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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Who said crucifixion's a thing of the past?

My last post on the whole anti-corruption Bill furore (extremely unfortunately also known as the Anna Hazare furore) left me a bit emotionally exhausted. I do not consider myself a seasoned blogger who can produce post after post with amazing regularity, without compromising on the quality of the post. I admire such people – but am acutely aware of the fact that I do not belong in this league.

I was therefore not expecting to post to my blog so soon after my previous post. But this subject of the Jan Lokpal Bill does not just not go away, it continues to claw away at me, to drag me down in a manner that I must confess I’ve felt only on a few occasions in the past. Normally I’m a pretty upbeat person (I think those who know me will vouch for this!) but in the last week, something’s not been right – and I know that the one subject that has dominated my mind in the last week has been this Jan Lokpal Bill. Maybe it is a reflection of how empty my mind (and my life!) otherwise is, but that’s how it’s been.

I therefore find myself sitting here, once again dumping my thoughts on this subject on my blog, in the hope that I will get some sort of closure on this matter. Once again, this is mainly for myself – if others want to read it, they’re welcome to. I’m keeping it public for that reason. But if they don’t , I’m just fine with that too. But I know I really need this.

I will not repeat all that I’ve already said. At least I will try not to. But there is more that I think I want to put down on this subject.

First of all I want to say that I am extremely saddened by a lot of what I’ve read and heard on this subject. Like I said in my previous post, it is only to be expected that opinion on a subject like this would be divided. And in a democracy, people are entitled to express their views too, their different positions on any issue.

But is THIS how it needs to be done? Even the gutter will feel insulted if I say that some of the stuff doing the rounds belongs there. I’ve never EVER in my life come across writing that is SO vitriolic, SO humiliating, SO demeaning to another, in an attempt to drive home a point.

So you disagree with what Anna Hazare has done. Fair enough. You call it a circus. Fair enough. But please do not ridicule him just because he is an old man from a village. By all means, challenge him on issues. But do you really have to say things like “Anna Hazare, a former driver with the Indian Army who has the useful Indian talent for sitting cross-legged for long periods…” ?

And this was from the editor of a news magazine! And this is just one of many examples that I have come across in just the last few days.

And this really saddens me. Maybe that explains to some extent my disturbed state of mind.

As I’ve said before, I have no problem if people disagree with Anna Hazare. Or even if they want to lash out at him. But surely there can be a more dignified manner of bringing one’s point across?

These are educated people, probably highly educated people. Part of the intelligentsia of the country. They have excellent writing skills and their ability to use humor and sarcasm to bring their point across effectively is exemplary. They are extremely savvy with modern media tools like blogs and Twitter, so their ability to distribute their message across a wide section of society, all over the world, is massive. And given these qualities, they will not only attract readers, they will also become influencers in society.

Maybe this is just how it is in today’s world. Maybe I am the one who’s grown old, who still believes that issues should be debated with dignity and respect towards the other party. And that it should be the ISSUE that is the focal point of the discussion, nothing else.

And that is why I started this post by saying that it is extremely unfortunate that the furore has become an “Anna Hazare furore” instead of being an “anti-corruption” furore.

Reading through all this vitriol (I will admit that I winced several times), I did find valid points. Yes, the constitution is sacred and we need to respect it. Yes, vesting too much power in one authority is a bad idea. Yes, the ideal solution is to get the people to vote intelligently, without duress of any sort. Yes, ideally we should have less government and more governance in the country. And yes, there are a ton of issues that the Jan Lokpal Bill (even when modified) will not address.

I agree with all of these. They are no-brainers. The big issue is that this ideal situation that everybody talks about requires electoral reforms, it requires education of the electorate (a small matter of a few hundred million voters across the country), it requires non-interference of politicians and anti-social elements in the electoral process, it requires considerable overhaul of institutions (and in some cases, elimination of institutions) if we want less government, thereby resulting in less corruption.

