Nix to Both Teams: People's power can only work within a structured system

12 September, 2011, Ashok Mitra

What can one say of a government which says it has committed an error, but no mistakes? Only the other day, its spokespersons had called the Gandhian from Pune an army deserter and defalcator of a trust fund. A little later, it brusquely arrested him from his residence on the weakest of pretexts. Miracles have their place in Roman Catholic theology, the story is otherwise in real life. 

No change of heart has taken place with those who matter in the Indian National Congress; they have agreed to go through the charade to surrender to Anna Hazare because they suddenly realized that the survival of their regime was at stake. Anna per se is not reckoned as the threat, it is the size of the crowd gathered in and around the Ramlila grounds, convulsion over large parts of the country and cacophony in the media. 

It is as if a very large segment of the nation was conveying a message to the government and Parliament: we have lost faith in you, you have failed to protect us from the scourge of both corruption and inflation, you have, in fact, abetted acts of corruption, you are reluctant to pass meaningful legislation to nab corrupt elements; now this frail-looking man is telling us what to do, he has placed demands before you that reflect our demands, he is urging us to be no more forbearing, has convinced us that in case established institutions of the country fail to look after our interests, we have the right to take over the functions of legislation and governance; even as Anna will fast till you accept his demands, we, the people, too will refuse to melt away or grow quiet; we dare you to try subdue us. 

That things came to such a pass is entirely the regime's own doing. Perhaps even more than gross instances of corruption rise, it is the nonchalance the perpetrators of the evil deeds are displaying that has incensed ordinary men and women. When the office of the comptroller and auditor general, in fulfilment of its constitutional obligations, points out where the government had gone astray and contributed to corruption, cabinet ministers resort to abusing the agency. Ministers and MPs are unable to escape the wrath of the Supreme Court when it begins to probe specific cases of financial misdemeanour; one or two of them are put behind bars, the major ruling party as well as the head of government continue to disown responsibility for skulduggery within their precincts. Sums equivalent to around $2 trillion accruing from shady transactions are smuggled out of the country and stashed in secret accounts in Swiss banks. Ways and ways exist for tracing the criminals who have thereby fleeced the nation. The government makes no worthwhile move in the matter despite severe reprimands from the nation's highest judiciary. In disgust, the Supreme Court sets up its own investigation team. Instead of expressing contrition, the authorities lodge a formal protest on the ground that unearthing sources of black money is a task coming under the purview of the executive. A few months ago, when Anna was yet to grow into the phenomenon he now is, his associates submitted, at the invitation of the government, a bunch of suggestions for its consideration. Maybe these had some utopian features, but they made a few important points too. The authorities rejected each one of these and finalized a bill which promises to make it even more difficult to catch the felons. 

Events have, since then, taken an awkward turn. It is axiomatic in a representative democracy that people must not take law in their own hands. It should be equally out of the question for them to venture to make laws supplanting the role of the legislature. The crisis we face is because Parliament, expected to enact an effective legislation to eradicate all forms of corruption, has till this day failed in that task; this failure is linked to the executive's reluctance for such a statute; the citizenry have remained helpless victims of depredations carried out by thieves and scoundrels in the garb of civil servants, politicians and corporate leaders. Ordinary people do not quite know what to do with their fast-growing stockpile of sullen resentment. 

Out of the blue, a seemingly quixotic individual, an eccentric-sounding Gandhian, appears on the scene and tells them that they have the sovereign right to participate in law-making, all they have to do is to assert themselves. The - so-referred-to - man in the street does not have the depth of understanding to judge whether what the Gandhian is proposing will scotch all species of corruption, he does not care for the minutiae of parliamentary procedures. But, he is sure that, like him, this Gandhian too wants no further dilly-dallying, or shilly-shallying; he, like him, is for immediate measures; this person is willing to sacrifice his life for the cause and implores the people to help him out by - to use the Mao metaphor - bombing the headquarters and bending the authorities into submission. The people respond with wild enthusiasm. The government is frightened, a shiver goes down its spine. It can ignore the nation's highest court, which has no army to march to force the authorities to carry out judicial directives. People's power is a different proposition. It is not practicable to shoot down thousands of people; to do so is to invite chaos in the country. Even if law and order is finally restored and the crowds disperse, sooner or later, the election season will arrive, multitude after multitude will march to the polling booths, and vote out the regime. The government swallows its pride. Procedural rigidities are shelved, Parliament has a free-ranging discussion and passes a resolution endorsing the broad principles underlying the Gandhian's demands for consideration of the standing committee concerned. It is as though our system is accommodating a fourth institution - the will of the masses - to the already existing three, the legislature, the executive, the judiciary. That it is only a strategic retreat on the part of the government is evident from the pinpricks it is aiming at Anna's associates. But it will be awesomely difficult to renege wholesale on all the promises that have been made. 

Still, should this be the pattern of the nation's law-making process from now on? If so, it is likely to be only the beginning of a Humpty-Dumpty tale. The next target may well be the executive authority. For instance, district magistrates and their junior officers can be considered incompetent, relief work, it will be complained, is being poorly managed, the rural employment guarantee scheme is in a mess, the public distribution system has broken down; the neighbourhood youth - proxy of people's power - may intervene and teach the dumbfounded officials how to perform more efficiently. Nothing wrong there, it will be argued; do not members of the public volunteer to help the forces of law and order to maintain the flow of road traffic in rush hours? 

What about the judicial sphere? Delayed justice apart, there are innumerable instances of miscarriage of justice, the canker of corruption has affected the judiciary too. Such a state of affairs, it will be decided, must end. The concept of a people's court has been afloat for long. Although not exactly a revolution, is not what Anna has ushered in a quasi-revolution? So why not supplement the on-going network of official judicial system by thousands of people's courts dotting the country? Moreover, in case of doubts regarding the integrity of individual judges, why not a people's judge - whatever his qualifications, but handpicked by the local populace - to seat next to the judge under the shadow of suspicion? 

The Gandhian has opened the floodgate of a new awareness: as people are sovereign in a democracy, they have the right to directly exercise this sovereignty irrespective of the contents of the Constitution; since it is their creation. It all sounds so cosy. Problems do not, however, go away. What about a situation where one set of people disagree violently with another set or many other sets? There will then be several focal points of people's power, with widely diverging notions of law-making, law enforcement and judicial fairness. If each of the differing groups is allowed to exercise its sovereign rights, the sequel will be murderous anarchy. 

People's power is a beautiful idea, but it can work only within the format of a structured system. The Anna accident has been provoked by the insensitivity and incompetence of those in authority in New Delhi. While it leaves lessons, it should also make the nation realize the perils from excesses indulged in the name of the people's will. Substitute the image of Anna Hazare by that of a fascist-minded rabble-rouser urging the gigantic crowd assembled on the Ramlila grounds to march with him to lock up that nuisance, the Parliament House. 

To return to where one began. The mess we are now in is largely because of the misdoings of the principal ruling party at the Centre. Indian democracy is in danger on account of it. It will be idle to assume a chastened Congress party will now play a key role to ward off further attacks on the basic structure of the Constitution. A party must cherish democratic convictions before it can defend democracy. The Congress, alas, does not fit the bill. The BJP carries the albatross of Hindu fundamentalism and has a hankering for the Dark Ages; the Congress, on the other hand, is a feudal, authoritarian outfit, its president chooses her son, a total greenhorn, as the party's general secretary with not a squeak within the party; the offspring struts about as if he is already the supreme leader of the nation. Perhaps his most intense wish is to see the crowd in the Ramlila grounds switch over to him; he can then rule the country forever. 

* This article was published in The Telegraph, 9 September 2011 at

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