the Lokpal to receive even complaints directly, much less to dispose them.

Human resources development minister Kapil Sibal has made fun of the Lokpal bill. He says that it cannot provide education and medical care to the poor. We all know that the Lokpal is not a panacea for the country’s ills. But the institution, when set up, will see to it that politicians, judges and bureaucrats are made accountable.

The basic fact to note in the movement is that the urban middleclass has expressed its exasperation for the first time in a peaceful and collective manner. The bill that emerges from the joint committee of the government and civil society will have to meet the expectations that have been raised. The middle class is scrutinising the developments every day. Both sides are riding a tiger which they can dismount by being on the same page. Otherwise, both will get hurt.

The movement also indicates that the country is boiling. Hundreds of agitations and protests in different parts of the country in the last 10-15 years show that. The lava beneath can outpour if the rulers do not attend to the needs of the common man. Hazare is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is people’s disappointment that even after 62 years of independence the living conditions obtaining in the country have not improved.

I feel this is the time for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to rehabilitate himself. He has lost the prestige considerably. He should intervene — and should be seen doing so — to see that civil society representatives have their proposals incorporated in the Lokpal bill. His ministers, particularly P Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal, are the hardliners. The prime minister would have to curb them.

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