I totally endorse all of this and would be very happy if all of this happens. The sooner the better. Citizens can themselves get actively involved in educating others about the value of their vote. Bringing about electoral reforms, overhauling government institutions is going to depend on legislation and Parliamentary sanction – and that once again makes it dependent on the elected representatives in Parliament.

Which brings me back to the point I made in my earlier post – about significant numbers. In a democracy, the vote is king, even in Parliament. Majority votes are required for most decisions. Whether simple majority or two-thirds majority. And that is where the cracks begin to appear.

Not with the Constitution. Certainly not. I believe the Constitution has provided us with an excellent framework, with systems defined for most things, including the roles of the Legislature, the Executive, the Judiciary. We need to respect it.

Yet, the representatives we have had have repeatedly failed us. As a collective unit in Parliament, regardless of which party has been in power. And, in the case of certain individuals, in living up to the standard that they are public servants and accountable to the public, not masters of the public.

And that is why, while we continue to work on improving the effectiveness of our democracy, while we continue to work on educating our electorate, while we continue to do all that we need to do to reduce corruption, not just in government but also in society (let’s not deny this bit – we need to look at ourselves in the mirror too!), we also need a mechanism – and rather urgently - to make our representatives accountable to us.

For, if there is one thing that I think nobody denies, this accountability is not just essential, but absolutely crucial, for effective functioning of the democracy. It is intertwined with much of what we are trying to accomplish. Yes, we keep coming back to the vote as the tool in the hands of society, but we are still decades from an electorate that can be expected to elect representatives who will, suo moto, introduce and pass strict anti-corruption legislation that makes them accountable.

That is where the current movement, the current push for introducing such legislation urgently comes in.

The people who are attacking Anna Hazare and his associates for their methods, those who are questioning the civil society representatives on the joint committee as not being “elected” representatives of the public – I grant them that they are technically right.

But why doesn’t anybody think that none of this would have been necessary at all, if just like the plethora of legislation we have in the country on a whole lot of things, the government had, on its own, set up strict anti-corruption legislation for members of Parliament by now?

THAT is the issue that hardly anybody in the intelligentsia seems to talk about. Instead I see a wave of agitation that democracy has been undermined (as if successive governments have not undermined it for years, but let’s not go there!). I see a rush to defend the government because these are “elected representatives” who are being “blackmailed” by some “self-professed representatives of civil society”.

Let’s be clear – nobody ever WANTED to do this. The protesters who assembled at the Jantar Mantar, and elsewhere in the country and even overseas, did not do this because they had nothing better to do.

They wanted to get a message across. They wanted to get their voices heard. They find themselves caught up in a situation where millions of apathetic Indians, having equal voting rights as themselves, end up either not casting their vote at all or selling it to the highest bidder. It is the visible voice of frustration, more than anything else.

I would like to think that if the government is stung by this and comes up with a time-bound action plan to introduce a strong anti-corruption Bill in Parliament, if it can assure the public that this will also be passed as legislation, then all would be fine. Everybody is focused on the results. Personally I could not care less if there is a joint committee or not, if the provisions of the proposed Jan Lokpal Bill are taken as the basis or not. If the end-result is powerful legislation, that is all that matters. The ONLY reason the protesters have insisted on a joint committee and on equal representation on the committee, is the total lack of credibility of the current government.

I agree this lack of credibility is not healthy but it is not entirely unjustified either. So let’s also make an effort to understand the genesis of this whole issue instead of just crying foul at the “undermining of democracy by Anna Hazare”.

Before I close this discussion (and I really hope this is closure for me), I want to touch on one other point.

I have seen a lot of ridicule coming the way of the protests from the intelligentsia. Apparently some of the placards had "over-zealous" slogans. I have seen references where these protests have been compared with Tahrir Square or Jayaprakash Narayan’s protests in the 1970s and ended up been mocked at, as a result of this comparison. I have seen comparisons of Anna Hazare with Gandhiji, resulting in mocking of not just Anna Hazare but in certain cases, even Gandhiji.

