The dangers of a movement
A deep-seated Kalki complex that drives our desire for a saviour to set order against chaos and restore balance is what drove the Lokpal Bill agitation
By Ranjit Hoskote
Anna Hazare’s agitation is not a triumph of democracy. It is a triumph of demagoguery. There is no quarrel whatsoever with the need to expose and punish corruption as practised by those who hold public office and wield political influence. However, that project is being taken care of, very substantially, by the higher judiciary, by institutions within the executive, and by committed platforms within civil society. This is why, by contrast with some periods in postcolonial India’s history, so much corruption has, in fact, been exposed instead of being swept under the carpet in recent times. But the campaign against corruption is not the key move in the Hazare agitation; the key move is the peremptory insistence on pushing the Jan Lokpal Bill through Parliament, without consultation and under duress. Make no mistake: The Jan Lokpal Bill, which Hazare and his colleagues have drafted, is a dangerous attack on democratic governance, and a purposeful move towards dictatorship.
Hazare and his colleagues in the NGO sector display a remarkable contempt for the institutions of Constitutional democracy. They wish to bypass the Constitution, Parliament and due parliamentary procedure. Declaring the elected representatives of the people to be untrustworthy, Hazare and his colleagues insist on the mystical validity of this Bill, which has been drafted by a committee of seemingly irreproachable citizens, who have elected themselves as ‘representatives of civil society’. Worse, their claims about unchecked corruption demonstrate an arrogant dismissiveness towards our higher judiciary, which, against all odds, has acted as a leading guarantor of democracy in this country.
Worst of all, Hazare and his friends wish to concentrate an extraordinary amount of power in the office of the Lokpal. It will stand above the law, with no checks and balances to keep its functioning under public scrutiny. The Jan Lokpal Bill proposes that the existing anti-corruption agencies, the Central Vigilance Commission and the departmental vigilance and anti-corruption branches of the Central Bureau of Investigation should all be merged into the Lokpal’s office, with the power to conduct independent investigations and to prosecute any civil servant, judge or politician. The Jan Lokpal Bill thus raises the conflict of interest, as well as the merger of powers correctly separated by the Constitution, to the level of structural principles. Such an office is extra-Constitutional, indeed, anti-Constitutional. The Lokpal dreamt up by Hazare & Associates will investigate, sit in judgement, and render punishment, all together, like some modern-day Trinity rampaging over the ruins of the rule of law.
Hitler, in his last years in power, invented a glorious and resonant title for himself: Oberster Gerichtsherr, ‘Supreme Law Lord’, with powers to appoint and dismiss judges and civil servants at will. As ever, of course, he took care to speak in the name of the people: it was for their safety and security that he was incorporating such sweeping powers into his own office and person. This is a far truer genealogy for Hazare’s ‘Jan Lokpal’ than the Scandinavian ombudsman.
And what of the day-to-day functioning of the Lokpal? Even if the office of the Lokpal is constituted as an 11-member panel, will these members be attending personally to the torrent of complaints that will pour onto their desks every day? Will they traverse the country, personally addressing a missing ration card in Ambala, a sub-inspector asking for a bribe in Nagpur, a voter card not issued in Coimbatore, a domicile certificate not granted in Imphal? The Lokpal’s office will require a machinery far vaster than any so far in existence in India. And who is going to monitor the Lokpal’s super-bureaucracy? This will unfailingly turn into a state within a state, with a vast potential for corruption, all the more unfettered for being without checks or balances. Of course, Hazare & Associates have all the answers: If any officer in the Lokpal’s secretariat were to be tempted into corruption, they say, “any complaint against any officer of [the] Lokpal shall be investigated and the officer dismissed within two months.” Really? When such officers are being asked to investigate themselves?
And who, in any case, is going to appoint the members of the Lokpal panel? The members of the Lokpal panel will be selected by such eminent citizens as “judges, citizens and Constitutional authorities and not by politicians”. Really? And why should the people of India, all one billion of them, be represented by the Magsaysay Award Alumni club? Many of the leading lights of the Hazare agitation are members of this club: Hazare himself, Kiran Bedi, James Lyngdoh and Arvind Kejriwal.
I am greatly amused at the manner in which some of our compatriots are taken seriously because they have won the Magsaysay Award (sometimes described as the Third World’s answer to the Nobel). At least Alfred Nobel was an honest merchant of death. Who was Ramon Magsaysay? As defence secretary and later President of the Philippines during the 1950s, he was a trusted and reliable instrument of the US State Department. He took the help of American military advisors to put down the Communist Huk insurgency by means both orthodox and unconventional. Upon gaining the Presidency, he demonstrated his allegiance to the US in various ways, being a co-founder of SEATO, created expressly to bring the newly liberated postcolonial nations of Southeast Asia together into an anti-Communist formation, a geopolitical bulwark against the USSR and China. SEATO’s mandate included assisting the US in crushing resistance movements in this region: which is why Philippine army and naval personnel fought under the US banner in Vietnam, playing a role in supporting the atrocities that we routinely assign only to farm boys from Iowa and Montana.
And let us stop, once and for all, fetishising ‘civil society’, especially when it comes readymade in the form of NGOs and TV channels who construct the ‘people’ and the ‘nation’ in their own image, in the image of their cherished projects and agendas. Civil society is as fissured with contradictions as the domain of the political is; those contradictions must be continually thought through and negotiated. It is not an angelic and infallible realm of discourse; it is certainly not the only legitimate source of authority in the country.
As to the suggestion that Hazare’s agitation is “India’s Midan Tahrir” and a guarantee of “genuine democracy”, I find this deeply insulting to the millions of Indians who vote, who exercise their opinion and judgement, who make their voices heard. India is a vibrantly functioning democracy, not a military dictatorship and a one-party state, as Egypt has been since the early 1950s, and effectively continues to be, Midan Tahrir and the Jasmine Revolution notwithstanding. And who applauded the theatrics at Jantar Mantar? A generation that has no political stance, no commitment to anything except its own opportunities, no historical memory that goes back more than 10 years at best. A generation led by loud, ill-informed TV anchors acting as cheerleaders, without the slightest pretence of detachment or objectivity. Unlike the people protesting at Midan Tahrir, Hazare’s flock has never faced the Mukhabarat, never known the midnight knock, never suffered a suspension of civil freedoms.
To compare Hazare to Gandhi is preposterous: Gandhi prepared his followers in the discipline of satyagraha before challenging the empire. To call this agitation the second war of independence is to insult the memory of the various people’s movements in the women’s rights, ecological sustainability and sub-cultural sectors, which articulated the needs of many millions of people through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. As for comparing Hazare to Jayaprakash Narayan, this is mere ignorance: JP worked all his life in the medium of politics.
What explains the flash popularity of the Hazare agitation? It is not just the frustration of the middle classes with corruption, though that is a vital feature of the phenomenon. Far deeper than that, I would suggest, is the deep-seated Kalki complex that this society nurses: a desire for the saviour who will set order against chaos, restore the balance of the comforting against the disturbing aspect of the universe. This has often incarnated itself in a syndrome of dependency on a charismatic individual. The Kalki complex betrays a deep fear of democracy among the middle classes, a fear that the ‘people out there’ may actually be able to control the destinies of the country, instead of ‘people like us’. Indeed, if you take away Hazare’s rustic charms, and his rather un-Gandhian readiness to flog and browbeat dissenters into line, it is evident that this agitation is presided over very comfortably by ‘people like us’.