I have been deliberating whether to write about the Jan LokPal Bill for some time. The reason why I have dallied somewhat is because I am more than a bit conflicted on this issue.
Here though is what I am sure about. The “revolution” we just saw, started right after the World Cup and completed right before the IPL, was not India’s Tahrir Square. Not that I am belittling the revolutionary temper of those who starved on Twitter or took an hour off from their busy schedules to show their patriotism or those who made more missed calls than a heavy-duty stalker or those who flooded my Facebook inbox with invitations for “anti-corruption events” or those who turned up at the site of the struggle as if it was a Roadies roadshow or created “Picbadges” for their Facebook profiles or lit more protest candles than there are on A K Hangal’s birthday cake. When Bipasha Basu, Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra make moving 140 character oratory orgasms over Twitter, far be it for humble me to even hint that this is not something like the “Rang De Basanti Be the Change” revolution of a few years ago. Even then, comparing this to the mass uprising in Libya and Egypt or making a connection between the Indian government, moribund as it is, with the regimes that are there, is a bit like comparing Sachin Tendulkar to, let’s see. Sujith Somasunder.
Here is what I am also sure about. Anyone who is not supportive of Anna Hazare’s agitation is not automatically a 1) a Congress stooge 2) A supporter of corruption 3) An evil cynic who has trouble passing stool in the morning 4) attacker of Anna Hazare’s personal integrity. It is ironic that be it for Rang de Basanti or for Anna Hazare, that some of their most passionate supporters have to be so zombie-like that anyone not drinking the Kool aid of the season is automatically tagged and bagged as being in league with the system, in an echo of the Bushian “You are either for us or against us” simple-mindedness. Also just because Anna Hazare has nice things to say about Modi, which in politically correct India is like eating hearts of little kittens, soaked in atmospheric ozone and served on a ivory plate made from tusks yanked out of still-alive baby elephants, does not mean he is a RSS-BJP stooge and has specific political ambitions in that section of the political spectrum. A look at his record of going after every party on account of corruption (including Shiv Sena-BJP for which he had to go to jail) should be testimony to his bi-partisanship.
Now here is where things start getting murkier. According to some of Anna’s critics, his Gandhian mode of “starve-to-death” protest is a form of blackmail, a method of agitation that by appealing to emotion and creating a “ticking clock”, essentially subverts the democratic process. They also argue that such “You do what I want or I will kill myself” type of protests might create a chain-reaction of copycats on different causes throughout the country. Once we accept this as a legitimate form of protest, we have to also, on principle, accept other coercive extra-democratic agitation instruments including bandhs, terrorism and violence. A long time ago, one of my criticisms of “Rang De Basanti” had been precisely that. The way I saw it, the movie endorsed violent retribution as an acceptable form of political expression with a cop-out rider that went along the lines of “This is not right but given the state of affairs this was the only way to get heard”. In this case though, I would give Anna Hazare the benefit because his form of protest has not impinged on anyone else’s personal freedom, in the way that terrorism, violence and bandhs do. One can argue that attempted suicide and self-torture through denial is a form of violence but I would like to believe that that falls under the purview of individual choice where the only one being inconvenienced is the self.
And to be honest, hunger strikes by themselves are not potent weapons for protest. It is only because of Hazare’s popularity and the resonance of his cause in the consciousness of the chatterati that the government has been somewhat arm-twisted. If you are not that fortunate or your cause is not popular, you can be thrown in jail or meet the fate of Irom Sharmila.
It’s when I look at the draft Bill and talk to a few of its supporters that my sense of disquiet increases. From what I gather, there is this species called “politicians”, a conceptualization of the “Kafanchor Neta” from Gunda sipping on “Dilli se Billi ka doodh”, evidently mutants from outer space who mysteriously have seized power without our knowledge. And that a body of exalted humans, jurm se nafrat karne waala, shaitoon ka liye jwala, the Shankars of the world should be deputed to act as judge, jury and executioner of these “politicians”, preferably in a black cloak with chains with “Rishtein Mein Hum Tumhare Baap Hote Hain, Naam Shahenshah Aur Mere Paas Magsaysay Bhi Hai” on their lips. It’s slightly puzzling how we, who elect politicians, would do a better job in creating a commission that oversees them and what we do when, to carry the Gunda analogy further, our Shankars won’t become Auto Shankars once they get a taste of pure power. Another Jan Lok Pal to watch over this one?
