Saturday, August 20, 2011

Anna Effect: People take over reins of power

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

Few would have thought that the Anna Hazare-led agitation against a system that is neither accountable nor transparent, that breeds corruption, would ever reach the state it has now. One thought a full-blown confrontation would be averted. But that was not to be.

The turning point was August 15-16, when an unnerved government blundered, badly. The whole issue shifted from Lokpal Bill to whether citizens have the right to protest or not! The sea of humanity that has since converged on Delhi has pushed the government into a cul-de-sac from where there's now little room for it to escape.

What we are seeing now is no spur of the moment, intemperate outburst against a democratic system. It has been in the making for a long time. There has been enough and more warning, that people who man our administrative and government machinery have to mend their ways. The restrictions that the government imposed proved to be the last straw. Somewhere it all had to end. And, it looks like this is the beginning of the end.

What we saw on the streets of Delhi yesterday, and the unceasing overwhelming, almost reverential, support for Anna Hazare, is in fact, symbolic of the people's frustration with the system. People have lost confidence and hope in all constitutional institutions like elections, government, parliament, and even judiciary. This as much a reactive backlash as much as it's a proactive revolution.


In a democracy, it's the politicians who hold the reins of power. And, that's why it's said that democracy is only as good as its politicians. Sadly, over time, during the past 64 years, our democracy has been eroded by its very guardians -- the politicians whom the people voted for, to run the country.

It's an open secret that many people enter politics because they know a lot of easy money can be made out there. Not surprisingly, the quality of political class deteriorated over time, and people, each time they were presented a set of leaders to vote for, had little choice. During each election, the frustration was very much evident -- the increasing demands for either an option to mark "none of the above" or the “right to recall” legislators. Indian democracy has been trampled over and converted into a free-for-all joke.

The entire political class has now been brought to its knees. For the first time ever, the government and Parliament -- the august body people elected -- is being told what to do by the people themselves. Team Anna wants the official Lokpal Bill withdrawn, and "people's" version -- Jan Lokpal bill -- introduced and passed.

Anna, backed by the surging humanity has presented Parliament with not many options -- pass the Jan Lokpal Bill within a time-frame. The government says this is tantamount to blackmail, undemocratic, and unconstitutional. But then, who cares -- people had since long lost its faith in government, parliament, and the politicians that it comprises.

What we may see over the coming days, could be historic, seeing the buoyancy Team Anna is getting. The politicians -- who till now have been either hiding or scoring political brownie points -- will now have to come clean. For the first time, politicians have been held accountable. They will no longer be able to hoodwink people. They will have to answer quite a few tough questions. This agitation has left them with no options.

It will be interesting to see how the government wriggles out of this highly embarrassing situation, and also how the entire political class will react, now that it's clear as daylight who really holds the reins of power, the people.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Centre vs Anna: A Dangerous Standoff

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

This is not the first time in India that the issue of corruption has taken centre stage. There have always been allegations of wrongful financial dealings. Indira Gandhi, famously dismissed corruption, as "Nothing unique to India, it's a world-wide phenomenon". Over the years, it has grown in scale, proportionate to the nature and volume of business transacted.

Unlike before, the ghost is looming larger than ever before, and the reasons are not far to seek. From the "jeep scandal" during V K Krishna Menon's time to "Bofors scandal" during Rajiv Gandhi's time -- it was all about individuals currying favour and benefiting in the process. That's no longer the case. The feeling now is about the entire nation being looted.

The protests that Team Anna is spearheading go beyond mere individuals making money. It has struck at the root of India's administrative machinery. It's not just about a few contracts being given out of turn, and a minister getting a few crores. It's now about how the nation's governance process is being subverted.

Earlier, though people knew they were being taken for a ride, they seemed to take it in their stride. "O, what can we do about it", was the refrain. But now, no one seems to be ready to take it lying down. The perception has changed from "they are making money" to "we are being looted".

The huge disconnect between the rulers and the ruled now lies exposed. And this gap only seems to be widening. The inability of the government and Team Anna to resolve the stand-off is making matters worse, and has dangerous portents.


Sadly, this has dragged on for too long. The whole movement, which started with good intentions, is in danger of descending to a game of one-upmanship, if it has not become already. It's high time both the government and Team Anna paused and did some serious introspection on the path they are racing down. They run the risk of being carried away by the momentum and losing control.

There's a huge groundswell of support for the fight against the corrupt system, putting at stake not a few individuals but the entire system and the governance processes. The government must not underestimate people's discontent and must see the writing on the wall. For example, if PM's post has to be brought in the ambit of Lokpal, why not? If he is above board anyway, why hesitate? Manmohan Singh himself had offered to be brought under the Lokpal.

Team Anna should also realise that Lokpal per se won't end all problems relating to corruption. Lokpal at the Centre and Lokayuktas in States are at best powerful watchdogs. The state of Karnataka, for example, has had two very proactive Lokayuktas – Justice N Venkatachala and Santosh Hegde. But has corruption in Karnataka been brought down to near zero?

Corruption exists at many levels. The one question that needs to be asked is: why do have corruption? People take bribe because they need money. People give bribe because they want their basic necessities. In our society, these two factors perfectly suit one another.

The administrative systems are so complicated, that for the simplest of necessities people have to run from pillar to post, and get permission from so many people, who themselves are in no way accountable. And on the other side, so much is the deprivation that people, especially at the lower levels, are looking at every opportunity to make a few rupees.

Lokpal and Lokayuktas are powerful deterrents. They have to go hand-in-hand with all-round development of the society which will improve the life-style of people, so that the root cause of corruption itself is eliminated. One hopes that the current debates, finger-pointing and scoring of brownie points won't dilute the overall objective of having in place a transparent and accountable administrative system.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A sad case of mob justice

Today's newspapers had a chilling story of how villagers of Chintamani, 60 km from Bangalore, lynched some people suspected to be robbers. It was a horrendous incident. Five people travelling in an auto-rickshaw were stopped and clubbed, three of them died. At another spot, six people traveling in a Tata Sumo were pulled out and killed, and the vehicle set on fire.

The story is like this: a few people tried to rob a woman working in a field. Since she didn't have any valuables, the attackers tied her to a pole and fled the scene. She raised an alarm. People from nearby fields came and rescued her.

Based on her account, villagers began looking for an auto-rickshaw and a Tata Sumo. Once they found them, and got reasonably suspicious that the passengers were the attackers, they mounted an assault and killed them.

Apparently, people in the villages are quite upset with their security. Few trust the efficiency of the police. And they have formed vigilante groups to make sure they are secure.

But is this the way to render justice? Villagers may have their justification, but don't we have an institutionalized process to make sure that grievances are redressed? Mob justice belongs to uncivilized societies. They have no place in a modern society.

Having said this, the local administration and the government can't miss the cue. If villagers have resorted to a macabre act to render what they think is justice, then there must be a reason. The efficiency of our police system is really open to question. In many places, they are hand in glove with local power centers that have their own axes to grind.

People's confidence and faith in government machinery has to re-established. The villagers may have committed a gross crime, but the government has to see the writing on the wall, and mend its ways.