In our lives as empowered citizens of the world’s largest democracy, how many times have we whined about corruption? Five times? 15 times? As long as we can remember? And how many times have we done anything about it? Not too many, on the evidence of the cascading scams of the past year, and all the years before that.
And yet, when a 73-year-old man decides to do something about it, you have these amazing rodent-like creatures coming out of the woodwork, expressing deep concerns about ‘subversion of democracy’.There is a name for such creatures: pseudo-democRats. They also have another name: status quoists. These creatures are so comfortable with things as they are — no matter how rotten, or perhaps because they are so rotten — that they don’t want change. They are the ‘democRatic’ avatars of Mubarak and Gaddafi who wouldn’t want to exchange the joy of whining about corruption for a chance to fight corruption, in however limited a manner. Such as through an ombudsman as envisaged by the Jan Lokpal Bill.
It should be obvious even to a first standard kid that you cannot ask a robber to draft a law against robbery. But today, we have these worthies arguing that the only way to address corruption is through elected ‘least tainted’ representatives — all else is undemocratic.
The only kind of democracy they recognize is one that is exercised once in five years, through the formal, controllable channel of the ballot box. Grassroots democracy that brings people’s issues to the government — such as the Medha Patkar-led Narmada Bachao Andolan or the people’s movement against the nuclear plant in Jaitapur — are sought to be discredited as not representing the will of the people. So who are these protesters? Well, they need to be given a suitable label in order to be discredited and disposed of. Let’s see.
Can you call them terrorists? Not really — terrorists don’t do fast-unto-death (one eminent pseudo-democRat did suggest that Anna’s fast-unto-death was suicide bombing in slow motion). Can you call them Maoists? No, they were armed only with candles.
So how about calling them ‘activists’? They are obviously not people, and since they haven’t won an election, they’re not qualified to speak for the people — whatever that means. Is it possible for any ‘member’ of the people to speak at all — as one of the people — without seeming to ‘speak for’ the people? No.
So who can speak for the people? Well, according to the pseudo-democRat, that is a privilege reserved solely for elected representatives such as Sharad Pawar, Suresh Kalmadi, A Raja and BS Yeddyurappa. It doesn’t matter whether two thousand people join a protest movement or two hundred thousand, protesters will always be ‘activists’ and therefore non-people. Even if a billion Indians speak with one united voice, unless they’re expressing their preference for one crook over another inside a polling booth, they will be deemed as speaking for the remaining 0.21 billion people and therefore subverting democracy.
In their scheme of things, ‘the people’ (who nobody but the elected representative can legitimately represent) come into existence when there is an election, and once the elections are over, conveniently melt away into nothingness. If they make the mistake of materialising anytime, anywhere other than during an election — say, to tell their elected representatives that they don’t want this steel plant in Orissa, or plead against an SEZ on their farmland, or a mine in their mountain — they are immediately relieved oftheir status as people. In short, they become a threat to democracy. Reflecting faithfully the concerns of the state, the pseudo-democRat has taken to heart Brecht’s sarcastic suggestion on what to do when people lose faith in their elected government: dissolve the people and elect another.
In fact, the primary purpose achieved by elections in India is to lend an aura of legitimacy to the oligarchy that has our elected representatives in its pocket. This voter-generated legitimacy is what enables the government to pass anti-people legislations in the name of the people — subversion of democracy in the non-laughable sense of the term.
Whatthe pseudo-democRat is anxious to cover up is the plain fact that elected representatives can consistently act against the interests of those they represent — and there is NOTHING that a citizen, acting only as a voter, can do to stop them. It is this belated realisation that drove the less cynical sections of the middle class to rally around Anna.
An election is only one of many kinds of democratic processes. But the pseudo-democRat loves it to the exclusion of every other democratic mechanism Why? Because an election is a process that the state can control from start to finish. True democracy — something those who accuse Anna of blackmail really fear — is about sharing power, sharing control, and holding the powerful accountable for their power, and not only through means that have the prior approval of the state.
For all its flaws, and the flaws of its leaders, the Lokpal movement is an encouraging example of participatory democracy — a process that is open to anyone who cares enough about an issue to want to join in — as many middle class Indians did.
Democracy is a lived reality — not some codified entity that will be interpreted (for the people?) by self-appointed constitutional experts and newspaper columnists. If the Lokpal turns out to be a ‘Frankenstein monster’ (am I to believe that no ‘monster’ has ever won an election?), then it will not survive. The very people who supported Anna Hazare will fight it and throw it out.
To be sure, the Lokpal Bill, in whatever form, is unlikely to eradicate corruption, for the simple reason that corruption is only a symptom of a structural rot in our casteist society and fractured polity where, even as lip service is paid to political equality, almost every aspect of policy is geared to increase economic inequality. Unless there are many political mass movements — as opposed to one ‘civil society initiative’ — for policies and laws aimed at a more equitable society, corruption won’t go away, no matter how powerful the Lokpal is.
But does this mean that we’d rather not have had the Hazare-inspired campaign? No. The value of the candle-wallas rallying around Anna is to prove — to ourselves — that it is possible for the apathetic, solipsistic Indian middle class to shake off its cynicism and mobilise for a cause. This would be an invaluable lesson, and much-needed inspiration, as things get worse in the future.