Reclaiming moral authority

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 20 August 2011

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This article was published on 'The Times of India' on 20th August 2011,






It is a country where a cabinet minister is in jail for large-scale corruption; the public is seething with anger at the government for its callousness; high inflation continues to be a problem; and the government has raised an alarm about terrorists being trained across the border in Pakistan. The country mentioned above is not India, but China.

Surprised? But it’s true, and just goes to show that even a political system without the handicaps of democracy does not prevent the kind of problems India has been facing. Yet there is a category of Indians – mostly middle class, growing in number, and disgusted with the state of our politics – that yearns for simple, quick solutions. Linked to that is a lack of patience for the checks and balances of democracy. And like it or not, Anna Hazare has become the messiah who promises to satisfy their yearning.

The disgust that middle-class Indians feel for politics and politicians has not come about overnight, it has been brewing for years. Inch by inch, the political class has ceded moral authority. At times the vacuum in legislative responsibility and governance has been filled by judicial activism. At other times NGOs have stepped in. And through it all, the media has chipped away at political legitimacy by exposing one transgression after another. This disgust is now deeply entrenched and will not subside easily.

In the circumstances, it would have taken extraordinarily bold and decisive actions by the government to have a hope of persuading the agitators that it was serious about tackling corruption. Instead, what has been on display is foot-dragging and tactical blunders at every step. There does not appear to be any overall strategy to deal with the problem on hand. In case that sounds partisan, the fact is that Parliament’s central hall is buzzing with similar sentiments expressed privately by MPs across the political spectrum.

While Anna Hazare’s actions are textbook Gandhian civil disobedience tactics, the government seems to have been taken by surprise at each and every turn. That is ironic, considering that it is led by a 125-year-old party which was once headed by Gandhiji himself. What is odder still is a level of political disconnect in reading the signs. Take, for instance, the parliamentary discussion on Anna’s arrest. Whereas a mea culpa might arguably have regained some of its lost political capital, the government instead focussed on explaining technicalities. But technical justifications can only go so far; they cannot dispel the perception that government actions have been inconsistent.

Of course, the entire political class, including the opposition, is responsible for the public’s cynicism about politicians. And it is no one’s claim that corruption didn’t exist prior to this government. Nevertheless, it is on this government’s watch that the issue has come to a boiling point. And, in the parliamentary system of democracy, the onus rests squarely on it to introduce the necessary changes and build consensus around them.

There are three broad reasons why the government’s response is in disarray. The first is inertia. After decades of seeing various corruption scandals eventually dissipate, even a year of scandals and agitations is still seen by some as yet another passing phase. Even as recently as a week ago some proponents of this viewpoint were predicting, wistfully, that Anna Hazare’s second coming would be a damp squib.

Second, there has been a lack of leadership. Instead of a coherent chain of command, there has been no place where the buck has firmly stopped. Various ministers and other leaders have behaved like a hastily put together football team, with whoever being nearest the ball at any given time taking a wild kick without regard to the direction.

Third, and most importantly, there has been a suspicion that the opposition has either engineered the agitation or is at least trying to shrewdly take advantage of it. The blunt response to this insecurity is simply, “So what?” Even if this were true, it neither absolves the government of its responsibility nor makes political sense to do so.

The reality, however, is that many in the opposition are willing to cooperate with the government. Some leaders, while resolutely putting the government in the dock – as indeed they are entitled to – have nevertheless clearly said that they are not entirely in agreement with the Jan Lokpal draft. In fact, even the highly publicised intransigence of “team Anna” is likely an exaggeration.

Many constitutional experts have questioned some aspects of the Jan Lokpal draft, mainly on the undesirability of compromising democratic checks and balances. For instance, the Lokpal having oversight of multiple branches – executive, legislative and judicial – would violate a fundamental tenet of democracy, not to mention the Constitution itself. Others have questioned the desirability of the prime minister being covered. It is worth noting that some other democracies exempt the head of government from such oversight, but only for official actions and only while in office.

At the time of this writing, there are clear hints from Anna’s camp that they are willing to consider some changes in their draft. And in the ongoing monsoon session, Parliament has already demonstrated that it is capable of returning to past levels of high debate and effective functioning. The timing may now finally be right for a historic, tough and constitutionally sound Lokpal Bill.