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A time to settle?

28 Jun. 2011 12:06 AM IST

There is a time to fight and there is a time to settle. The Anna Hazare led movement has now come to a point where it is running out of meaningful choices. The idea of going on a fast again carries little weight for it is very unlikely that the momentum generated by the first fast can be regained; for one the story is coming to the end of its news lifecycle and in a media saturated environment like ours, this will be a crucial factor. Also, as the discussions descend into more technical details, public interest is likely to wane; causes are built around big ideas, not fussy detail, however important that might be.
More importantly, the war on corruption is not an individual event that will succeed or fail exclusively on account of this bill. The Lokpal bill is, without question, a key ingredient in this battle, but eventually if it takes on too much responsibility and puts too much distance between its idealism and current reality, it is extremely likely that it will collapse under the weight of the grandiosity of its own ambition. In the name of trying to create a foolproof system that stands outside the existing one, it is easy to forget that eventually it will consist of elements from the existing system, and the attempt to ratchet up the scope of the Lokpal to such an extent that everything else is subsumed under it will possibly lead to a bloated structure that will struggle to deliver meaningful results. In a system saturated by corruption of one kind or another, it is difficult to find people outside its influence. Also, in a tainted system, it takes very little to make anyone look corrupt. All it takes is making sly accusations backed by the intelligent use of media – a tactic we have seen the state employ with particular effectiveness in the last few months. Given this, to believe in the absoluteness of the independence of the Lokpal and to put too much power at its disposal is to be more than a little naïve.
The key conceptual shift that needs to be made is to regard the Lokpal as a mechanism that brings about change in the existing political system rather than see it as an external policing agent. By far the most important contribution of this movement has been to establish a new mechanism capable of making the moribund system in place change, however reluctantly. This replaces our existing notion that democracy is a performance enacted exclusively by elected representatives and that even when the entire system becomes a self-reinforcing cycle of self-serving expediencies, we have no choice but to complain, wait for the next elections and choose from amongst the same set of people.
Contrary to the opinion of a lot of informed commentators, the Lokpal does not subvert democracy; it rescues it from its own stasis. And it does so by giving us a way to directly influence lawmaking and policy through means that are constitutional and democratic. For all those arguing about the allegedly co-ercive method of a fast-unto-death, and labeling it blackmail, the Ramdev example is there for all to see. A fast is a weapon only if the person fasting has earned the right and if the cause represented enjoys popular support. Even when this is true, the state always has the option to take co-ercive steps to shut down the protest.
The representatives of civil society need to regard themselves as catalysts of a new mode of democratic engagement rather than merely as votaries of some specific provisions of a specific bill. Their struggle has been an important step in making democracy an on-going dialogue, with the electorate having a speaking part and the government being forced to listen and respond, however erratically. To overplay one’s hand at this time is to risk losing everything and allowing the political system to close ranks and carry on as before. Even if self-appointed, as representatives of people, the Anna Hazare team owes it to its constituency not to fritter away the gains it has made. The real battle has not even begun, for drafting a bill is merely the first step in the very long and uncertain process. The real test will take place in the houses of the Parliament.
Settling need not mean accepting everything that the government has put on the table. Negotiation is often the art of smart sacrifice made spectacularly. It is more important to insist on those provisions that have to do with preserving the institutional integrity and the effectiveness of the Lokpal than on focusing on who should be within its ambit. Once the mechanism is established, its scope can in the future be amended as public consciousness evolves. Leaving the PM out of the ambit of the bill, for instance, is a step that will not materially alter the impact the bill will make on the system as a whole. If the Lokpal mechanism works, it is conceivable that the system will put pressure and include the PM, but as of now leaving this position out does not weaken the Lokpal in any dramatic way.
The important thing is to envision the battle against corruption as a process that will unfold over time. The leaders of the current movement now must rise above themselves, and not see this through the all-or-nothing lens of personal accomplishment. It is only when the Lokpal becomes a part of the political system and when it changes the imperatives that drive those involved in politics and public life, that it can become truly effective. The fact that people have pushed for a law like this is in the ultimate analysis more important than the law itself. For that marks a real change in the political discourse. That’s what makes democracy a living ideal and takes a small step in re-establishing that politics is an instrument of change, driven by people. If this movement is to be the precursor of many others and if it is to set in motion a process by which the current system feels compelled to change, then it must start by moving forward. Even if it is one small step at a time.

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Santosh Desai