The last 11 days have been one of intense debate across the country. Questions like ‘Will the Government buckle under the pressure of Anna’s fast?’, ‘Is the fast by Anna a blackmailing technique?’, ‘What is the Lok Pal bill?’, etc are being raised every day. Television and print media have not lagged behind and they have been constantly updating the events at the Ramlila maidan on a real-time basis. Never in the history of Independent India have so many concerned citizens participated in such numbers in anything nationally significant. People have also been raising very valid questions like ‘Does the protester on the street know what he is protesting for?’. Others have been asking ‘What next?’ People like me who have been associated with the movement from its inception have views that are also shared by other civil society activists. It is time that we move away from the Emotional Campaign that we are seeing to a more Enlightened one.
The movement against corruption in India has been a fairly long one for many of us. Many activists have been fighting in one way or the other for more than two decades. A few of us have also used existing acts like the Right to Information and the Prevention of Corruption Act in this fight against corruption. Experience gained out of such earlier fights clearly shows that there is a need for a comprehensive and effective anti-corruption law in this country. The present UPA Government had made fighting corruption a part of its election manifesto and had drafted a Lokpal bill in 2010 itself. This bill, though weak and not acceptable to most of us, did include the Prime Minister under its ambit. Most of us subscribed to the view that ‘no law’ was a better situation than having a ‘weak law’ and hence were worried that the Government would end up making a law which would not only be ineffective but also make the common man complacent to anti-corruption issues. It was then that many of us in the civil society got together to come up with our own draft and engage the Government with this draft. Simultaneously the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) also prepared a draft and substantial contributions for this draft came from Arvind Kejriwal. The sub-committee on Good Governance of the National Advisory Council under the Chairmanship of Ms Aruna Roy also started work on preparing a draft for the Government’s consideration. With so many differing views already in circulation, one can understand the debate that had been sparked off within many civil society groups.
Around Nov-Dec 2010, Arvind had begun to disagree with the NCPRI team and wanted to have an omnibus Act that would not only be strong but also be comprehensive. The rest of the NCPRI team was of the view that the Act should not only be strong and comprehensive but also practical and implementable. Arvind decided to come up with his own version of the draft and this was a very rudimentary one then. Around the same time, in December 2010, a few Bangaloreans came together and started the ‘Corruption Saaku’ campaign. As part of the launch ceremony, they had organized a walk and had invited Arvind, Jayaprakash Narayan of Lok Satta and myself to speak. It was on that day that the all of us decided to take his Act and make it a part of a larger civil society initiative and get more people on board in our fight for a strong law.
It was indeed Arvind’s networking and convincing skills that got a large team on board which included Anna Hazare, the Bhushans, Kiran Bedi, Swami Agnivesh, Justice Santosh Hegde and others and come under banner of ‘India Against Corruption’. Many of us from the civil society were convinced that we had to mount an incessant campaign and get the Government to consider our points of view while preparing a law. A copy of the early draft was sent to the Prime Minister and to the Chief Ministers of all the 28 states. Expectedly, none of them showed any interest in these drafts and we felt completely ignored. As a part of our advocacy with the Government, a few of us met with the Hon’ble Prime Minister, Sri Manmohan Singh on the 7th of March 2011. His not so encouraging response left us with no doubt that the Government may not be serious about bringing a strong and effective anti-corruption law. It was then that Annaji in an emotional response announced his fast. None of us were even prepared for the response to his fast of April 5th and the Government was completely taken aback at the national awakening that was churned. The rest of the events of the last five months clearly showed that the citizens of the country are fed up with the corruption that hurts them on a daily basis. The emotional response till date should be a clear signal to the Government on the mood of the people. Rallying to the call of Anna, people of different ages and walks of life have spilled on to the streets and are now demanding the Jan Lokpal bill.
There are many valid criticisms leveled against the movement on the constitutional validity of such pressure tactics and on whether civil society has been overstepping its role from being a ‘pressure group’ to taking on the larger role of formulating legislations. Without getting into this subject that has been well debated in the press, I would only like to mention that consultation and participation in a pre-legislative process is not only fully constitutional but a sign of a mature democracy. How far should one go in doing this would be a more appropriate question? The events that have unfurled over the last two days has led to many discomforting questions in many of us who have been associated with this movement from its inception.
One needs to not only understand the reason for the protest but also the details of the differences in the bills. The inclusion or exclusion of the Prime Minister or the Judiciary is not the only major issue. One can argue and debate on what the provisions of the Act should be and that is exactly what the present movement should hope to achieve. While television cameras do show a large number of people, especially at the Ramlila grounds, we need to ensure that the debate does not stay confined to the elite, English-speaking urban middle class but also percolate to the millions of rural Indians whose life is the most affected by corruption. We also need to recognize that a few people in Delhi cannot represent the entire civil society and their views, and space for a more consultative and democratic expression of ideas is now necessary.
There are now three versions that will be discussed in Parliament as mentioned by the Prime Minister in his speech yesterday. The Government from the last couple of days is showing restraint and some a recognition of the prevalent mood of India and respect for the demand of Good Governance. It also clearly indicates that the corruption as an electoral issue could affect the fate of many politicians tomorrow. The attitude of the Government is becoming evident from the differences in the statement of the Prime minister over this last week. The number of people asking the question of ‘why is anna being obstinate’ is now growing larger and this voice also needs to be heard. Swami Agnivesh, one of the key members of Team Anna voiced his discomfort openly and questioned the continuance of the fast. Many of us who have committed ourselves to this demand for a strong Lok Pal act are also concerned that Anna is insisting on continuing his fast. The view that is gaining ground is that he should give up his fast, but continue his dharna at Ramlila grounds.
We now need to understand that however slow and long drawn the Parliamentary process is, it is the only recourse in a civilized democracy. While civil society is well within its constitutional rights to demand laws to ensure good governance, we should let the process take place without subverting it with demands of impractical timelines. While we make demands of participation and consultation on the Government, it is only fair that Team Anna also be more transparent and democratic in its decision-making. Arvind and Prashanth Bhushan are seen to be the key persons advising Anna and they should understand the enormous responsibility on their shoulders. They should not let the surging and loud crowds distract them into making impossible demands and should use their newfound power with caution and discipline. They should understand that the work at the center today is getting a good and strong anti-corruption law and not just ‘my version of the law’. Other civil society voices also need to find a space in this debate and we should use the invitation of the Standing Committee of Parliament to present our views forcefully and effectively. And let us not forget that we could always revert back to peaceful and non-violent struggles if the Government and Parliament let us down. Let us also remind our Members of Parliament that the next general elections is only a few years away and the citizens will not hesitate in voting out people who do not try to articulate the legitimate voices of those whom they represent. Making this struggle ‘Gandhian’ will need one to raise it morally higher and that will happen only when we allow existing institutions to function. Let us not forget what the consequences of a broken down system could be for the future of this country.
Anna Hazare should now give up his fast, engage not only the Government but also a wider group of civil society leaders, and use his popularity with the common man to keep the pressure on the Government and not relent till we have a strong, pragmatic and effective anti-corruption legislation. Let us not forget that we can have this law only with the support, cooperation and intelligent participation of the civil society, the common people, parliamentarians of all political hues and the Government in power. It is indeed a collective responsibility and we should not allow the ego of any one individual or institution to come in the way of what we Indians rightfully deserve.
Update (28/08): The Kannada version of the above article was published in Prajavani today.