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

Anna Hazare’s Protest: Some Reflections on Law-Making, Parliament and Democracy in India

Tuesday 6 September 2011, by Preeti Chauhan

Anna Hazare’s protest raises many other important issues than just the issue of a Jan Lokpal. There can be very serious differences on how best to tackle corruption, a powerful law being just one part of it. But what must be seriously discussed, debated and analysed thoroughly are the many questions regarding democracy in India that this protest and the attack on it has thrown up.

One of the major premises of the government’s or rather the ruling elite’s attack on Anna Hazare’s campaign has been the repeated call for preserving the supremacy of Parliament and that laws cannot be made on the streets but only in Parliament. At the very first glance this can be situated in the threat that too much of democracy is seen to pose and which has continued to unnerve politicians and theorists alike. Underlying the arguments in preserving the supremacy of Parliament is the utter disregard for the general masses, their involve-ment in politics; the perennial paradox and dilemma that continue to dodge democratic theory and practice since the time of the Greek polis states, the fear of pollution of the sacred polity by the uneducated, unrestrained, uncultured masses that Aristotle spelled out so vividly centuries ago. It is in this tussle of preserving the domain of the elites in lawmaking that this debate needs to be placed. It is a case of democratic government arrogating power unto itself and confusing the means, ends and meaning of democracy with some mere symbols like elections, Parliament and law.

The Prime Minister of India says, the path Anna has adopted is “totally misconceived and fraught with grave consequences for our democracy. They must allow the elected representatives of the people in Parliament to do the job they were elected for.” If the government could have understood that it is because they are not doing their job properly that people are forced to express their views by taking to the streets! It is prescisely because they were elected to work on issues of concern for the people, not just some industrialists or one particular lobby or for preserving what has now come to be the political class, that we see many forms of protest, Hazare’s call being just one of them. The many earlier protests in different parts of India and now this big mobilisation are a reminder of the responsibilty that Parliament and the govern-ment carries by being elected to power and which the rulers have failed to fulfil. There are grave consequences indeed and they are to shake the lethargy of the ruling classes, the habit of not taking people seriously, of relegating democracy to a tool of the ruling classes’ conve-nience. The contradiction, confusion and frustra-tion are even more clearly brought out in Chidambaram’s statement in Parliament: “Do not diminish the soverign right of the Parliament to make laws. People have the right to vote us in and out of power but no right to make law. That right has been given to us by the people.”

This confusion and contadiction follows from intermixing the procedural aspect of passing a law and the making of a law. It is nobody’s argument till now (which could well be in future and is of some movements which reject the Indian Constitution altogether) that the Jan Lokpal Bill would be passed and adopted on the streets but what is being questioned is the content and substance of the proposed Lokpal Bill. The government being so self-consumed in the rhetoric of parliamentry supremacy that while saying it, as Chidambaram has put it, it has not been able to recognise that the ultimate soveriegn are the people and it is these very people who have not only elected them now but the supreme law of the land, the Constitution, emanates from them. We just need to read the first line of the Preamble of the Constitution to get a reality-check about the power of the people and Parliament. This is not to argue that the people’s majority should decide all things for all time to come but that those decisions have to be context-based, according to the demands of the situation. One of the basic minimum satndards to judge any movement before decrying it as detrimental to society is to place it within the spirit and overarching values that our Constitution is based upon. There cannot be one a-priori principle chosen in abstraction away from the changing social realities, be it supremacy of Parliament or the people, if at all the debate has to be posited like this.

THERE are times in the history of a society when the very foundations are questioned. Those are moments of revolutionary change. We had that moment during our quest for freedom from British rule, it questioned the very edifice on which British rule was based, that of colonial domination. Yet another moment of such funda-mental turmoil was the rise of Dalit conciousness so strongly questioning the very basics of the Hindu society. This anti-corruption call is perhaps not yet such a moment and therefore more so, as a democratic country, the response cannot be posited in terms of some institutions being indispensable, that they can never be questioned, Parliament being just one of them. The present anti-corruption call indicates that it is time for our politics to take a leap forward by listening to these challenges seriously and find out some answers not being found in the loud affiramations of supremacy of Parliament. Our representatives in Parliament should under-stand that democary is not limited to being elected through first-past-the-post system which anyway is not the best of ways to secure representation for people’s voice and neither is democracy exhausted in Parliament. Democarcy is a much broader concept and practice to just reduce it to electoral politics. It can find expressions in large sustained mass movements like our freedom struggle, in the present anti-corruption movement, or as it is being expressed in the hundreds of small struggles across India, be it the anti-Posco struggle, the resistance against Salwa Judum, the many agitations against land acquisitions, the fight against the semester system imposed in Delhi University or the many daily struggles of women for equal and respectable space. All of them are not demanding making of laws but more voice, more share in power, equality and opportunity to decide their ways of lives. They are not talking about Parliament or law-making but they are definitely talking the language of democracy through their protests which promise newer emancipatory spaces to them.

This brings us to another debate that the present situation has thrown at us, which is to pitch this particular protest in terms of ‘black-mail’. To pitch the current impasse and use of fast by Anna Hazare as ‘blackmail’ is to under-mine the strength and place of protests in a democracy. We might agree or disagree with the ways, the politics of any protest but to term any protest as ‘blackmail’ is to erase certain ways and voices of dissent from the public debate without reasoned engagement. The denunciation of any protest should be on the basis of its politics, not under an apolitical lexicon of black-mail. To do this is to deny space to protests and dissent which is of absolute importance to any democratic society.
Lastly, the many other protests and mobili-sations of people on the anti-corruption call are saying something of immense use to our demo-cracy. Howsoever hard our ruling dispensation wants democracy to remain within the schumpe-terian confines but against it is the Tocquevellian current which sees democracy like a river and once it starts flowing, it begins taking roots in society. The journey of democracy began long ago in India, it’s time to acknowledge its Tocquevellian current once again for Indian democracy has shown such strands so many times earlier too.

The author teaches Political Science in Lakshmibai College, University of Delhi, and is doing her Ph.D in Political Science from the same university.

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