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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 37, September 3, 2011

Hazare-Card and the Government

Tuesday 6 September 2011, by Nilofar Suhrawardy

Would it be fair to assume that Anna Hazare and his team have scored a major victory by apparently compelling the Parliament to yield to their demands? Undeniably, the Central Government has given the impression of having conceded to the Hazare team by holding a special parliamentary session to discuss Hazare’s demands. At the end of the day (August 27), it was agreed by all parliamentarians to convey a “sense” of the Parliament to the Standing Committee scrutinising the Bill. The issues raised by Hazare—citizen’s charter, lower bureaucracy under Lokpal through an appropriate mechanism and establishment of Lokayukta in the States—after parliamentary consensus, now await recommendations of the Standing Committee. So on its part, the government has at least for the time being succeeded in ending the Ramlila logjam and in convincing Hazare to call off his fast. Interestingly, the government has given the impression of having gone overboard in yielding to Hazare’s demands. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh apparently justified this by saying that what Parliament had agreed on was the “will of the people”. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee expressed “happiness” at the parliamentary consensus having succeeded in resolving the Lokpal logjam. The day was described as “historic” by Law Minister Salman Khurshid.

Politically speaking, the government has shrewdly shuffled its cards without annoying anyone and without inciting tempers in any quarters. They have, without any reluctance or grimace, but with full pleasure complimented themselves for going the “people’s way”, that is, apparently yielding to Hazare’s demands. In essence, by holding a debate in a special session, they have certainly created this impression, with the Bill still not having the reached the stage of being voted upon. A fairly safe course of action has been followed by the government, which doesn’t spell as yet actually yielding to what the Hazare team has demanded. True, the government has walked an extra-step by holding the special parliamentary session and conveying the “sense” of the House to the Standing Committee. This definitely has been a wiser strategy than that of refusing to take any stand on issues raised by Hazare’s fast and his team. Certainly, by creating an impression of having “given in” to the Hazare team, the government has also deprived them of the very strategy they had banked upon for attracting crowds and media attention at the Ramlila Maidan. The government certainly was wary of the options the Hazare team may have resorted to if they had refused to entertain the latter’s demands. Besides, with the Lok Sabha elections not too far off, the government had every reason not to let its image be damaged by the Hazare team’s charges.

Democratically, politically and legally, the government is not bound to even consider Hazare and his team’s stand on the Lokpal Bill. After all, who do Hazare and members of his team really represent? The seating capacity at the Ramlila Maidan, the public ground selected by his team to display their protest against corruption and demand for a legislation, that is, the Lokpal Bill, is approximately 50,000. Though there have been reports of people displaying their support in different parts of country, numerically except in Delhi and Mumbai, they have not crossed or even touched the number 1,00,000. In the context of India being home to 1.21 billion, Hazare’s supporters do not represent a significant percentage of the country’s population, statistically. Nevertheless, the fact that Hazare’s protest dominated the media-news, including the headlines, cannot be ignored. Statistics suggest that there was a major gap between what was projected by the media and the actual story. Even if the number of Hazare’s supporters across the country adds up to several millions, they do not constitute even five per cent of the nation’s population. In other words, it is as yet too early to accord Hazare the stature of a national leader even though media-hype gives this impression. The same is suggested by reports of numerous people donning caps and T-shirts with the slogan, “I am Anna”. Statistically, they don’t represent the entire country. There is no denying that the Hazare team succeeded in securing substantial media attention. But so what as even numerical statistics of supporters behind Hazare are not sufficient to accord him the stature of a national leader.

WITHOUT doubt, the country’s citizens—including Hazare—have the freedom and right to raise their voice and also protest against what they feel disturbed by. In fact, it is the democratic duty of each and every citizen to display his/her stand against the problems or evils they feel concerned about. There is no denying that corruption is one of the many problems the Indian citizens are aggrieved about. At the same time, democratically speaking, while Hazare and his team have the right and duty to make suggestions regarding corrective measures and legislation, they cannot “dictate” their terms. Democratically and legally, they do not represent any institution or authority to dictate their terms to an elected government. They are not legislators and are not from any angle representative of even a significant percentage of the country’s population or any segment. Raising the corruption issue is one aspect. The course adopted to tackle the same is another. The course of action taken by the Hazare team, including hunger-strike, organising marches, “sit-in” demonstrations outside legislators’ residences and other such activities, is not in keeping with the democratic and socialist spirit of the Indian Constitution. Rather, considering that an elected government is in power and the country has measures available to enact new laws and amend old ones to ensure effective anti-corruption legislation, the Hazare team is expected to be duty-bound to respect the country’s Constitution.

Politically, socially, constitutionally and even statistically, the Hazare team is not representative of any segment or institution of the country to have the authority to dictate its terms to an elected government. In fact, if an elected government actually yields to this group, it would not only be abuse of the country’s constitutional system but also be bad precedence, which must not be permitted to take roots. It cannot be ignored that India is home to many religions, with most marked by a pronounced caste-system. The ethnic division in the Indian society is also responsible for the emergence of numerous political parties. Can the Hazare team be held as representative of all Indian socio-political groups? No. And therein lies the fear. Howsoever strongly the Hazare team may raise its voice against corruption and even threaten the elected government with more hunger-strikes and demonstrations, their “strength” rests more on the hype raised about them than actual issues. Besides, corruption is not the only issue bothering Indian society. Have they talked of assuring action against female infanticide, dowry-deaths, the sufferings faced by Indian minorities, including Muslims, Christians, and Hindus belonging to lower castes? Hardly.

Please note Hazare’s words: “If you (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) cannot get the Bill, I ask you to leave the chair.” Legally and ethically, it is not appropriate for any authority to dictate such terms to an elected leader. Even the country’s President is not legally authorised to dismiss the Prime Minister till he and his party lose support in Parliament. Against this backdrop, one is prompted to raise the question as to what led the Hazare team to assume their role as greater than that of the country’s elected government and the Constitution? Legally and ethically, it is more like a blot on the country’s political image than suggestive of the Hazare team heading for a second freedom struggle. The latter may have carried some relevance if India was not a free country.

Statistically and democratically, the electoral-prowess of the Indian-voter holds far more value than that of several thousands collected together by Hazare-team to apparently pressurise the government to yield to what they desire. Yielding to the latter would be equivalent to bowing to almost dictatorial commands of a handful of citizens, who do not have the authority to wield such powers. It would be an abuse of the country’s parliamentary system. It would also set an unhealthy precedent encouraging extremist elements to perhaps consider violence to pressurise an elected government to yield to their agenda. In other words, if an elected government does yield to the Hazare team, in addition to being an abuse of the country’s constitutional system, it would set an unhealthy and dangerous precedent, which must be nipped before it develops roots. Greater attention must be paid to what has prompted the Hazare team to assume their role as greater than that of India’s constitutional system, more so when their activities seem devoid of democratic legitimacy.

Against this backdrop, it has been fairly sensible of the government to create the impression of having “conceded” to the Hazare team, when in reality, the former has wisely played its socio-political card without ignoring the constitutional limits and/or abusing the parliamentary norms. By walking an extra-step and “manufacturing news” about having yielded to Hazare and “will of the people”, the govern-ment has managed to turn the socio-political cards in its favour, at least for now!

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