Team Anna believes disagreement equals corruption. How healthy can that be for democracy?
By Salman Khurshid, Union Law Minister
IN RECENT months, one has been subjected ad nauseam to phrases like “policy paralysis”, “government in denial” and “tired and mired in corruption”. We are now being told that the national mood is anti-politician and any questioning of that thesis makes us arrogant. Finally, there is a glib announcement of the rising People’s Front that will steer a revolution in 2014. The summer of 2012 and the weak monsoon might have warned of impending drought but the cynicism certainly has descended in a downpour.
In a democracy, governments come and go; each election result comes as though there is no tomorrow, but tomorrows have a way of becoming yesterdays very quickly. Any political party that has faith in itself would wish to see itself return to power. So, do we want to be endorsed for yet another term? The question is what is possible, probable and permissible for that objective and not whether we have a right to try. At times, we speak of constraints and compulsions due to coalition politics not as an alibi for failing to deliver but as a fact of political life. The coalitions we encounter in a multi- party democracy are but reflections of the coalitions that exist in our society and not all of them are rational and desirable. Yet we must carry them together in the spirit of unity in diversity, quite like the nation.
We also seem to be faced with the difficulty of being good. If one’s goodness is seen as a weakness, one is naturally tempted to be extra tough. Thanks to our leadership, we have neither been provoked nor persuaded to depart from the pursuit of good, but admittedly we have to be astride a dilemma. “Forgive them O Lord, for they know not what they do” may not be enough. “Go sock it to them” may well be seen by others as over-reaction. We have a job to do and there are people who don’t wish that we do the job, so that they can say “we told you so”. But we believe we have a history that we are proud of and a destiny that is linked with India’s future. And we are not about to walk away into the sunset because of a handful of tormentors.
What is the Anna Hazare story beyond the soundbites? If I could dub him a dishonest man, there would be no more to say. But despite much that is perplexing, I still believe that he is basically honest, but weak. Of course, for a man who fasts every time the future looks bleak, the description ‘weak’ seems inappropriate; you surely need some strength to forego food for days on end. So, whilst one cannot deny being impressed by Anna’s ability to fast, the cryptic words of Britain’s then prime minister Margaret Thatcher upon the death of Irish Republican Army (IRA) activist Bobby Sands, who starved himself to an untimely end, remain apt: “Bobby Sands had the option to live; the men he killed were never given that option!” Fortunately, Anna stops short of the inevitable but seems as ruthless in letting his followers kill people’s reputations with barbs of corruption. Sands executed his victims once but India Against Corruption (IAC) attempts to do it repeatedly. The sacrifice of IRA leaders was dismissed but it must have played some part in the final settlement that was relentlessly negotiated behind closed doors.
We have heard many arguments for the Anna movement’s raison d’être: corruption has to be rooted out, and in doing that, all means justify the end; the entire government is corrupt, so there is no reason to expect its members to pass a legislation that makes them accountable; the prolonged delay in establishing the Lokpal is proof of an unholy conspiracy; the people have seen through the government’s duplicity. The latest charge against us 14 ministers in the UPA government is in the expectation that not only will this force the establishment of a non-statutory Lokpal (Special Investigation Team) but also ultimately provide an irrefutable argument for a statutory version.
The atmosphere of disaffection encouraged by IAC has some echoes of events in other democracies when people’s irrational fears were exploited. It is important that we recall what Senator Joseph McCarthy did in the 1950s in the US: communism was the bugbear of the people and McCarthy was determined to weed out communists from the system. For anyone to be destroyed, he simply had to be accused of being a communist. Replace corrupt with communist and one has the recipe for the contemporary witch-hunt. Ironically, many people admired McCarthy for his dogged pursuit of communists but history sees it very differently.
The IAC have out-McCarthied McCarthy. On last count, the IAC did not trust the president, the prime minister, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, the Parliament, the CBI, indeed the entire political class (because of corruption). The Central Election Commissioner and Central Vigilance Commissioner (incumbents or the institution) seem to have escaped their wrath, for now. Of course, the IAC members claim to have enough evidence that they wave before television cameras. One would not be wrong to believe that they subscribe to the principle that all public persons are guilty unless proven otherwise; that all judges who do not endorse the presumption of guilt for public figures are themselves guilty. Right to suspect, demean and defame is the latest of fundamental rights, but of a selective few. However, there is a mystical creature descended from above called the Lokpal, who alone would be incorruptible. Anyone who thinks otherwise is like an atheist denying the existence of god.
Two glaring principles emerge: there are no honest mistakes, and honest and reasonable people can never disagree. From that follows, disagreement is corruption (but, of course, not for them).
The haze that has been generated around the mythical Jan Lokpal and self-appointed incorruptibles needs to be parted. A few home truths are called for. The basic concept of the Jan Lokpal entails a self-perpetuating overarching body of persons who could seek accountability from MPs, ministers, civil servants, appellate judges, et al. Since every single civil servant (Group A, B, C and D) would be covered, there would be a mini- Lokpal in every office with powers to prosecute. There would be a Lokpal investigative arm, or else the CBI’s anti-corruption wing would be under the Lokpal. At one stage, the death penalty was suggested for acts of corruption and Magsaysay awardees (read Arvind Kejriwal) and Nobel Prize winners would choose the Lokpal. The Lokpal would initiate prosecution as well as parallel disciplinary proceedings. Our Parliament and government are not alone in believing that the society’s right to law enforcement has to be subject to an individual’s right to just and fair treatment. Jurisprudence knows this as the ‘golden principle’.
