Revolution is always an easy word to bandy around. Sometimes too easy, and when it suits your ratings, it is easier still. The tricolour is flying high again on news television and the people have registered a great triumph, we are told. Anna Hazare is the new middle-class icon and Gandhi is back in fashion.
The Mahatma led us to our independence with tools like satyagrah and hunger strikes, right? So why can’t we use the same tools to have a second revolution against corruption, goes the argument. We “don’t need a very analytic mind”, for this.
We only “need to present the case in front of the public”, as Anupam Kher proclaimed so grandly on television the other day. Just follow Gandhi.
Actually, Gandhi was far more careful with his politics and its tools. He did use the strategy of satyagrah, of non-cooperation and non-violence to devastating effect against the British but look through his writings and you find a lot of considered thought and strategising on when and where hunger strikes are justifiable.
In 1941, for instance, with several freedom fighters threatening to go on strike in British jails, he wrote a cautionary note to Vijaylaxmi Pandit, “Hunger-strikes are permissible only when self-respect is at stake.
We must understand the limitations of hunger-strikes.” In October that year, he followed this with a press release on this question, warning his satyagrahis against the indiscriminate use of hunger strikes.
The Mahatma understood the difference between using a hunger strike as a political tool and using it as an ad hoc emotion-rising technique
Now there is no question that there is great public anger today against corruption, that Mr Hazare is a man with tremendous public and moral eminence, and that the campaign under his leadership has won a great victory.
The movement for a renewed Lokpal Bill has proved successful but was a hunger strike the only way to have done this? And where will this lead us? We must ponder on its deeper meanings.
First, everybody wants action against corruption but this hunger strike to enact a law meant that there could be no reasoned debate on the pros and cons of the new Jan Lokpal Bill that Mr Hazare and his campaign have proposed.
Mr Hazare’s impeccable reputation and his well-intentioned motives meant that no government could take a risk with his health. When you put a loaded gun to someone’s head, then you better be ready for other loaded guns.
Will we be equally supportive when the Gujjars go on hunger strike, for instance, or the Dalits for a greater share in government jobs? Have we then, opened the way for a new kind of no-compromise politics for every kind of cause that seems justifiable to its proponents?
Second, in this euphoric push for a broad-brush punitive law against corruption in the name of the people, we need to question what we mean by ‘the people’ here and who will represent them? We are not an Egypt-style autocracy or a Tunisia.
This is why it is silly for news channels to compare the Jantar Mantar protests with Tahrir Square. We are a democracy which routinely puts people into power and ejects them routinely for non-performance.
Yes, we are not happy with them; yes, many may be disillusioned with our system but can we legitimately talk of people’s representation without the people’s representatives i.e. the politicians. The middle class anger that we are seeing now is actually a protest and statement of contempt against the state of our democracy itself.
It seeks to subvert the fabric of the democratic system itself, to push for a democracy without the political democrats in the name of an amorphous, ‘we, the people’ category.
There are genuine reasons for this anger and we must engage with it seriously but the path we are cheering so lustily now is the path of anarchy. If we want to engage in politics without the politicians, then we will turn into Pakistan.
Third, there is the question of representation. Civil society is a loose term but what does it mean exactly? The draft Janlokmat Bill specifically recommends “international awardees”: people with the Nobel prize or the Magsaysay award, among others.
So, do only people recognised overseas have a right to judge our corruption? And did anyone also count the Magsaysay award winners spearheading this campaign?
Fourth, the idea of a national Lokpal for corruption has been around since the 1960s. Eighteen of our states already have Lokayukts, the kind of ombudsman that we are talking about now at the national level, with little effect on corruption.
The argument is that this happened because the laws that created them did not have teeth. The Campaign against Corruption has listed 17 reasons their Jan Lokpal Bill will be better than the Central government’s version.
But several credible experts also argue that the proposed bill is actually un-workable and draconian: it envisages a “supercop-super prosecutor-judge, all rolled into one” as one lawyer put it.
Do we really want to concentrate so much power in one entity’s hands with no checks and balances? Any institution is only as good as the people that run it.
To now create another super-institution over and above the existing pillars of the state, including the Supreme Court, surely needs far more careful debate than the kind of jingoistic flag-waving we have seen up to now.
Let’s be careful what we wish for.