Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lokpal bill and the movement


Here's a short summary of what I think about the lokpal bill and the so called ‘biggest’ movement India has seen. Thanks to my friends for pushing me to write about this! There are few different aspects of the whole thing - so let me try to sort them out first:


1) The merit of the bill itself

2) The way the 'movement' took place

3) People issues - making of a hero, communal connection etc.

4) Expectation - what this bill will achieve? Is this sufficient?

5) Where does this issue of corruption stand - in the larger context of the country and who is corrupt?


1) On the merits of the bill itself, some questions have been raised, which I find valid. I must accept here that I have only glanced over the bill (one of the earlier versions), not read it thoroughly.The primary concern on the bill really is that it creates a super-powerful body that is not accountable to the people directly (as in a democracy) [1][4]. I know the bill is going through many revisions, but at least in one of the versions the way it suggested to constitute the lokpal committee seemed quite ridiculous (like having Nobel laureates of Indian origin - who may know nothing about corruption in India). Another issue is of precedence - as far as I know, the only other law that comes close to this is in Hongkong, no other country has such an all powerful lokpal body.


2) There is a wide-spread notion of comparing Anna with Gandhi and hunger strike as Gandhian way of non-violence movement. That really comes from very poor understanding of Gandhi's idea of non-violence which we have mostly reduced to strategic non-violence rather than a principled non-violence. From Gandhian perspective, this 'movement' is not really non-violent [3]. In Gandhian way, you never do a hunger strike or fast 'against' anyone - it's always used for self-purification or as a penance. Gandhi would have called off this movement long back unless he was sure all the people taking part are non-corrupt. You have to first refuse to take part in any corruption, before you can fight against corruption (not necessarily my opinion, this is what I understand of Gandhi's path).


3) At some point the 'movement' became 'support Anna' rather than supporting the bill or the larger issue of eliminating corruption. When one man becomes more powerful than the issue or the ideal, we should be wary. When saying anything against Anna is looked at as unpatriotic we should be alarmed. Not sure if you perceived it that way or not, but in many forums that was the sentiment. And that limits critical thought, stifles room for discussion and debate which is not healthy for a nation (or for anything for that matter). Then there were some concerns with Anna's communal connection and some stories about violence in his village [2] - but I don't have much solid data on that - so will refrain from going there. Anna did redact some of his earlier comments.


4) If enacted, will the bill solve the problem of corruption? I don't think most people seriously think that the bill will solve corruption. However, this is one step towards that - so some form of lokpal bill is important. But the expectation should be clear too that this is a small step - a lot more needs to happen than just passing the bill. We have many progressive bills - but their effectiveness can be questioned. A lokpal bill is a mechanism to punish the corrupt and work as a deterrent. But it doesn't go into the root of why corruption exists - what are the social / political / economical reasons behind that. Unless we address those issues, even the strongest law enforcement agency wouldn't be fully successful. One of the primary reasons for corruption is also the huge economic inequality - do we have a plan to address that?


5) Is corruption really the biggest issue facing India? The answer really depends whom you ask the question. The middle class perspective on this will be very different from the perspective of the poor or the marginalized. That is not to trivialize the issue by any means - but it's good to put things in the larger perspective of the nation and the majority of the people. Many articles have claimed that this lokpal 'movement' has seen little mobilization from the poor in the rural section [6] - which is the majority of India. The other thing to keep in mind in this context is of course the role of the media. If you just watch mainstream media, you'd think this is the biggest movement India has ever seem in decades! But there have been countess events and protests on much larger issues - which involved a lot more people than this lokpal bill movement has ever been able to gather - but no one knows about them, they are hidden from us - because the mainstream media ignored them. Well, I'm not saying lokpal bill 'movement' is negligible - but that it does get disproportionate amount of media attention. I'm sure you can come up with many examples if you look for it.


In this context, another important thing to keep in mind is that the bulk of the 'outrage' is against the government (to some extent, for valid reasons). However, corruption is hardly a government only problem - it's widespread in individual lives, private sector, corporate sector - though government is a easy scapegoat because many people have already accumulated distrust of our govt. There's very little talk about corruption in other spheres.


Bottom line, in my opinion, a lokpal bill is necessary and an independent body should be there along with the necessary provisions. But the bill in it's current form is fairly controversial, and I believe for good reasons. There has to be parallel efforts to address the socio-economic gap and other human-development index metrics to tackle the larger issue. We need to strengthen our democracy, not move away from it.

Some of my references:

[1] Elected representatives are a quintessential requirement of democracy (By Madhu Kishwar): contends that the main folly of the bill as it stands now is that it undermines democracy and relies on a body that has very few elected representatives and has no accountability to the public at large.

[2] Communalism bad, development good - Anna lauds Modi (By Badri Raina): Points to the alleged communal ties of some of the leaders of this movement and their version of development.

[3] Anna Hazare and Gandhi - Whatever devalues Parliament strikes at the root of democracy (by Prabhat Patnaik): Argues that Anna Hazare's struggle is not non-violent and comparing him with Gandhi is a reall wrong. Also points out that much of the furor is against government, whereas corruption is in every sphere including the private corporations. Also talks about undermining democracy in the bill.

[4] At the risk of heresy - why I'm not celebrating with Anna Hazare (by Shuddhabrata Sengupta): Raises some concerns on concentration of power and more.

[5] Issues and concerns about Jan lokpal bill (by Prashant Bhushan, a drafting Committee member of the bill): Addresses some of the concerns raised in the above articles.

[6] A tale of two movements (by Amita Baviskar): compares RTI and Lokpal bill movements and the role of grassroots mobilization.