Cynicism vs hope

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 9 April 2011

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This article was published on ‘The Indian Express’ on 9th April 2011.





Anna Hazare’s fast has caught the public imagination and is finally forcing politicians out of their comfort zone on the Lokpal bill. That the bill has been pending in Parliament since 1968 should be reason enough to be deeply suspicious about our democracy’s ability to deal with corruption. And deeply suspicious many people are,to the point of extreme cynicism.

That should not be surprising. Confidence in public ethics has gradually eroded over the decades,but the past year has been a particular annus horribilis. A series of stunning exposés has shown public malfeasance on an unprecedented scale. A tipping point has been reached where something must give,but from which much good can emerge. And yet,there are two aspects of the public mood that ought to concern us.

First,the cynicism has gone beyond resentment against individual bad apples or even entire classes of culprits,like politicians. There is now a cynicism about democracy itself,or at least some of its basic tenets like checks and balances. Second,this lynch mob mentality is reflected in civil society,which is otherwise the bulwark of democratic principles.

That is particularly ironic in this year of democratic uprisings in the Middle East,where members of civil society have been risking their lives to overthrow despots. It is also ironic not just because

India is the world’s largest democracy,but also because only a generation ago we had lost it for a while and cherished its return. Of course,our democracy needs huge improvements. But the cynics should not forget Winston Churchill‘s classic line that democracy is the worst form of government,except for all the others that have been tried.

Despite all our failings,massive corruption,and the world’s largest population of the poor and the malnourished,for instance,India has nevertheless been better off as a democracy than it would otherwise. Large sections of the population have been politically empowered for the first time,and are registering economic improvement as well. Former lost causes like Bihar and Orissa are today at the forefront of economic and literacy turnarounds,both through democratic process.

When confronted with apparently intractable problems like corruption,it can be tempting to think that politics is the root cause,that there are quick solutions in bypassing the politicians. The idea that only a body of honest citizens with overarching powers a benevolent dictatorship by another name can tackle the country’s problems is seductive. But that is a false hope. Those who seek uncomplicated alternatives to the rough and tumble of politics need not look too far for a dose of reality.

Non-democratic systems foster far more venality than anything India has experienced. The track record of countries like Indonesia and the Philippines under their former dictators Suharto and Marcos respectively speaks for itself. Egypt’s Mubarak is alleged to have siphoned off a staggering $70 billion. Even China,which is rightfully admired for its economic miracle,suffers from enormous corruption and income disparities.

On the other hand,all successful democracies have evolved from high levels of corruption to far lower ones. The process takes time,and requires continual engagement by civil society,but does have lasting results. The solution to curbing corruption in India lies not in bypassing politics or politicians,since both are essential to democracy,but in compelling them to change through sustained public pressure.

Most of Anna Hazare’s demands are desperately needed and must be implemented,but with two caveats. First,the demand by some activists that Parliament be served a fait accompli,a bill drafted by eminent citizens that it must simply rubber stamp,is non-democratic and would set a dangerous precedent. A better alternative is to allow Parliament to do its job, indeed,force it to do so — by keeping up the pressure on it,the government and opposition parties. This is already happening,with Sonia Gandhi appealing for an end to the fast and Sushma Swaraj calling for an all-party meeting. A little more of this,and a broad agreement is feasible on the bill by co-opting politicians,not bypassing them.

The second caveat is that the activists should accept suggestions by eminent lawyers to ensure delineation of investigative and prosecutorial powers from judicial ones in the proposed bill. That can be achieved without its fundamental premise being compromised. The power of the proposed Lokpal to launch prosecutions without prior governmental sanction is one such key principle that must remain. For far too long,the Republic of India has retained such Raj-era restraints on democracy essentially to shield the rulers from public scrutiny which need to go.

Anna Hazare is a Gandhian who has brought the country to the brink of substantive action on tackling corruption. But in order to secure this breakthrough he will have to tap one of Gandhiji’s other great qualities,which was a shrewd understanding of realpolitik.

The Jantar Mantar movement is now poised at a crucial juncture. It could get irretrievably hijacked by those of his supporters who have scant respect for politics. If that happens,democracy will be weakened and there won’t be any lasting benefit from this stupendous campaign. If wiser heads prevail  those who despise individual politicians,bureaucrats or judges,but respect the institutions of democracy like Parliament and the courts then we could well be at the cusp of a magical moment when the India we leave behind for future generations will be a better place.