In both my previous post and in this one, I’ve steered clear of making comparisons. Comparisons make good rhetoric, and the media in particular loves them, but, in my opinion, they only serve as excellent distraction material. The discussion soon degenerates into whether the protests were comparable with Tahrir Square or not or whether Anna ‘s movement is comparable with Gandhiji’s or not.

I would say – who cares? I, for one, don’t. I do not want the focus of the issue to be diluted. The discussion from the first day to this day for me, has been only about corruption, anti-corruption legislation and nothing else. It has not been about personalities.

It is a pity that inspite of having such an excellent Constitution, we have allowed corruption to not just exist but grow to an alarming proportion in the country. We, as citizens, are as much to blame for this as anybody else. We are a very big part of the problem, let’s not point fingers only at the government.

Having said that, let’s also not sling mud at a few fellow-citizens who have chosen to not be as apathetic as most other Indians. Yes, some of us may not like them speaking on our behalf because we feel we have our own voice. But surely, given the scamfest that the country has been “enjoying” in the last year, if their voice makes the government sit up, realize the mood of the public and act, surely that cannot be too bad a thing?

We don’t have to give credit to somebody if we don’t want to. But living as we are in a civilized society, we also don’t have to discredit him in such a brutal fashion.

I think, in hindsight, it would have been best if nothing had happened at all.

Anna Hazare, Kejriwal and the others should never have got into this mess.

We could also all have just gone on with our business as usual.

And I would also not have got so worked up and would have have been able to sleep well too.

Yes, that’s how it works in India. We are like that only.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why, despite everything, I'm supporting Anna Hazare!

I can hardly believe that it’s been just over a week now since Anna Hazare, the 71-year old social activist, started his fast at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi. His cause? To push for passing a stringent anti-corruption bill (Jan Lokpal Bill) in Parliament that will act as a strong deterrent to corruption for politicians and bureaucrats alike.

The movement gathered momentum, the media began giving it coverage, social media caught on, making it viral – and soon Indians all over the world seemed to be talking about it.

Is it because a seemingly unassuming and simple 71-year old man was taking on the powerful establishment at the Centre, threatening a fast unto death? Or is it that the topic of corruption still resonates with many Indians in some form or the other, inspite of their being desensitized to it from an early age? Or is it just the media playing it up?

Whatever it is, this has arguably been the most discussed subject amongst Indians in the last week. It has been a week of opinion-churning, for sure.

As is not uncommon in a country like India, opinion has been divided on this matter. And, as is to be expected in a democracy, opinion has been expressed freely and in abundance. Across platforms and channels. There are opinions expressed in the print media, there are debates on national television, there are umpteen personal blogs out there on the interwebs with everybody wanting to voice his opinion on this subject.

I have been following all of this very keenly. I’ve rarely, if ever, not had an opinion on social and political issues. And I’ve rarely been shy to express my opinion :-).

But until now, though I’ve been putting out the odd sound byte as a comment on a blog or on Facebook, I’ve not sat down and compiled my thoughts on this matter in the form of a post on my blog. I didn’t feel there was much I could add to what was already out there. So my thoughts were only in my head.

Until I read a tweet a short while ago. It was from Dr. Kiran Bedi. And I must say it has touched a nerve in me. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Dr. Kiran Bedi , right from the days when I was in high school in the mid-late 1970s and she was a fearless police officer. There was something about her spirit, her courage, her uprightness, her attitude that made her a person I respected tremendously.

Her tweet said “Those who raised their voice against corruption are persistently being driven to justify why they did it and whether it was right to do.”

I suddenly got the feeling that I cannot sit, with all these thoughts in my head, and not do anything about them. I am therefore, much against my original intention, putting down my thoughts on this blog, for whatever they are worth. Like I’ve said before, I have no illusions that anybody reads my blog but at least it is a place for me to dump my thoughts.

