Lincolnian democracy seems a distant dream


The state government is set to table a bill in the current Assembly session for the governance of municipalities. This is not intended to discuss the merits of the Bill, but the degradation of the legislative process from the sublime to the ridiculous. Abraham Lincoln hoped that government of, by and for the people would not perish from the earth. It has all but perished here. Bernard Shaw said, “Politics is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.

Nothing could be truer for this country. Winston Churchill, addressing the Commons and opposing the bill to grant independence to India, had some scathing comments. Pointing to Clement Attlee, he foretold the consequences of Indian independence, saying, “The country would pass into the hands of rogues, rascals and freebooters. Not a glass of water would escape taxation. And the blood of these innocent millions would be on your head, Attlee”. For long, every Indian rightly hated what he said. His words now seem uncannily and uncomfortably prophetic.

These quotes and the current socio-political scenario here are relevant for understanding the sabotaging of the legislative process, especially in the Governance Bill. First, corruption is endemic. This is an understatement. Ministers of the government are alleged to be involved in illegal mining. The Supreme Court had to step in to stop this. Legislators with charges against them initiated by the Lokayukta, function uninhibited. Instead of making laws, legislators are busy making roads! The higher judiciary has been rocked by allegations. Other than seeking publicity through statements to media, the executive is somnolent. Karnataka is last among states in terms of transparency, vigilance and social audit, as per the study of an NGO, Daksha. The government has been postponing city corporation elections for several years. The Metropolitan Planning committee (MPC) has not been constituted for the past 15 years, in violation of the Constitution and the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act.

When the Constitution and state laws are violated with impunity, what is the point in enacting another piece of legislation? The executive (government) and the legislature are making a mockery of governance. ‘Eminent citizens’ who could influence media and highlight these misdemeanours are either silent or actively connive with the government.
The ostensible purpose of the Bill to replace the KMC Act is better governance needed for the expanded territorial jurisdiction of the corporation. The government has “put the cart before the horse”! City municipalities were merged into the corporation over two years’ back. Common sense would dictate that a governance bill would be in place along with the merger. The proposed bill is drafted by a private firm at the behest of a body of ‘experts’, constituted without legislative sanction to ‘advise’ the chief minister. The bill does not seem to have been discussed with the ruling party legislators. The opposition was not consulted. The process followed would put to shame many ‘banana republics’.

Opposition’s apathy

The opposition seems to be equally uninterested about legislative propriety. They have not said a word about this bill or how the government is bringing in legislation. The Bill contains gimmicks such as, ‘directly elected mayor’ and ‘neighbourhood area committees’, when ward committees provided in the KMC Act have not functioned since 1976. What could a directly elected mayor achieve, when BMRDA, headed by the chief minister, and set up to make the provisioning of civic services, efficient, failed to deliver?

As per latest reports, the chief minister has shot down provisions for both the ‘directly elected mayor’ and the MPC.

It takes decades to render justice; and when it does, it falls far short. On TV, there is the spectacle of a DG of police walking out of court, smiling at the sentence of six months he received for molesting a minor girl who later committed suicide. He was promoted after a departmental inquiry found him guilty! Governments seem impotent to arrest unbearably rising prices. A commission of inquiry takes 19 years and several crores of rupees to come to a finding that everyone knew and recommends nothing. Water supply was promised to the merged municipalities five years back. The government engaged an NGO to encourage people to pay money in advance for water supply. Crores were collected. The NGO vanished from the scene, when questions about privatisation of water supply were raised. Instead of supplying water, the government has made rainwater-harvesting compulsory.

A Bill to regularise illegal constructions was passed two years ago. Its legality was questioned in the high court. The government could not answer the points raised in the court. This law could not be implemented. The law sought to punish only homeowners. The real culprits, contractors and abetting officials, were let off. Illegal constructions continue, unabated. Now the government is bringing a similar law with reduced penalties for homeowners, again letting off the culprits.

One wonders, whether there is any hope for democracy. Rather than being resigned to hopelessness, look at the brighter side. Civic awareness has increased enormously. This awareness could be tapped to unite citizens into a ‘Fifth Estate’, to engage constructively with the four estates of democracy and reclaim people’s sovereignty. This could usher in government of, by and for people.

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