Monday, August 29, 2011

Direct Political Action in India

India is experiencing direct political action. And not everybody is celebrating.
Back when Independence came, India had a relatively honest bureaucracy, so some say. But with Independence came the socialist planned state, and every commercial action needed a multitude of licences and permission. In a socialist state, public salaries were stagnant. The opportunities offered by the Licence Raj, and the neediness engendered by the levellers, led to increasing corruption. But the last two decades have eclipsed all that. Indian tycoons built huge fortunes off such opportunities as the sale of cell-phone rights. They have done so dishonestly.
I don’t know if that story is completely accurate, but India now has a bureaucracy and political class that are very corrupt by any standards. The 2G cell-phone scandal is said to have cost the Treasury $40 billion; the Commonwealth Games fiasco modernized the Capital—but at a cost in corruption that can only be guessed at.
This is where direct action comes in. Anna Hazare is an Indian who has been in the news lately. He proposed anti-corruption legislation to create the office of Lokpal, or Guardian of the People, with very broad powers to root out corruption. He has been fasting to protest its non-adoption. Yesterday, India’s Parliament passed a non-binding resolution endorsing Hazare’s main demands, and he broke his fast. “Today the Parliament is discussing the issues you have raised,” Hazare said, “It is the people’s parliament that is supreme.” It should be clear: Hazare’s phrase “the people’s parliament” does not mean Parliament. He is referring to the protest movement he started.
Hazare is a decorated retired soldier and a dynamic social worker. He introduced dramatic and very successful agricultural reform in his own village, and the results made him famous and influential. Disturbingly, though, there are reports that these reforms were achieved tyrannically. In a forthcoming book, the well-known journalist Mukul Sharma reports (in Ramachandra Guha’s summary) that “Liquor, tobacco, even cable TV were forbidden. Dalit families were compelled to adopt a vegetarian diet. Those who violated these rules—or orders—were tied to a post and flogged.” Local elections were not held; national campaigns were disallowed.
The mode of the anti-corruption campaign, and Hazare’s own predelictions, have caused many Indian intellectuals considerable anxiety. A few days ago, I posted links to Arundhati Roy writing in the Hindu, a left-wing newspaper, and to that newspaper’s own editorial on the subject (which notes that many of the provisions of the Lokpal bill are unconstitutional). Roy, who is a left-wing activist herself (and a Booker Prize winner for her novel, The God of Small Things) writes:
While his means may be Gandhian, Anna Hazare's demands are certainly not. Contrary to Gandhiji's ideas about the decentralisation of power, the Jan Lokpal Bill is a draconian, anti-corruption law, in which a panel of carefully chosen people will administer a giant bureaucracy, with thousands of employees, with the power to police everybody from the Prime Minister, the judiciary, members of Parliament, and all of the bureaucracy, down to the lowest government official.
Roy is not disturbed just by the content of the Lokpal proposal. She deplores the movement itself: “the Maoists and the Jan Lokpal Bill have one thing in common — they both seek the overthrow of the Indian State.” Hazare does not care for India’s constitutional democracy: the last 64 years (since Independence) have been wasted, he has said.
Niraja Gopal Jayal, an eminent political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, strikes a note that is, at least to my ear, less authentic and less urgent than Roy’s:
If we allow civil society (or any segment of it, however well-intentioned) to dictate the law to Parliament today, on what grounds do we deny the same privilege to others tomorrow — corporate lobbies, for example?
Surely this cannot be the main concern: it is possible to regulate corporate lobbies. Still Jayal’s concern, like Roy’s, is with power being exercised outside the normal constitutional channels. “The supreme irony is that to give in to the demands of [Anna Hazare] would be tantamount to opening the doors to legalising the very forms of influence on which Hazare is so generously staking his life,” she writes in the Indian Express.
It’s a peculiarly Indian conversation. Gandhian principles of civil pressure struggling against pride in indigenous institutions and protectiveness of their legitimacy. Unlike China, India doesn’t enforce anti-corruption laws by shooting those found guilty. Like China before said executions, the new economy has reinforced and accelerated a long decline in public morality. The issue that engages many Indian intellectuals is how to break the culture of corruption within the Constitution. Hazare accepts no such restrictions.
Perhaps we should allow a politician the last word. Here is Rahul Gandhi, speaking in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament:
Democracy is central to fighting corruption. Individuals . . . have galvanized people in the cause of freedom and development. However, individual dictates, no matter how well intentioned, must not weaken the democratic process. This process is often lengthy and lumbering. But it is so in order to be inclusive and fair.

(Cross-posted at New APPS.)

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