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Our Latest Democratic Predicament

It is time holders of state power understand that mobilisation in civil society against, or for policies, is an integral part of democratic politics, particularly when representatives have betrayed us time and again. The State enacts, implements, and adjudicates policies in our name, and governs in our name. We therefore have the right to ask why we should accept unjust and arbitrary policies, and above all corruption. But this does not mean that we uncritically accept civil society initiatives as wholly good and entirely democratic; these initiatives should also be subjected to public scrutiny and engaged with.

COMMENTARY

Our Latest Democratic Predicament

Neera Chandhoke

It is time holders of state power understand that mobilisation in civil society against, or for policies, is an integral part of democratic politics, particularly when representatives have betrayed us time and again. The State enacts, implements, and adjudicates policies in our name, and governs in our name. We therefore have the right to ask why we should accept unjust and arbitrary policies, and above all corruption. But this does not mean that we uncritically accept civil society initiatives as wholly good and entirely democratic; these initiatives should also be subjected to public scrutiny and engaged with.

Neera Chandhoke (neera.chandhoke@gmail. com) is at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.

R
ecent developments in Indian politics, and I refer, specifically, to the reverberations that have been detonated by popular anger at institutionalised corruption, have managed to trap committed democrats between the Scylla of distrust and Charybdis of dismay. With a metaphorical lift of our collective eyebrows we take note of, with some amusement, the orchestrated and the tiresomely repetitive outrage of our political elite. How can ordinary citizens somewhere out there, in that godforsaken space called civil society dare to stake a claim to policymaking, and thereby to righten some of the multiple wrongs of Indian democracy, they ask. Sundry political leaders and media fixers dismiss the fast unto death undertaken by Anna Hazare as so much blackmail, the leadership of the campaign as non-representative and self-styled, and popular anger and protest over what has become a permanent, even a constitutive feature of the ruling class – corruption – as irrelevant at best and a nuisance at worst.

Even as they display unwarranted arrogance, these leaders, and this is the cause for amusement, betray their own ignorance about the nitty-gritty of democratic politics. As every school child knows, not only is democracy premised upon popular sovereignty, popular sovereignty is democracy’s main claim to legitimacy. This basic lesson in democracy has not been learnt by our elected leaders, or so it seems. Nor do they seem to be aware that they are expected to proxy for their constituents in forums of decision-making. For this reason, citizens have the right to monitor representatives and their acts of omission and commission, not only during election time, but on a day-to-day basis. This power is not insignificant. As our recent history tells us, when civil societies speak, stronger leaders have quaked. Think of the way some very powerful Stalinist regimes collapsed like the proverbial deck of cards, when civil societies in central and east Europe took up cudgels against these regimes in 1989. The Indian leadership should, as young people are wont to say when they bid goodbye to their friends, “take care” when civil societies awaken to their task. As far as this sphere is concerned it is not trust in elected representatives but distrust that constitutes the raison d’être of democracy.

Misgivings about Hazare Movement

Yet the nature of the popular protest against corruption led by Anna Hazare also occasions misgivings for a variety of reasons. Matters are not helped by the fact that the media has gone overboard in acclaiming the four-day gathering as a revolution, a revolt, a movement, in short as a happening of cataclysmic proportions. In the process it makes the same conceptual mistake as the French monarch Louis the XVI made when, hearing about the mobs that had stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789, he naively asked the informer Duc de Rochefoucauld-Liancourt “Is this a revolt?” “No Sire”, replied the duke, “this is a revolution”. The difference between a revolution, a movement, and a protest gathering is not only semantic, it is political. Revolutions mount a challenge to the fundamentals of the system, and for that reason they constitute ruptural events in the political biography of a society. Social movements may not seek to overthrow the existing system, but they seek to transform it through sustained mobilisation, a clearly articulated ideology, a committed leadership, and the thinking through of alternatives. The Narmada Bachao Andolan was one such movement. The four-day gathering in support of Anna Hazare was nothing more than a political event, stagemanaged by a motley crowd ranging from Swami Agnivesh to Baba Ramdev and Shri Shri Ravi Shankar, to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres. It had a single point agenda; the kind of graft that has permeated the very core of our political system has to be eradicated.