IT IS difficult to believe that Anna himself is really interested in all that is advocated in his name. He has always spoken of three things: all government servants be covered by the Lokpal Bill; both Lokpal and Lokayukta be established; and the need for a Citizens’ Charter. During my meeting with Anna, he reiterated this and I explained that we had already taken care of these: all groups are included; both Lokpal and Lokayukta were included in the Bill, but because of objections by states, we have agreed to provide a model legislation for Lokayukta, and that the Citizens’ Charter is provided in a separate legislation. Anna said if that is the case, we should write and put it on record. Thereafter, he would announce his support for the government’s effort at a press conference. Minister of State PMO V Narayanasamy did just that based on a draft that Anna had seen and accepted. We still don’t know if there is anything in the letter he disagrees with, except to say he does not accept that he helped in trying to reach a consensus. He seems to speak one language when he is alone and another in the company of IAC members.
So what irks Anna? He suddenly decided not to deny that we met, but he thinks I have denied it. I avoided the issue till such time as he disclosed the matter. Now I’m happy to confirm that we met through mutual friends and he specifically said the matter must remain confidential for a while till we succeeded in our efforts. Subsequently, he even told the interlocutors that he did not care if the IAC members found out about the meeting. Yet when they did, by receiving the letter by an innocent slip, Anna went ballistic, saying it was conspiracy to break his movement. The long and short of it is that I had shared the information with our side (how else would the letter be sent?) But he seems to have kept his colleagues in the dark. As Macbeth would say, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” There is much more about our long and friendly conversation that I’m not disclosing but I must record that it was his idea (perhaps on an inaccurate understanding of Gandhiji) that in national interest, one can speak an untruth or be economical with it. I hope he is not being forced to do that now. But, of course, like Brutus, Anna is an honourable man. People often ask why we talked to the IAC or indeed to Anna? Frankly because we gave them the benefit of doubt and felt that we had a duty to explore all possibilities for the general good. We prefer the Mahatma to Machiavelli, talks to tricks. Gandhiji may not have been pleased with the unruly scenes at the residences of ministers or the unedifying sight of their photographs being slapped with slippers repeatedly. He dissociated himself from the national movement because of the Chauri Chaura violence. The fight for freedom was surely not any less urgent than the struggle against corruption. But corruption is not only about money; intellectual corruption is the root of all corruption. Furthermore, it is no secret that many people with questionable antecedents are happily taking a dip in the Anna river of salvation to seek immunity from accountability. The responsibility that rests on Anna is all too obvious.
At the end of the day, the common man’s frustrations are Anna’s stated concern. So is it ours, and that’s why we have passed the RTI Act, Whistleblowers’ Bill, Judicial Accountability Bill, Citizens’ Grievances and Charter Bill, Benami Transactions Act, Foreign Agents Bribery Bill, Public Procurement Bill, et al. In addition, the Ashok Chawla Committee is examining the allocation of natural resources, there is a GoM to look at measures to combat corruption, and finally, the presidential reference before the Supreme Court. We are both committed to combating corruption and at the same time unwilling to concede monopoly of concern to any one group. It is a collective national enterprise. Corruption and maladministration are the terrible twins of our system but you don’t cut your nose to spite your face. If there is to be a trade-off between corruption and democracy, we are in real trouble. By believing that corruption can be eliminated without undermining democracy, we can hardly be considered unreasonable, not to speak of being perverse. There is considerable accountability in our democratic system going by the dramatic shifts in electoral fortunes that take place periodically. No one is stopped from claiming that they indeed are different from the rest and therefore best candidates. Indeed, that seems the intent now of some, if not all, of Anna’s followers. But why this announcement now? Winston Churchill said of the threatened German invasion across the English Channel, “We are waiting and so are the fishes.” We, too, are waiting and so are the vultures.
We wish Anna and his followers much faithful bonding, not a hope that they suffer discord even if they speak in different voices on the new president and other issues. We did not write this script either. Anna continues to vacillate between good sense and the IAC’s unruly passions. They, in turn, remain agitated that India now has less time for them and the media even less.
MEANWHILE, THE Parliamentary Standing Committee continues to diligently struggle with modern India’s attempt to come to terms with a complex reality. Anna says he will not speak to anyone in the government anymore. I’m not sure if that is a boon or bane for the government. If the decline in numbers in the crowds continues to be reported by the media, he may decide not to speak to the media either. Perhaps, this will take him back to the golden days of silence. He may not speak but is hopefully listening.
We will bring the Lokpal Bill as soon as possible even as other institutions of accountability are strengthened. It will have all the items that the Parliament resolution promised. We will have to persuade all parties to support it despite their reservations. Then the people will, of course, decide if their representatives have done the right thing. It is a moot question whether we should pray for Anna’s emancipation from his colleagues. Perhaps then, the right to disagree, at present in peril, might get its due before the right to reject and recall.
(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)