I will talk here about the dissenting voices that seem to be pretty strong at the moment.

Let me start by saying I totally understand that there is dissent. And I strongly believe that dissent, if brought across in a constructive and meaningful manner, can be valuable in ensuring a measured course of action takes place, instead of one based purely on enthusiasm but not necessarily conceived well enough.

The dissenting voices seem to have two major issues with the whole Anna Hazare protest.

I am not considering here some voices that have questioned his own personal integrity. I am not considering here voices that have claimed he is a proxy for a political party. I am not considering here voices that have rubbished him in other manners (and there have been a few).

I can waste time on these points too but I do not want to dignify such voices with a response. I would rather concentrate on the substantive issues that some of the dissenting voices have expressed.

The two major issues that I think are worth responding to are
- the concern about content of the proposed Jan Lokpal Bill, and
- the concern about the means adopted to bring about action on this matter.

In addition, there is plenty of scepticism, typically along the following lines
- Corruption is so deep-rooted that it’s not going to go away, Bill or no Bill.
- There is so much corruption in other sectors, like corporates, media et al. What about that?
- What about the other problems in society? Nobody seems to be doing anything about that.

Understandable concerns. Understandable scepticism too.

I’ll take them up one by one.

First, the content of the Jan Lokpal Bill.

I will not discuss every detail (partly because it will take too much time, but more because I am totally incompetent to do so). I do know however that the major concern here is that the bill vests too much power in one authority, the Lokpal (Ombudsman). There is also a fear that the scope of what the bill is trying to achieve is not entirely clear, what type of grievances it will cover is not clear. That it is trying to bring under its scope authorities that are already covered by other legislation. And so on and so forth. There is a fear that this will become another monster institution, if one goes purely by the current content of the Bill.

All I will say is that, from my observation so far, those who have drafted this Bill seem to be open to suggestions for change or improvement. Nobody claims that it is perfect. In his interview on Karan Thapar’s “Devil’s Advocate” show, Arvind Kejriwal, social activist and one of the prime drivers behind the Bill, reiterated this point several times.

So, to all those dissenters out there who are bashing the Bill for its “ridiculous” content, I would say “Please, please give your valuable feedback to those in the joint committee. There are various ways of getting your message across to them. Use these channels, come up with your suggested provisions, clause by clause, if you like. The more specific you are, the better of course”.

Remember, this Bill may have been drafted by some persons in the legal profession but it is being done on our behalf and we are entitled to express our opinion, constructively, in its development.

While on this, let me also say that I, for one, am not in any hurry to push through legislation that has not been thought through, purely for the sake of a deadline (whether it be the monsoon session of Parliament or whatever). This is way too important and structural to be dictated by deadlines. So yes, we’ve waited for 42 years and there is a sense of impatience and urgency. But I would be happy if the joint committee appointed to come up with the Bill, could come up with a rock-solid Bill (well, about as rock-solid as a legislation of this type can be) that may even take the rest of the year to stitch together.

Onto the next concern – the means adopted to bring about government action on this Bill.

This is a huge concern. And I can totally see why people are concerned. They feel that this could set a precedent. That anybody tomorrow could just pick up a cause, go on a fast-unto-death action and try to blackmail the government to concede to the person’s case.

Here I’d like to say that we need to give our government a little bit of credit. Not every fast-unto-death action is going to result in the government conceding to the demands being made. If this were the case, we would have had plenty of fast-unto-death actions by now in the country.

No, a responsible government will weigh each protest on its merit, keeping in mind the larger interest of the nation, as opposed to just the interest of the protesting party. And where such larger interest is not affected, where there is merit in the case, there is a good chance that the government concedes. And why not?

I don’t see what the problem is with this approach. It is a peaceful method and, in general, will fly only if there is substance in the argument.