Certainly the cause of some very angry expressions cannot be underemphasised. The scale as well as the regularity with which scams are unearthed by the print and the visual media produces not only resentment, but also disbelief. Does

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anyone, except bankers, financial wizards, and stockbrokers, even know how many zeroes there are in all these sums being dispensed from hand to hand, from ministers and their minions to middlemen, lobbyists, industrial houses, contractors and suppliers? It has also become clear that sections of our media, which is supposed to be and which presents itself proudly as the watchdog of democracy, are an integral part of these expanding networks. The ordinary Indian is frustrated and rightly so, how is he or she expected to deal with a system whose rapidly unfolding tentacles relentlessly take hold of, and imprison us in its greedy, grasping, ugly clutches.

In the middle of all this helplessness and frustration arrived Anna Hazare, who proceeded to tap the imagination of thousands of discouraged Indians. His message is simple and deceptively straightforward

– a pox on corruption and death to the corrupt. Fed up with their own incapacity to resist institutionalised graft, and frustrated by the general lack of probity displayed by the political elite, people rallied around him, enthusiastically espoused his agenda, fasted alongside with him, sang devotional songs, performed havans, engaged in slogan shouting, and shooed away errant ministers, politicians, and according to reports, even media celebrities.

The problem is not that the crowds assembled in Jantar Mantar in Delhi, and in public spaces in other cities, gave vent to their dissatisfaction with the ruling elite. The problem was that the participants in the event either did not take in, or had no problems with nasty and frankly fascist slogan mongering. Many committed democrats subscribe to the agenda of removing corruption. How can anyone live with this? But they cannot but be uncomfortable with the solutions on offer. For utterances such as “death to the corrupt”, “take off the hands of the corrupt”, or “punish them severely”, belong to Talibanised societies, not to the world of democracy, which privileges the right of even those who are proved guilty to be treated as a human being.

Lokpal as Solution

Cause for more dismay is the institutional solution that is proposed by the gentleman and his supporters. Establish a Jan Lokpal, endow it with colossal power, bestow on it the status of a Leviathan, and all our problems will be solved. Hey guys, this is not democratic at all. If democracy on the one hand is about popular sovereignty, it is also about procedures and principles. One of these paramount principles is the separation of powers. It is of the utmost importance that power should not be concentrated in one institution, and that demo cratic decisions should be subject to review not only by citizens, but also by other state institutions to ensure conformity with the Constitution. Democracy is the only form of government that is capable of self correction; this should not be compromised for any reason whatsoever. Certainly corruption is a major issue and needs to be fought, but according to procedures and norms, and in keeping with the mandate of the Constitution. The country is not Ralegaon Siddhi where alcoholics are

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flogged to make them give up their ways (in fact this should not be happening in Ralegaon Siddhi which after all is territorially a part of India). India is democratic, and in democracy people have rights. Anna Hazare may have earned the status of a big brother, but no democrat can allow him to turn this Lokpal into another big brother right out of the pages of George Orwell’s projected nightmare.

Ralegaon Siddhi

But it is precisely his reputation; as a patriarchal “Big Brother” that has shot Anna Hazare into fame. Mukul Sharma (2011) who has carried out extensive fieldwork in Ralegaon Siddhi documents the methods employed by our so-called Gandhian to transform the environment. Hazare is acclaimed as an environmental warrior, and as an ardent defender of rural development. Under his leadership the village has become a model for development projects. But at what cost? Physical coercion garbed as parental concern, threats of corporeal and symbolic force to reinforce authority, flogging of offenders with an army belt to make them mend their errant ways, and the excessive use of religious symbols to drive home lessons in a morality steeped in orthodox Hinduism. This is reinforced by a top-down decision-making process, expectations of uncritical obedience, the banning of competition in any form, the non-existence of political parties, proscription of movies, film songs, and television, and prohibition on the sale of cigarettes, beedis, and liquor. This is Hazare’s model village; an entire edifice constructed around one premise; the unchallenged supremacy of the leader, the moral exemplar to whom unquestioning obedience has to be rendered. There is no alternative.

Frankly, Ralegaon Siddhi is strongly reminiscent of the proverbial joyless, totalitarian Utopia, where no dissent is permitted, no freedom of expression is tolerated, and no deviation is allowed. The inhabitants of this model village may have conserved water, and become self-sufficient in food, but they seem to inhabit a bleak, barren, and a soulless landscape. Development has been achieved, and corruption eradicated without a single nod to democracy. The inspiration for this experiment, it seems, are the Utopias of the Renaissance, which gave pre-eminence to stability, morality, obedience, compliance, absence of discord, and asceticism. Against a background of the recently invented printing press, in the early 16th century Thomas More in his very own Utopia, prescribed restrictions on travel, public gatherings, and expressions of political ideas. In such Utopias conflict is superfluous, consensus is privileged, obedience is sanctified, and decisions from above rendered sacrosanct. In the process, politics as debate and contestation is replaced with administration.

But when democratic politics is replaced by administration, we see nothing but the production and the reproduction of the citizen as a consumer; a consumer of policies (of development) and decisions (corruption should be punished) arrived at elsewhere. Consider Singapore. The former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, guided the transformation of Singapore from a malariainfested swamp, into an economic powerhouse, and a major centre of finance. The island state has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, possesses a world class educational and health system, and boasts of an incorruptible public service. At the same time, the regime ruthlessly controls the press, does not permit freedom of expression, and stamps out dissidence and often dissidents. Concretising the ethos of the Utopia of the Renaissance, Singapore might have controlled corruption, achieved material well-being, and become one of the financial power centres of the world, but the country does not respect the two prime fundamentals of democracy as India does; popular sovereignty and equal moral status of citizens.

Mandate of Civil Society

This is not to celebrate India’s democracy, which is deeply flawed in many crucial respects. It is to point out that proposed solutions for a corruption-free India that are currently on offer, might not be democratic at all. I am by no means downplaying the achievements of the struggle against corruption. Anna Hazare is significant because his fast unto death catalysed the exasperation and the anger of Indian citizens. The sight of hundreds of people holding candles in their hand transmitted a simple but powerful message; citizens have a right to demand that the taxes that are extracted from them are spent for the public good and not for private gains. For the edification of the political elite who want to know what civil society is about, this is what it is about. In 1790, the eminent Irish orator, wit, legal luminary, and member of the British Parliament, John Curran (1750-1817) had suggested that “the condition on which god hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance”. This is the precise mandate of civil society. In democratic states, civil society is expected to keep watch on violations of democratic norms by the state, through citizen activism, the making and circulation of informed public opinion, a free media, a multiplicity of social associations, and sundry means of protest.

Yet in a disenchanted world, and one stamped by scepticism not only towards holders of power, but also the wannabe power holders, we cannot assume that resolutions proposed by civil society organisations will always be acceptable, or that these organisations will always be democratic. Given the plural nature of the space, it is almost certain that some organisations will carry within them the seeds of authoritarianism and a “will to power”. Civil society as the site of multiple projects, some of which will necessarily conflict with each other is a contested space. The realisation of the mandate of civil society, accordingly, demands intentional and determined political action, a fair degree of toleration here, some amount of intolerance there, a readiness to engage with others; and an extraordinary amount of political courage and will to battle undemocratic states, as well as undemocratic groups within the sphere.

Right to Information Movement

It is towards this end that the suggestion that this particular struggle against corruption must once again integrate itself

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into the larger movement for the right to information, may not be a bad one. In 2002 Parliament passed the Freedom of Information Act (notified in January 2003). This was in response to massive mobilisation by the Right to Information Campaign. The campaign had a modest beginning in April 1996 when activists participated in a sit-in in Rajasthan’s Beawar town on the issue. The slogan that was coined by the sit-in, which continued for 40 days, is that “the right to know is the right to live”. Participants invoked the ruling of the Supreme Court, which in 1981 had declared

where a society has chosen to accept democracy as its creedal faith, it is elementary that the citizens ought to know what their government is doing. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything, that is done in a public way, by their functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing.

This, stated the Court, is implicit in the right to free speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution under a rticle 19 (1) (a) (cited in MKSS 2002: 5).

Fairly quickly the campaign gathered steam and attracted considerable attention as well as support from across all sections of the people. The lead organiser of the campaign – the workers and peasants coalition, or the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) which based in the Rajsamand district of central Rajasthan was formally constituted in 1990, has since 1994 waged a relentless struggle on the right of citizens to demand information from the government.

The immediate provocation for the campaign has by this stage of our collective life become tediously familiar: the failure of state governments to enforce minimum wage regulations on drought relief works, mismanagement in the functioning of the public distribution system (PDS), massive corruption in public works in the form of inflated estimates, use of poor quality material, jacked up bills, fictitious muster rolls, and often imagined development works that are conspicuous by their absence. The word “leakage”, which must be on the most inelegant words in the English language, captures the phenomenon very well. But the right to information campaign had more than leakages and corruption on its agenda. By zeroing in onto the right of people to know what the government has allotted to them and to know what has happened to various programmes and schemes that are meant for their well-being, the campaign has managed to foreground at least three issues that lie at the heart of democracy: Ɣ The right of people to know what they are entitled to and the right to know what the government has provided for them. Ɣ The accountability of representatives, administrations, and self-government bodies to the people. Ɣ The right of the citizens to publicly audit the performance of social sectors, which are essential for their well-being.

Transparency and Accountability

Consequently, the movement has, as two scholars put it, breathed new life into two concepts that lie at the heart of democratic governance; that of transparency and accountability through the provision of information on demand. It is easy, write Jenkins and Goetz (1999),

to dismiss movements for transparency as so much packaged liberal-pluralist theory, a neutered conceptual form which does nothing to address existing power inequalities, the tenacity of bureaucratic cultures, and the impact of trends which have increased the influence of far-away events on once fairly insulated local politics – in short, globalisation. But like democracy itself, the idea of transparency maintains its grip on the popular imagination – or at least the intellectual inclinations of political analysts (p 607).

More importantly, the campaign for the right to information has established the one institution that lies close to the heart of theorists of deliberative democracy – p ublic hearings or jan sunwais. The holding of a public hearing is presaged by hard and often back-breaking work: demand for information from respective administrations; analysis of the data that is provided, and resort to agitations if information has not been provided. Background work also involves time-consuming tasks such as cross-checking of information on estimated expenditures, verifying figures against employment registers and bills, monitoring the amount of food lifted from central stocks against receipts of PDS shops, checking how much of subsidised food has been delivered by the ration shops to below poverty line (BPL) families, and accessing sale registers of shops to check names and ration cards of the purchasers. When government officials do not provide the movement with information or certified copies of government accounts, the MKSS and its allies hold large-scale public protests to compel them to do so. What is remarkable is that the mechanism of checking and rechecking, monitoring and exposing, and surveillance of actual expenditure has attracted a fairly

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large degree of public involvement and enthusiastic participation.

Public Hearings

Public hearings or jan sunwais, which are often organised at the initiative of the citizens themselves, are attended by thousands of people who travel from far-off villages to attend these meetings. The participants are given disaggregated information contained in bills, vouchers, and muster rolls of rural development works, and encouraged to participate in the analysis of costs and benefits incurred in these schemes. Through social audits people often come to know that though they are the beneficiaries of poverty alleviation schemes they have never received any funds. Or as Parivartan has shown in the poor neighbourhoods of Delhi, payments have been made to various interested parties even though the public work for which expenditure was slated was not even initiated. Even as the mismanagement of schemes and the corruption of local officials, contractors, and legislators is laid bare in public, often non-literate peasants have come forward to testify that they have or have not been the recipients of this or that programme, whether they have or have not received the stipulated minimum wages on public works, or received rations from the PDS, and whether the said projects have or have not been constructed at all. As an MKSS (2002: 13) write up records: “outraged people came and testified that they had never gone to those work sites, that false signatures had been used and that there were names on the muster rolls of people dead and gone, and other unheard of”. What other institution could provide a better training in direct democracy?

