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For the (re)public

Anna Hazare's movement is not against corruption but a kind of democracy that is a closed shop of tycoons and family scions, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2011 12:31 IST
Sagarika Ghose

The Anna Hazare movement crept up unnoticed, pounced suddenly and unexpectedly seized a country by the throat. Within hours of Hazare announcing his fast, the news, disseminated by 24-hour media, had spread to every city, small town and village. A media event rapidly became a public one. Hundreds heard, pushed back their chairs and charpoys and walked. They walked with candles, they marched to streetside venues. Forty thousand 'liked' Hazare's 'India Against Corruption' page on Facebook. There were protests in 400 locations across the world. Seven lakh people expressed solidarity with Hazare by giving a missed call.

The crowds were peaceful, well-behaved and not a single violent incident was reported. At Jantar Mantar in Delhi, the atmosphere was low key and respectable. No goons. Instead, the new knowledge economy middle class turned up: geeks, students, doctors, litigants who had battled an uncaring state for decades. They came to sit with an elderly man from Maharashtra whose name they may never have heard before but who, they had heard, was willing to die for them.

The movement for the Jan Lok Pal Bill has been criticised. A fast unto death in many ways is undemocratic and sets a precedent of blackmail. There is an authoritarian undertone to a group of unelected civil society members seeking to make law. The movement betrayed glimpses of a disrespect to all democratic institutions like Parliament and seemed to place its hopes on a dictatorial super hero like the Lok Pal with absolute powers. When powers of judge, jury and executioner are all vested in a single entity, its possible that entity could become an instrument of evil.

All these reservations must be taken on board by the committee which will draft the Jan Lok Pal Bill. Our elected representatives are the heartbeat of our republic and if we place them in jeopardy, we will become yet another high-growth authoritarian country like our neighbours in south east Asia. The 'sab neta chor hai' mentality is dangerous. A country that hates its elected politicians soon begins to hate democracy itself.

But those who criticise the Anna Hazare movement as being anti-politician and thus anti- democratic must also answer the question: is Indian democratic politics still democratic? Or is democratic politics now a gigantic multi-crore syndicate in which hereditary bosses control paid vote-banks to repeatedly return to power? According to a study, the total amount spent in 2009 elections was R10,000 crore. The Hazare movement did not became a wildfire phenomenon because of the media. It became a phenomenon precisely because of the helplessness that people feel about politics becoming impervious to public concerns. Democratic politics is in danger of becoming a closed upper class of well-connected super-rich folk for whom India is a playground. Politics is perceived as business-driven, family-driven and cut off from the aam aadmi.

Almost every political party today is dynastic. When a political party represents an idea or vision, voters feel they can vote, donate and support that party. But when a political party represents only a particular family and family enrichment, then how can voters either support, donate or vote for it? No wonder parties can't rely on public donations and must seek nefarious funds to win elections.

All corruption today has its roots in the funding of elections. The DMK is a good example of how hereditary politics is intimately connected with big money. When a candidate campaigns on the strength of his vision and charisma, he can raise money on his agenda for change; when he campaigns for a family name, he relies inevitably on the business connections of his family. When asked why he didn't contest elections, Hazare candidly admitted that since he did not have money and liquor power, he would lose his deposit. In today's democracy, perhaps even Gandhi would lose his deposit.

In his recent book India: A Portrait, Patrick French points out that all MPs under the age of 30 are hereditary. More than two thirds of 66 MPs under the age of 40 are hereditary. Of women MPs, 69.5% are hereditary. If the present trend continues, the Indian parliament will soon be made up of only hereditary MPs and India will be back to the era of the princelings and their kingdoms.

The Hazare movement is then a wake-up call for Indian politicians. Yes, there is a citizenry out there which is severely unhappy with being saddled with a Parliament that has become a closed shop of tycoons and family scions. Yes, there is a citizenry out there that feels helpless and anguished that big money and big power are charting the nation's destiny according to their needs. Yes, there is a citizenry out there that feels betrayed that politicians are handing over their legacies not to the country but to their sons and daughters. Yes, there is a citizenry out there that feels agitated when an aloof and elitist government does not talk to them as equal stakeholders.

Hazare's movement must not be seen as just a movement against corruption; its also a movement against the kind of 'democracy' we are becoming. A fast unto death has gatecrashed the political cocktail party. In a patchy subliminal way, the word 'public' has been re-inserted into the Republic.

(Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal)