gfiles magazine

July 17, 2011

Citizens, be the change that you want to see!

The people must assert their sovereignty, which is the founding principle of democracy


IN Hindu mythology, the samudra manthan (churning of the ocean) is one of the central events in the constant struggle between the devas and the asuras. The gods, weakened by the curse of Sage Durvasas, invited the demons to help them recover the elixir of immortality, the amrita, from the depths of the cosmic ocean. Mount Mandaranchal was used as the dasher (churning tool). When, after a great deal of churning, the amrita appeared, the gods and demons fought over its possession and eventually the former won.
There are lots of similarities in the ongoing brashtachaar manthan or churning of corruption of which the drafting of the Jan Lokpal Bill is just one aspect. Weakened by the national revulsion against unbridled sleaze, the government enacted the drama of joining civil society to churn the ocean of macro-corruption and bring out the elixir of the Lokpal. This was done with great fanfare in full media glare.
Macro-corruption has indeed become an ocean: sub-optimisation of the allocation of scarce national resources and the loot thereof; encouragement of buccaneers instead of innovative entrepreneurs; bribe money deployed in luxurious and wasteful consumption, raising demand for luxury products and services and in turn distorting investment priorities; unaccounted bribe money lent to hoarders and speculators that causes artificial shortages, price rise, inflation and property bubbles; lax criminal investigation and prosecution, huge stashes of black money in tax havens and laundering of money to provide protection to criminal gangs resident abroad.
But the churning was confined to the Lokpal Bill and there was no “governance agenda” visible. Even this limited churning took place in an acrimonious and hostile atmosphere. The basic requirement of including the Prime Minister and MPs within the ambit of the Lokpal was scuttled. In the event, what appears to have emerged is “Jokepal”! This is only to be expected, given the total ignorance of the architecture of governance by those who constituted the “joint drafting committee” and the absence of a proper agendum.
The national revulsion against unbridled sleaze forced the government to join civil society to churn the ocean of macro-corruption and bring out the elixir of the Lokpal.

Though pompously called “India’s Second Freedom Struggle”, what occurred at the Jantar Mantar and the Ramlila grounds was nothing but a make-believe charade and, in the absence of a dasher, no real churning took place. Some years ago, the enactment of the Right to Information Act was also called a freedom movement.
In 1997, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of India’s independence, a “Second Freedom Struggle” was launched to end corruption, criminalization, casteism and communalism. It seems there is a deluge of “struggles” and “movements” but no freedom! JP, who got us the real “second freedom” in March 1977 by defeating the draconian Emergency dictatorship, must be wringing his hands!
Restoring democratic governance: A primer
Civil society should seek comprehensive governance agenda, including the following elements:  - Integrity and functional autonomy of all democratic institutions at the Centre and in the States from the President downwards;
-  Independent and autonomous Lokpal at the Centre and a Lokayukta in each State with the PM, CMs, MPs and MLAs within their ambits. These ombudsman institutions should have the powers to punish and confiscate/retrieve illicit assets;
-  Protection of the dignity of democracy by prohibiting criminals and the corrupt from contesting elections;
-  Rigorous and transparent processes to select high independent/Constitutional authorities;
-  A “Judicial Standards and Accountability Act” to bring about transparency and accountability in the selection and appointment of judges and speedy disciplinary action against the errant ones;
-  Bringing in political parties under Constitutional and legal rigour.

It seems the draconian days are back. Vituperative attacks against civil society leaders and the crude midnight swoop on Baba Ramdev followers are pointers to this. This time around, it appears to be driven by the Union Home Ministry with the complicity of the PMO. The reasons are not far to seek. Writing in a leading magazine, Arun Aggarwal has this to say: “If the Jan Lokpal comes into being, (Home Minister) Chidambaram’s political career is over! As Finance Minister he was responsible for generating the largest amount of black money through corruption....” Indeed so.
While Pranabda admitted that the current political situation bore “some similarity” to the pre-Emergency days in 1975, he asserted that Emergency would not be imposed again.

Participatory Notes, MNCs rampaging over natural resources, and 100% FDI in real estate are glaring examples. KN Govindacharya of the Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan also smells the stink of pre-Emergency days: “It (government) is distorting facts and trying to run down the anti-corruption movements in the same way in which Indira Gandhi had tried to berate the JP movement before imposing Emergency. In order to belittle the people’s movement for change, the then government had termed JP a CIA agent! A divided, bewildered Congress faced with insecurity of losing power then imposed Emergency.”
CONGRESS veteran Pranab Mukherjee does not disagree, and is condescending. While he admitted that the current political situation bore “some similarity” to the pre-Emergency days in 1975, he assertedthat Emergency would not be imposed again. Thank God for small mercies! In the same breath, Pranabda accuses civil society of trying to weaken democratic institutions. Which “democratic institutions” is he talking about? Does he not remember that, under the Emergency regime, of which he was a part, all institutions of democracy in the country were ravaged and deliberately weakened? During the Emergency, governance was devastated by the imposition of a highly concentrated apparatus of power for personal survival and family aggrandizement. This style of centralized misgovernance, which persists today, is the root cause of corruption.
BE that as it may, the current discourse on corruption has brought out bizarre truths about political minions and worthies who run the government. They talk as if parliamentary democracy has dropped from heaven and civil society has no part in it. Some busybody called civil society representatives tyrants: “If this country and democracy has any threat, it is from the unelected tyrants. If democracy faces its greatest peril, it is from the tyranny of the unelected and unelectable.” The fact is that it is not democracy or its institutions that are facing any peril but the kleptocracy of the thieves, by the thieves and for the thieves that is under challenge. Hence the panic.
A Wikipedia definition of civil society makes things clear: “It is composed of the totality of voluntary social relationships, civic and social organizations, and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society, as distinct from the force-backed structures of a state and the commercial institutions of the market. Together, state, market and civil society constitute the entirety of a society, and the relations between these three components determine the character of a society and its structure.” Democracy is a form of government in which all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. This includes participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law. The people’s sovereignty is the founding principle of such a system. A Parliamentary system is nothing more than representative democracy.
With the shadow of the Emergency looming over the country, civil society should change tack and go for fresh and stronger governance agenda than merely the Lokpal Bill or retrieval of stashed assets.

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