Notably, public hearings perform three functions all of which are intrinsic to the democratic imagination. They produce informed citizens who are aware of what is due to them, they encourage participation in local affairs through the provision of information and social audit, and they create a sense of shared citizenship inasmuch as people in far-off and isolated spaces are made familiar with wider issues of collective concern. The right to information campaign, in other words, strengthens demo cracy simply because it enables people to be aware of their political, civil, social and economic rights on the one hand, and of their own right to demand fulfilment of these rights on the other. “Knowledge is power, they say”, states a document prepared by the MKSS,

and the powerful in the society control the flow of information to control vital resources of the society and also the lives of the disadvantaged, who are disadvantaged in terms of knowledge also. It follows from this that knowledge or information is itself a vital resource of the society, helping control other resources as well, and hence a vital entitlement of all people who constitute any society. In short, the Right to Know or the Right to Information, as it is often called is as fundamental right of a person as any, i e, as human a right as any (ibid: 2).

The campaign for the right to information exercised enormous influence on other organisations, which have begun to focus both on government accountability and that of non-governmental organisations. In 1996, organisations which had till then individually focused on anticorruption activities, joined together to establish the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. The campaign sought reform of the legal provisions that relate to accessibility of government documents, access to which is governed by the 1923 Official Secrets Act. As a result of the campaign, a number of state governments have enacted the right to information.

RTI vs Anti-Corruption Movement

Compare for a moment the political imagination of the right to information movement with that of the struggle against corruption. The former seeks to realise democracy, the latter has little to do with democracy. The right to information campaign realises democracy in two ways, one it empowers people to ask questions of their representatives and thereby exercise agency, and two it launches an assault on structures of privileges. The Hazare phenomenon emphasises the importance of development and a corruption free India, but tries to achieve this through methods that smack of authoritarianism. Structures of privileges are left intact much as caste and gender equations in Ralegaon Siddhi remain as they were, except for cosmetic modifications. The former movement conceptualises the right to be free of corruption as part of the democratic right to monitor the use of public money. The latter campaign uses fasts that arouse primeval passions, and relies on religious leaders and dubious organisations that have a history of instigating communal riots for support. Both phenomena are of civil society, both seek to find solutions to the predicaments that we who inhabit the world of democracy find ourselves embroiled in, and yet one focuses on mobilising ordinary citizens into their rights, and the other on suggesting death to the corrupt. It is for us as democrats to choose what we prefer.

In conclusion, it is time holders of state power understand that mobilisation in civil society against, or for policies, is an integral part of democratic politics, particularly when representatives have betrayed us time and again. The State enacts, implements, and adjudicates policies in our name, and governs in our name. We therefore have the right to ask why we should accept unjust and arbitrary policies, and above all corruption. But this does not mean that we uncritically accept civil society initiatives as wholly good and entirely democratic. These initiatives should also be subjected to public scrutiny and engaged with. Eternal vigilance is, after all, the price we should willingly pay for democracy. For the greatest contribution of civil society is to offer us a forum for unending engagement with all manners of power.

References

Jenkins, Rob G and Anne Marie Goetz (1999): “Accounts and Accountability: Theoretical Implications of the Tight-to-Information Movement in India”, Third World Quarterly, Vol 20, No 3, pp 603-22.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (2002): “Right to Information Dossier: Taking Democracy Forward

– The Story of the Right to Information Movement In India”, Karnataka Women’s Information and Resource Centre, Bangalore, April.

Sharma, Mukul (2011): “The Making of an Authority: Anna Hazare in Ralegaon Siddhi” http://kafila. org/2011/04/1, 14 April, accessed on 17 April.

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