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Democracy, ground up

A large section of India's intelligentsia has censured Anna Hazare on two principal counts: one, his method of coercion by fasting is antithetical in a democratic set-up with access to other avenues of dissent; two, Hazare proposes a Jan Lokpal Bill that will, most probably, turn into an autocratic office by virtue of being sanctioned with a largesse of liberty. Anurag Srivastava writes.

india Updated: Oct 22, 2011 14:32 IST
Anurag Srivastava

A large section of India's intelligentsia has censured Anna Hazare on two principal counts: one, his method of coercion by fasting is antithetical in a democratic set-up with access to other avenues of dissent; two, Hazare proposes a Jan Lokpal Bill that will, most probably, turn into an autocratic office by virtue of being sanctioned with a largesse of liberty.

These contentions rest on democratic norms and processes being violated. So Hazare stands culpable in comparison to an ideal larger than himself and his 'antics': democracy.

To say that democracy is not the best form of political systems could violate the spirit of the times. However, democracy is a form — a body whose substance is trust. Public institutions can be considered democratic only on evidenced execution of vested power in line with vested trust. It sounds cliched to state that public trust has been found misplaced, perhaps fatally injured. In general the excesses of the governments manage to get bigger than the sum of all votes.

Democracy, in practice, is more than Tocqueville's ideal. The present hurly-burly isn't over the scams the UPA government has found itself in; it's an indictment of the nature of the State itself. It is also not a penchant for radicalism that has drawn a tweeting middle-class to support Hazare.

So the UPA can't overlook what Hazare's supporters want. Theoretical finesse against the Jan Lokpal Bill doesn't support the process of democratisation even though it ironically defends the textbook principle. Agreed, the mass support for the Jan Lokpal Bill can't be seen as a plebiscite. But if democratisation is about the majority — and it is — then the present manoeuvres remain within the defined boundary of the idea.

Let's not forget that the Bill will become law only with a parliamentary nod. The drafting committee has representatives from both the sides of the politician-non-politician fence. The natural proclivity of political representatives to defend their vested power should be as acceptable as that of civil society representatives to establish their rights. The question of the establishment of a dictatorial institution then does not arise.

People want a reasonable institution that can address corruption at the very basic level where it affects their lives. That's all. There is no idea in the Bill to give teeth to regulatory bodies, to curb the parallel economy, to deal with toxic financial imports, to rein inflation or what have you.

As a next step, dialogue on the Bill should be held with the civil society which presently stands vilified in a government versus people diatribe. What's more, recent debates over personal integrity of members of the drafting committee should not serve to distract attention from the need for the establishment of an institution — constitutionally enshrined by the legislative council for ensuring probity at the ground levels.