The big criticism here is that this method has no place in a democracy, that it is unconstitutional. Dissenting voices quote from Babasaheb Ambedkar’s “Grammar of Anarchy” speech . I quote it here

“If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”

I would request those who quote from this speech to try to see it in context. This speech was made at a time when India had just become free from British rule. A time when the Indian Constitution was being put forth as a framework for solving all those issues that existed during British rule when methods such as civil disobedience and satyagraha were the only peaceful recourse for Indians protesting against the establishment.

Dr. Ambedkar would not have expected that a situation would arise in India where there would be a need again for a satyagraha. I thin, had he been alive today and seen the nature of the beast that was attempted to be tackled, he might not have had a problem with Anna Hazare’s method at all.

That brings me to the nature of the beast. It is a peculiar beast here that we are trying to tackle. It is no ordinary legislation that we are seeking to bring about. It is legislation that will rein in politicians, that will make them accountable for their misdeeds, that can result in sending them to jail or paying up huge fines for their corrupt acts. In short, this legislation directly affects their personal interests. It makes them ordinary persons, no different from you and me, the common man or woman.

Unless you are clean or you see yourself as no more a public servant than any other, you are unlikely to be comfortable accepting such legislation for yourself. And that may well explain why this piece of legislation has not been passed yet in Parliament inspite of ten attempts over 42 years!

I am sure there are honest elected representatives in Parliament. I don’t buy the statement “sab neta chor hain” (all ministers are corrupt). But somehow these representatives seem to be outnumbered by those who seem not to have the will to push through an anti-corruption bill that could affect their personal interests. The bottom line is – it has not happened. And there were no signs of it happening in the foreseeable future. Maybe a cosmetic Bill but certainly not one with teeth.

It has been argued that even then Anna Hazare’s action is uncalled for. After all, in a democracy, the instrument to bring about change is the vote. So why not get the right-minded representatives elected, so that legislation can be introduced and passed in Parliament without need to resort to Hazare-like actions?

I agree with this in theory. But I have a huge problem with this in practice. Given the nature of our electoral systems, the nature and maturity of our electorate, the likelihood of a significant number of “right-minded” representatives being voted into Parliament is extremely remote. And by “significant”, I mean a number big enough to be able to draft and push through the required Bill to make it law.

There may also be a bit of a Catch-22 situation here where the candidates’ motivation to get elected may be fuelled by the lack of legislation to check their transgressions in the first place. So you get candidates of questionable integrity lining up for elections. These then use their muscle power to work their way into Parliament. Can we then honestly expect the desired legislation to happen?

Once more I want to say that I am not making a sweeping statement about politicians here. I am just talking about “significant” numbers.

It can be argued that times are a-changing. With a more enlightened society, higher levels of education all round, we may be moving towards higher-quality election candidates and, consequently, a cleaner set of representatives in Parliament anyway. So there was no need to adopt the Hazare method.

I know I’m sounding extremely pessimistic here (and let me tell you, I’m not – you’ll see that later), but I don’t totally agree that there will be a cleaner set of representatives in Parliament purely because of changing times. A more educated set, yes. A cleaner set? Hmm…for me at least, the jury still needs to be out on that one, I'm afraid. Maybe I am battle-scarred (and carrying some baggage) but I was one of those hugely enthusiastic high-school boys when the country ushered in the new Janata government in March 1977, voting an Emergency-afflicted Congress government out of power. The faces changed, some policies did change – but did corruption stop? Nah!

To me, corruption is a function of greed, opportunity and deterrent. As long as you have people whose desires exceed their legitimate means AND they have the opportunity to meet these desires through not-so-kosher means AND you do not have adequate deterrents in place to prevent them from straying, it should not surprise anybody if somebody is found to be corrupt. This applies not only to politicians but to the common man too. Unless we are talking about somebody like Mahatma Gandhi, we should be practical and accept that this is human nature.

So if every five years, we vote out and vote in political parties - but we do not have the critical mass to push through a strong anti-corruption bill to act as a deterrent for corruption – I wonder whether we are not just being theoretical about pursuing democratic means to bring about change for this particular purpose.

