Beyond A Lokpal
As I write this, headlines of the leading dailies say how “breakthrough” in the negotiations between the Manmohan Singh government and the team of fasting civil-rights activist Anna Hazare converted into “breakdown”. One does not know whether by the time you read this column where and how Anna will be and whether the government will be able to handle the impasse over Anna’s crusade against corruption through a Lokpal. But one thing is sure. And that is the fact that so far the government has dealt with the issue in an arrogant way. One day it shows leniency, another day it threatens. First it ignored Anna. Then it promoted Anna, at least some members of the Anna team, to discredit the parallel movement of Baba Ram Dev. It also engaged with the Anna-team in drafting a mutually acceptable Lokpal Bill. But, all of a sudden the government discarded Anna’s suggestions and introduced a ludicrous bill on the subject to Parliament on its own. Simultaneously, it unleashed its own dirty-trick department and that of the Congress party to spew venom against Anna and his team members.
It was against this black-mail tactics, which the present government has mastered to use against its opponents from time to time, that Anna went on to his indefinite fast. Even here, the way the Manmohan Singh government bungled—first by denying a venue and then literally surrendering to an arrested Anna in Tihar jail—is too familiar to elaborate. Instead of striving for a broad political consensus by involving opposition parties on the proposed Lokpal bill and talking accordingly with the Anna team, the government has been playing the game of hide-and-seek. And what is to be condemned in no uncertain terms, the government is also playing the communal and casteist games to demoralise the Anna movement. Soon after a Congress spokesman pointed out how the movement is not representing the SCs, STs and Muslims, the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Delhi, has been at his virulent best against Anna. For him, corruption is the secondary issue in the country. He thinks that India has no future unless Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is arrested and sentenced to death. He would also like all organisations championing Hindu interests to be banned.
As if this was not enough, soon after the Congress spokesman’s assault over the representative-character of Anna’s movement, a Dalit outfit, whose head Udit Raj has been a personal friend of mine for years, mobilised his supporters to demonstrate at the India-Gate. His grouse is that Anna’s movement will weaken the Parliamentary supremacy as enshrined in Indian Constitution, the “baby” of the Dalit—icon B R Ambedkar. That Udit Raj is one among many who go by the myth that Indian Constitution is the work of Ambedkar (something the great man never claimed) is a different story. The point here is that instead of converting the challenge posed by Anna’s crusade against corruption to an opportunity for national rejuvenation and solidarity, the Manmohan Singh government and the Congress party have despicably resorted to dividing the nation on communal and casteist lines. It is a real shame.
Having said that, there should be also no illusion that Anna’s version of the Lokpal will have a magic wand to remove corruption in the country. Though this bitter truth will be highlighted in the pages that follow this column, I only would like to highlight the issue of corruption in general and its genesis, about which Anna and his team-members have not given enough attention. Anna thinks that if judges, ministers and bureaucrats are made accountable, corruption will be eradicated. He does not bother about the business or corporate class, from where most of the bribes or black money generate. He also does not think much about the country’s political system and governance structure, which compel people, including the business persons, to circumvent laws by offering bribes. In short, Anna has not gone deep enough to strike at the roots of corruption. His Lokpal is a superficial panacea.
Let us note that corruption was alive and kicking when India became independent in 1947. Mahatma Gandhi had written volumes on the corruption that Congress ministers at various levels were linked with. In fact, one can even go back to the history to see how Indian rulers and merchants were purchased and bribed by the invaders from time to time. Even the British had bribed their way into power across the country by seducing the recalcitrant among the close relatives/associates of various rulers.
Corruption is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon with multiple causes and effects. It is a phenomenon that ranges from the single act of a payment contradicted by law to an endemic malfunction of a political and economic system. The problem of corruption is to be seen either as a structural problem of politics or economics, or as a cultural and individual moral problem. By structural problem I mean the loopholes of the system because of which it is vulnerable to breakdowns. The moral dimension is also extremely significant. Whatever may be the system, it is ultimately the people who will man it. And if the concerned people are morally decayed, they will never implement the rules and regulations. Unfortunately, Anna’s crusade is silent on these two aspects—the systemic transformation and moral regeneration in the country.
As regards the moral regeneration, more than the State, it is society in general and families in particular, that must play a big role. I think if the taxi-drivers and auto rickshaw-owners in Delhi, who do not run the meters and charge exorbitantly to the commuters, are supporting Anna in big way, then the Gandhian should realise that his movement is not exactly promoting the cause of a corruption-free India. And here, he should loudly make it clear that his followers and sympathisers should not only shun violence (this he has been doing commendably, evident from the peaceful conduct of his fellow demonstrators) but also be of good moral values.
Similarly, I am of the strong view that the causes of corruption lie in the deficiencies in our political system that is marked by the “democratic deficit”. Our political system is deficient in democratic power-sharing formulas, checks and balances, accountable and transparent institutions and procedures. And all this in turn is due to our faulty electoral system, based on the British model of first past the post. Assume that three candidates are contesting for the ballots of 100 voters. Safely guessing that nearly 40 voters will not turn up (60 per cent turnout is considered very good in Indian elections), a candidate getting 21 votes emerges as the winner if the other two manage 20 each. In fact, it has been seen that many leaders sweep polls with less than even 15 per cent of the total vote by blatantly exploiting their castes and communities. They do not bother that they have to be leaders of “all”, not a “few”. In fact, no ruling party in India has ever got the support of more than 50 per cent of the electorate.
In other words, if our MPs and MLAs are not truly representatives of all the people but sensitive to the interests of few, they are naturally more vulnerable to partisan temptations, including bribery. This is all the more so when fighting elections is becoming a costly affair. For instance, we all know that for contesting an MP seat, one needs a sum varying from 15 to 25 crore rupees. But what is the permissible limit? It is just 25 lakh. Obviously, the MP needs black money of crores to contest and once elected he or she has to return the favour to his or her financier, obviously with compound interests. For this, rules have to be flouted and system has to be broken. And in many a case, new rules have to be framed by keeping in mind the interests of the particular business houses that had backed during the polls. This is the real corruption that Anna ignores unfortunately.
All this does not mean that there should not be a Lokpal. The point that I am making is that at best an office of the Lokpal will be a curative measure as far as the disease of corruption is concerned. What is more important is to prevent this disease from surfacing for which Anna should divert his movement towards a bigger goal of India’s electoral and political reforms. That will not only ensure our legislators and ministers (who after all are legislators first and foremost) representing “all” Indians, not “few”, but also usher in an environment in which they debate and legislate on issues freely inside the legislatures by cutting across the party lines and on a non-partisan basis, with party-whips being issued only during votes on the confidence motions affecting the government and money bills. Will Anna really do that?
By Prakash Nanda