After forty two years of hesitation and uncertainty an institutional mechanism for dealing with the all pervasive incidence of corruption is now within sight.  What apparently moved the state machinery was the agitation spearheaded by Anna Hazare, which drew spontaneous support primarily in metropolitan cities.


Within five days of Anna Hazare undertaking a ‘fast unto death’ at Jantar Mandir in New Delhi the government of India conceded his demand to constitute a committee to draft a bill for establishing the institution of Lokpal at the centre. This is quite different from the past practice of the Indian state. Remember Potti Sriramalu who at the end of a prolonged fast sacrificed his life for the formation of Andhra Pradesh and Irom Sharmila who has been on hunger strike for more than ten years, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Nevertheless, the developments leading to the constitution of the committee for drafting the  Lokpal Bill and the provisions of the draft Bill raise several fundamental questions about the working of Indian democracy. Some of these questions demand urgent attention before the Bill is piloted through the Parliament.


In deciding the composition and terms of reference of the committee Anna Hazare appears to have exercised decisive influence. The ‘representatives of the civil society’ were chosen by him and the government accepted his suggestions. The committee consisted of five ‘representatives’ of the civil society and five ministers representing the government.  Welcoming the imitative the Prime Minister has said that the ‘coming together of the government and civil society is a step that augurs well for democracy.’ But it should be apparent that no democratic principle was followed in the constitution of the committee. The representatives of civil society were handpicked by Anna and the government nominees do not reflect diverse political opinion represented in the Parliament.


A Magsaysay awardee, Anna Hazare brought to the movement against corruption considerable reputation and moral strength derived from his social work in a village in Maharashtra known as Ralegan Siddhi. But the methods he has adopted to press his demand has raised several eyebrows. Many believe that the hunger strike and the ultimatum he had served are coercive in nature and have no place in a democracy. The attempt of some of his followers to equate  him with  Gandhiji  need not be taken seriously, as neither his ideas nor his methods justify such a claim. Nevertheless, his Gandhian credentials have earned him recognition from the state and civil society. Although claiming himself to be apolitical he entertains deep distrust of politics and politicians. Paradoxically he has sought the help of the political system to deal with the malaise of corruption. If he had chosen the moral path he would have addressed the social conditions which made corruption possible. Yet, supported by a few civil society activists and projected by a section of the English media as a savior of the nation, Anna acquired a larger than life stature which appears to have punctured the self assurance of the government. His agitation has been lionized by some as second freedom struggle. But it appears to have escaped notice that ‘the assertion of a few to represent the majority’, without any representative character is essentially anti-democratic. The emotional and even unthinking support Hazare commanded is understandable, given the widespread corruption indulged in by the political elite and the bureaucracy.


However, it is the timing of the agitation rather than the moral content of the campaign that accounts for the popular response. The neo-liberal policies pursued by the ruling elite had opened up the possibilities of corruption in massive transfer of public assets and promotion of corporate interests through political patronage. Both  the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the  United Progressive Alliance under the leadership of the Congress were bed fellows in promoting privatization and inviting foreign capital to modernize the country. The unprecedented incidence of corruption in recent times is a concomitant of economic conditions created by liberalization.


The corruption is a complex issue embedded in bureaucratic rigidity, economic access and political power. In this sense the state is the main promoter of corruption. It can not be reduced as a question of   morality  alone, nor can a solution be found in  the punishment of individuals as a deterrent. Such a solution, however, would be most welcome to the state and its functionaries and even to the liberal intelligentsia. It appears that corruption is a great unifier. For Anna’s anti-corruption platform attracted former police officer Kiran Bedi and Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh, along with communalists like Ram Madhav and religious entrepreneurs like Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravidas on the same platform. Not only the communalists and rightwing elements were part of his entourage but Anna also extended his ‘blessings’ to the likes of Narendra Modi by praising the Gujarat model of development, ignoring in the process the moral problem so dear  to his heart. That a person who believes that morality is neutral is celebrated as the ‘savior’ of the nation in some quarters, including the government, is a tragedy. But the favorable demeanor of the state towards Anna is not surprising. So long as Anna Hazare or for that matter anybody else does not raise  systemic and institutional issues, and only champions reformist measures the state will have no problem to promote them. In fact, the attempt of the state would be to ‘instrumentalise’ them. As a result Anna Hazare and his committee may end up as apologists for the state run machinery of corruption. For, it is not the absence of law which prevents action against the guilty but the political will to do so. The periodic appearance of Anna Hazares and their reformist agenda are safety valves for a crisis ridden government. The government functionaries sharing the table with Anna may help to create another fortress around the beleaguered state.


The Committee quickly constituted by the mutual consent of Anna and the government has already started its deliberations. There are more than one draft bill presented in the first meeting of the Committee and therefore it is premature to discuss the provisions of the Bill. Yet, there are some visible directions. Anna Hazare’s authoritarian approach to social problems, as evident in the social ambience created in Ralegan, and the principle of centralization of authority the state follows (National council for higher education and research bill, for instance) find common resonance in the drafts. They envision the Lokpal to function in a social vacuum as a super judicial authority, undermining the existing judicial system, which all said and done, has withstood the pressure and preserved the rights of the citizens. There is nothing in the draft to suggest that Lokpal will bring to bear a greater sense of transparency and accountability in the system than  what the existing institutions have so far achieved.


The aim of the bill is not to prevent corruption but to punish the corrupt. In this respect the draft does not provide a qualitatively different approach than that of the existing institutions of the State. Only when a system which is transparent is put in place prevention of corruption is possible. Social audit does not necessarily create such a transparency.  The process of decision making has to be fundamentally altered to ensure transparency. The target should be the conditions which make corruption possible which demands a complete overhauling of the existing mode of government management.


Given the scale and influence of corruption in the country the constitution of Jan Lokpal is a welcome initiative. But the proposed Lokpal has the making of a super monster. By absorbing all existing anti-corruption agencies the Lokpal will have complete powers of independent investigation and prosecution. It would be an institution with overriding powers without any accountability. As such it goes against all norms of democratic functioning. If the Jan Lokpal is to live upto its jan character its authoritarian and centralized structure should be dispensed with and it should be turned into an instrument of people’s empowerment. A beginning towards that end should be made at the formative stage itself by sending the draft bill to every panchayat for discussion so that nation’s conscience is truly aroused.


(Author is a former professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be contacted at knpanikkar @gmail.com)

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