A new normal?

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 5 September 2011

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This article was published on ‘The Indian Express’ on 5th September 2011





For months,some politicians,media commentators and other opinion-makers had been dismissive of Anna Hazare,arguing that he is an undeserving hero,pitchforked into superstardom only by the government’s repeated bungling. He and his team have also been depicted as demagogues,whose rigid approach defied rational discussion.

The reality is that “Team Anna” was never as intransigent as it was portrayed. There had all along been signals that they would engage in give-and-take; but as long as the government stuck to its unbending position,it made perfect negotiating sense for them to do the same. And although the government’s mismanagement was a catalyst,it is equally clear that there is a substantial,simmering public anger that will not fade until concrete steps are taken against corruption.

Politicians have finally understood this. There appears to be genuine commitment to pass a tough Lokpal bill soon,albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm,even if only to retrieve lost political capital. The government has suffered far more losses,but the opposition has not escaped unscathed. “There,but for the grace of God,go I” must be the relieved sentiment among many of the latter,who could arguably have been as prone to gaffes as the former if only they had been burdened with incumbency.

The challenge today is one of managing expectations until the nuts and bolts of the bill are worked out in the standing committee and subsequently in Parliament. The vast majority of the agitators were unfamiliar with the details of the Jan Lokpal draft,nor are most of them keen on the nuances. Suffice it to say that they’ve had it with corruption,are not going to take it any more,and fully support Anna Hazare and the Jan Lokpal version.

There lies the rub,with at least some parts of it being described by several experts of the highest integrity,such as Justice J.S. Verma,as contradicting the basic structure of the Constitution. But this is not an insurmountable hurdle. The discussion in Parliament — when both government and opposition showed flexibility in accommodating some of the agitators’ key demands — has done more than defuse the immediate crisis. Besides buying time for the political class to do the right thing,the debate highlighted issues of genuine concern — such as federalism and the checks and balances of democracy — and also saw possible solutions being floated. This was a turning point,but it is crucial that the tempo be maintained.

There continues to be sniping about Anna Hazare’s credentials,his non-democratic track record and the source of his funding. But what really matters is whether his cause has merit. That it surely does,irrespective of why he has not taken up on behalf of the tribals; or how he strong-armed Ralegan Siddhi (as long as he ultimately abides by Parliament’s final act); or whether his acolytes have received funding from the Ford Foundation (which in any case has done much good work in India,and it’s not as if the money is linked to drug trafficking or terrorism). With those caveats,there is nothing illegitimate about his tactics,which have bullied a recalcitrant system to the cusp of change.

Meanwhile,some good things have started happening. There is now traction for proposed Citizens’ Charters and Right to Services acts,which stipulate time limits for officials to process files for such common services as issuing domicile certificates and releasing pension payments. For the first time,babus are to be held accountable for service delivery to common citizens. Even more importantly,the biggest cause of systemic,everyday corruption — the ability to cause delays — will now be under attack. Madhya Pradesh,Bihar and Punjab have already enacted such acts over the past eight months; now other states like Kerala and Orissa have announced they will follow suit. Surely Anna Hazare’s obduracy and holding the establishment’s feet to the fire have contributed to this.

While ending his latest fast,Anna Hazare caused a flutter by announcing that the next battle he plans beyond the Lokpal bill is electoral reforms,including the right to recall elected representatives. This has sent some detractors into a tizzy. But the fact is that the country desperately needs electoral reforms; not just the right to recall,but even more fundamental ones like cleaning up election funding and enforcing intra-party democracy. The longer the political class dawdles on such matters,the greater the possibility that someone else will step into the vacuum and take charge,perhaps an Anna or even an activist judge.

There are also other areas of pending reform that are long overdue,providing opportunities for would-be heroes. One such is judicial reform. India has an abysmally low ratio of judges for its population,variously reported as between six to 14 per million people. Either number is a fraction of that of developed countries,and even below Bangladesh. The Law Commission recommends that it be at least 50 per million,which would require thousands of additional judgeships to be created,along with the associated infrastructure and operating budgets. A long pending proposal to create an independent National Judicial Commission for this purpose has been gathering dust. Related bills on judicial standards and whistleblowers’ protection are in the pipeline,but well behind schedule.

Anna Hazare’s success would not have been possible without politicians abdicating their responsibilities. But Anna and his followers will find it difficult to forever keep pressuring the system from the outside. When the next election rolls around,they will need to participate to some degree in order to retain their newfound influence. They can do this either by fielding candidates or at least campaigning for or against some of the usual suspects. But opting out of the electoral process will be risky; whoever wins will acquire fresh political capital,and may not be as hapless as the present government in letting it evaporate.