Of course once you think about it, you realize why it is not puzzling. Urban middle class India feels (not that they would say it out aloud) that they did not elect these politicians. Uneducated “poor” India ,with its massive population advantage, did. (A similar point is made here) This explains why politicians in India don’t really care about corruption, because though it does get a lot of press and causes some cursory embarrassment in the halls of Delhi, come election time all that matters are caste and religious alliances, canny seat-sharing, sops like cheap rice, TV sets and, must not forget, desi daroo. The “poor” vote as a block in a “corruption”-agnostic manner because their expectations from the political process are not ideals like “freedom from corruption” or “strong national defense”—they are fighting for something more tangible like a few more hours of power in their villages, legalization of slums, writing off of loans, more days of guaranteed work. Which is why election after election, the same set of uncouth sleazeball politicians are elected without fail.
In this context, the JanLok Pal Bill become an attempt by the marginalized urban English-educated classes to take back their country. Its evident in way public feedback is sought, as per the draft Bill, through a website, something that the “poor” don’t really have access to. It’s evident in the qualification criteria for the committee (Magsaysay Award winners, Nobel prize winners, Bharat Ratnas) that the urban middle class wants what we Bengalis call “bhodrolok” in charge. Though it is never made clear how achievement in various fields would immediately make less prone to influence than someone picked off the street or why bloggers who know everything or twitter Gods with more than 10K followers are not included in this list of the exalted.
It is this “some people are better than the rest” assumption at the heart of everything and the sweeping power that they are being given over “those elected by the unwashed masses” that strikes me as essentially undemocratic. Not to be alarmist, but most of the world’s dictatorships have their origins in a few good men (or one good man) promising to bring order out of chaos, if only the people give him some “liberty” to do what must be done without the constricting restrictions imposed by the rotten system he is trying to clean.
You would be thinking right now that I am against the Bill. Which to an extent I am, on a matter of principle. But this is where the internal conflict lies. I do not have an alternative constructive solution for controlling corruption, since eradication is obviously impossible. Yes of course I can say “We need to change as a people” or “We should reduce red-tape” but those kind of vague statements are better left for the Senior Bachchans and Celina Jetleys. I can point to the Tea Party as an example of a powerful movement in a democratic society, spearheaded by an “angry” constituency which rightfully or wrongfully has felt left out of mainstream politics, who within the space of a few years have organized a democratic pressure group that has fundamentally changed US politics, to the extent of recently bringing the federal government, to a budgetary stand-still,through their influence in the Republican party, until some of their agenda items were addressed. But then again, unlike those who drafted the Jan Lok Pal, I cannot provide to you a written manifesto as to how that kind of Tea-party like mobilization would be achieved or how “issue-centric voting blocs” could be created in India. All I can do is say “Yep it should be done” before I watch KKR play the Royals.
In other words, I cannot think of a fundamentally democratic prescriptive solution to Indian corruption. And the people who drafted the Jan Lok Pal at least have thought up of something concrete, which is far better than I have.
Because if there has ever been a time to take a decisive step against corruption it is now.
This is because the last few years have seen corruption on an epic scale, unprecedented in its scope and the shamelessness arrogance of those involved.
In computer security, we are taught that it is impossible to fully secure a secret (just as it is impossible to get rid of corruption) and what one can do is make things so prohibitively expensive for an attacker that there is no longer an incentive to execute a hack. For instance, if it takes 20,000 years for an attacker to break the encryption and get to your credit card number, it may reasonably be assumed that information wont be of much use to him by then. Which means he won’t even try. So maybe constituting a Lok Pal now and then a Lok-Square Pal to monitor the Lok Pal (once that becomes corrupt) and then a Lok-Cube Pal would ultimately create so many mouths “to feed” that corruption might become too expensive, so that at least in some cases, playing by the rules might be the cheaper alternative than it is now. And this might be the reason why our rulers have been so loathe to pass the Lok Pal for decades and why it has been diluted to the point of insignificance.
Of course there is the other side of the same argument, possibly the more realistic one. Because of the Lok Pal, the share of the pie for each powerful party would become smaller per transaction, with the share becoming progressively slimmer as each layer of oversight is added. This would then be compensated for by the interested parties through sheer volume of corrupt practices. A chilling possibility.
So it comes down to this. Given the scale of corruption extant in our country and how stifling it has been to our development, is a non-democratic, patently imperfect attempt at a solution, with a bleak worst-case scenario (that of more corruption) better than the definitely democratic but utterly rotten status quo?
Every time I think I know the answer, I realize I don’t.