Anna Hazare has started his fast unto death in an effort to make the drafting committee of the proposed Lokpal Bill inclusive and representative. Hazare and his band of distinguished citizens fighting corruption want the Lokpal empowered to monitor even the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers for possible corruption. They want the Lokpal to be independent of government influence like the Election Commission and the Supreme Court. Anna Hazare is a social activist with a very high reputation for integrity. His personal record is unblemished and his instincts are for the common good. But his present endeavor is open to criticism on two counts.
First, the method he has adopted to propagate his demand is obsolete and harmful to the democratic system. Secondly, the demand he seeks is a half measure unlikely to achieve his objective. Let us consider these two aspects in that order.
During the last six decades of independence many leaders of many hues have undertaken fasts unto death for many causes. Some were genuine and commanded respect. Many were spurious and invited ridicule. Gandhi’s technique of fasting to get his own way with the British non-violently was justified as long as India was governed by a foreign power that made unjust laws to rule us. Today laws are made by elected representatives of the people. Change can be sought through elections. The display of sufficient public support through democratic rallies for any cause would persuade the ruling party to take heed. Fasting unto death is non-violent coercion. In a democratic system coercion to achieve results is not desirable. It encourages diversion from legal options available in democracy to influence opinion. By non-use of legal options these get atrophied and democracy becomes hollow and ritualistic. Even when mass action becomes imperative to exert pressure on authority, there are innovative methods available that were not used by Gandhi.
In short, law can be used as a weapon to strangle authority just as authority uses law to harass the citizenry. Two political experiments proved this. To stop Indira Gandhi’s government from misusing the scheme to give small bank loans without collateral to pro-Congress supporters, non-Congress poor were mobilized to flood the banks in such number demanding forms for obtaining loans as to paralyze the functioning of the banks. The demand was legitimate. The protest worked. No court case against it succeeded. No law was broken.
Similarly in order to prevent the government from spending public money for luxury consumption by starting another five star hotel the Ashoka Hotel was choked by thousands of poor in its lobby ostensibly wanting to drink tea as legal customers. In the ensuing chaos not more than a dozen could actually be served tea of course. Despite a court case initiated against the action at the behest of the Prime Minister himself no crime could be proved after three years in court. These are but examples. Other actions on the same principle of using law as a weapon of public protest can be summoned. Results can be achieved by exploiting law instead of violating it.
The second objection to the demand by Anna Hazare and his supporters relates to it being a half-measure. It is most desirable for the protestors to demand that the proposed Lok Pal should be freed from the government’s stranglehold. But even if that were done the new office cannot be a sovereign institution. The example of the Election Commission has been cited by the protestors. The latter is a constitutional body accountable to the President of India. But it might be seen that this accountability exists only on paper. After the Constitution was subverted to render the President into a titular head and a virtual puppet of the cabinet, how might it be ensured that any constitutional office remains free from government control?
Recall the controversy involving the Election Commission during Mr. Navin Chawla’s tenure. Note the current controversy surrounding the other constitutional institution of the Central Vigilance Commission. Both controversies relate to posts accountable to the President. But in both controversies the President could not lift a finger. If it be stated that a pro-active Supreme Court should fill the breach we will stray into dangerous territory. The domains of the judiciary and the executive should remain separate.
What those who seek an end to rampant corruption should strive for is to restore to the President the powers assigned to the office in our written Constitution. The President is the only elective office with a mandate obtained from all the legislators in Parliament and State Assemblies. With a minor amendment which would not alter the basic structure of the Constitution the President could in addition be given a popular mandate by the entire electorate. And if the President as the nation’s apex Ombudsman were to use his constitutional powers with the single aim of ensuring that the Constitution and laws are followed, corruption would be contained and governance restored. Only after the President can fulfill the role assigned by the Constitution would the Lokpal and all other constitutional posts perform satisfactorily. That is why the present demand by Anna Hazare and his supporters remains a half measure.
The campaigners for amending the Lokpal Bill deserve all praise for their aims and objectives. But should they not reappraise some fundamentals of the system as they continue to gather strength for changing India’s political culture and ending corruption? Lack of clarity robbed India of a potential cultural revolution after the Emergency. Let us not repeat that tragedy this time around.