Like I said, it is a peculiar beast and one that does not seem to listen to democratic methods. So, I for one, in this particular case, see no harm in using a different, non-violent method to tame the beast.

Ok, that was a long one. But a very important one.

Moving on, and coming to the scepticism.

Yes, this Bill will not eliminate corruption in the country. We need to set everybody’s expectations right. Let’s face it – there is plenty of corruption in the country that has nothing to do with the government. Private business, the media, the common man – everybody is into it in some form or the other. There would be no corruption if there were no bribe-giver for a bribe-taker. Refer to my earlier point about greed.

But that is not to say that this Bill will not help. It will, in its amended version and when converted into legislation, hopefully increase the chance of corruption claims in government being raised more easily, addressed faster and with more definite outcomes. There is a provision for whistle-blower protection, so that should also help bring to light more cases of corruption.

Of course, all this requires execution according to the legislation. Pure legislation has never solved anything without appropriate implementation and execution. But I am hopeful – I have to be, I have no choice – that the situation will be much better than it is today. At least there will be a framework to rein in corruption in public office. And having come this far – and with so much pain – I do not want to think that the last step (the execution) will let us all down. Granted that it is key, but let’s not shoot it down now itself. See, I am not all pessimistic, am I? ;-)

Since the government is a significant party in most dealings with the public and also in allocation of the country’s resources, we should expect to see less corruption in both these areas.

That should be a start towards reducing corruption in society in general. I must say it is only a start. We have miles to go – but every mile starts with the first inch.

While on this, I am reminded of something I heard last week on TV.

In all the noise on this corruption subject, I was impressed by a statement made by somebody in public (a certain young gentleman by the name of Mascarenhas) in one of the TV shows (it was either on TimesNow or CNN-IBN). He said something like this “Even after the Bill is passed, there will be corruption no doubt. But the way I see it is this : Ten percent of people will always be corrupt. Ten percent of people will always follow the clean path. But the remaining eighty percent will go one way or the other. If you find that the corrupt go unpunished or that the clean people are not appreciated for being clean, then people will move towards corruption. So it is for this eighty percent that we need to have a strong anti-corruption law”.

I thought it was a pretty simple but very lucid point he made.

And now another thing that some people are sceptical about.

The fact that an anti-corruption bill will not solve so many other problems that we have in society. Like our water scarcity problem, our lack of sufficient healthcare in the country, and many others.

True. And nobody claimed that this Bill is going to be a panacea for all ills. It is focused on a limited scope and that should be clear to everybody.

On the other hand, if there is less corruption in government, there will be more money spent on those initiatives that the government announces and even allocates funds for, but which often see only a fraction of the funds actually reaching the end purpose.

So while there are several challenges out there that will not be addressed by this piece of legislation, some of them may be benefited.

And if it appears that we are making such a hue and cry about a piece of legislation of which the benefits are not clearly translatable for the masses, it says more about the struggle that this Bill has had to face than anything else.

We have miles to go and lots of challenges. Just economic growth is not enough. Not if the social fabric of the country does not evolve too. And corruption is only one of the areas that eats at this social fabric. There are others that I hope will also be addressed as the nation continues on its path towards progress. It is not without reason that India is ranked very low on the Human Development Index in the world.

But right now the focus is on corruption, so let's get our energy directed towards this issue.

Now that Anna Hazare ji has woken up people of the country, let’s not go back into slumber again. Yes, we can debate his methods, we can argue on the technicalities of the legislation sought to be introduced but let’s see the bigger picture here and what we are trying to achieve.

It is massive and potentially hugely paradigm-shifting for the country. Our economic resurgence may have started in 1991 but it is only now, 20 years later, that our social resurgence seems to be gaining momentum.
Let’s all be part of it!

We owe it to our future generations.

And THAT is why I am supporting Anna Hazare!