Tuesday, Dec 06, 2022

Not a very civil coup

Snuff out those candles: democratic society should trump civil society,every time.

Bang on schedule,a few hours before the Chennai Super Kings took on the Kolkata Knight Riders,word leaked out that the UPA would give in to Anna Hazare. Hordes,by which I mean dozens,celebrated at India Gate,by which I mean that they held ice cream in one hand and candles in the other. The Leaders of the Revolution — Hazare,Baba Ramdev and Anupam Kher — could no doubt reflect on a job well done.

Except it wasn’t a revolution,Jantar Mantar was not our Tahrir Square,the Jan Lokpal draft bill is very definitely not the Constitution. In fact,pretty much everything about what played out at Jantar Mantar and on our TV screens last week undermined the principles that those who went on to frame the Constitution believed in.

Means,end and tone: all were problematic.

Look first at the means. What could be less objectionable than a fast? Isn’t it sanctified as the method by which Gandhiji won our freedom,after all? Except it wasn’t the method,and the equivalence just doesn’t apply. Gandhiji used his fasts against several different adversaries: the British,for example,in 1942; political opponents like Ambedkar,as in 1932; and to turn around sentiment in general,such as during Hindu-Muslim tension in 1924 and 1948. Each has a different moral value; using the threat of your death to ensure that separate electorates for Dalits aren’t brought into being is not the same,in my opinion and in Dr Ambedkar’s,as pushing a colonial state into compromise,or bringing mobs to bay. And pushing for your preferred draft of a bill through fast-unto-death is more like Gandhi vs Ambedkar than Gandhi vs the Empire. Except,in this case,your opponents certainly have far more democratic legitimacy than you have. We are left with an act that loses much of its moral value because the means just don’t fit the ends.

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And what about those ends? The Jan Lokpal bill is an abomination,a chaotic combination of bad,meaningless and disastrous ideas. (For the record,the government draft has serious flaws too,but not on this scale.) The “institution” to which it intends to give birth should terrify us,a super-prosecutor subject to no checks on its power,capable of investigating and judging pretty much anything and anybody it wants. Today,the threat of investigation slows down and stalls almost anything useful that the state could do — the bridges,the roads,the investment which all those candle-holders in urban India grouse don’t get made on time. Even a Jan Lokpal that doesn’t go rogue would paralyse a state already doing far too little.

And the Jan Lokpal would go rogue. Why wouldn’t she? Power corrupts,and this bill would grant her absolute power,without a check or balance in sight. Ah,say the bill’s short-sighted drafters,even if the person in the office is so powerful,she would at least be selected by a panel of irreproachable integrity. Well,forgive me,but I don’t think a Nobel or a Magsaysay confers on you the right to decide who rules me. The protesters hissed every time Alagiri’s name was mentioned — he was one of the ministers on the drafting committee — but give me Alagiri,with all his evident popularity in the south of Tamil Nadu,than Vidia Naipaul,popular only with the Nobel committee. It is an absurdity that the same people who blanch at the thought of World Bank aid altering project outcomes are agitating to see Bank of Sweden- and Ford Foundation-funded prizes determining who would sit in what would be one of the most powerful offices in the nation.

But perhaps the most shocking and depressing aspect of what we witnessed was the tone of the protests. One,of course,was the obvious RSS tilt. Anna Hazare sat in front of the Bharat Mata icon that anyone who has nightmares about the Sangh will instantly recognise. The only genuinely popular leader on stage with him was Baba Ramdev,currently being used by the RSS as a stick with which to prod the BJP further to the right in UP. Ramdev turned up at Jantar Mantar on Friday with the RSS’s Ram Madhav; Sanghis were around everywhere,performing havans.

And,for me at least,the sight of all sorts of spiritual leaders of other denominations hanging around did not help at all; I trust that I am still allowed,as an Indian citizen,to feel that the spiritual component of Gandhi’s politics was dangerous and misguided,confusing our definition of the secular — and having Swami Agnivesh,Deoband’s Mahmood Madani and the Archbishop of Delhi lend their names and presence to Hazare and Ramdev disturbs me even more than if they had not been there.


But even more than the havans and the chanting,perhaps dismissible as easy-listening Art of Living-style accompaniment to the real serious business of protest — and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s breathing exercises also made an appearance,apparently — the contemptuous,elitist nature of the anger should infuriate you. Jantar Mantar sees demonstrations most days of the week. Why was this one lauded? Because these aren’t safai karamchari or kisan from western UP. They were People Like Us,dissatisfied citywallahs.

I will be the first to agree that India’s politics has ignored urban India’s needs. The causes are many,and structural. But let us not glorify middle-class anger when it is expressed as an antipathy to where democracy’s gotten us,as fury at not having more power than is gifted by the vote you share with a villager. That way lies the pain and disillusionment of a dozen cuddly dictators,of juntas and committees of national salvation,of Musharrafs and Pinochets and the blood on the streets of Bangkok and Barcelona. That way lies the Emergency.

“Civil society”,a term I have come to detest,is unrepresentative and unaccountable. There is a danger there: something supposed to work for the powerless can wind up working,as in this case,for itself. It didn’t launch an attempt to push our politics to consider reform that made corruption less probable. It tried to create a position for itself at the top,a Gandhian coup d’état,so it can order the messiness of our democracy,the “coalition compulsions” we have all come to dread. The Congress,primed by the NAC to bow to “civil society”,gave in. But I won’t. At the price of being uncivil,ladies and gentlemen with candles,give me democratic society over civil society any time.

First published on: 11-04-2011 at 03:11:06 am
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