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Mainstream, VOL XLIX No 31, July 23, 2011

Politician versus Civil Society


Monday 25 July 2011


Since a lot of misunderstanding is sought to be generated by large sections of the political class attacking civil society in a bid to denigrate Anna Hazare and his associates waging a courageous anti-corruption campaign aimed at shaping an effective Lokpal Bill, we are reproducing the following article that appeared in
The Statesman in the first week of this month.

A debate is on over the role of civil society and popular movements in influencing government policies and laws. Politicians of the beleaguered UPA Government are increasingly trying to discredit mass movements against corruption by declaring that civil society cannot usurp the right to legislate—a right which, according to them, is the exclusive preserve of ‘elected repre-sentatives’. Congress veterans seem to be in competition over offering their gems of wisdom.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram, facing fraud charges over ‘getting himself elected’, set the ball rolling when he said, “Elected members cannot yield to civil society since this might undermine parliamentary democracy.” As a wag promptly retorted, “Yes, Chidambaram is right. Elected members should yield only to Niira Radia and corporate plunderers and not to those who elected them.” Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has charged civil society with weakening the democratic institutions.

The Congress spokesperson, Manish Tewari, almost went berserk: “If this country and democracy has any threat, it is from the unelected tyrants. If democracy faces its greatest peril, it is from the tyranny of the unelected and unelectable.” True, for those steeped in corruption, people who raise their voice are indeed ‘tyrants’! But, the fact is that it is not democracy or its institutions that are in danger, but the ‘kleptocracts’ who run the government of the thieves, by the thieves and for the thieves who are facing the heat!

Politicians and their cronies had become so paranoid that one of them even went to the Supreme Court with an absurd plea that ‘it was impermissible under the Constitution to involve civil society in the drafting of a Bill, which was the sole prerogative of the legislative department of the government’. And Man Friday Kabil Sibal put his imprimatur on that: ‘Civil society won’t be involved in future for drafting the law.’ That is it.

If only these worthies had an elementary understanding of society and democracy! It would be useful to quote Wikipedia’s definition of civil society: “It is composed of the totality of voluntary social relationships, civic and social organisations, and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society, as distinct from the force-backed structures of a state and the commercial institutions of the market. Together, state, market and civil society constitute the entirety of a society, and the relations between these three components determine the character of a society and its structure.”

DEMOCRACY is a form of government in which all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. This includes participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law. People’s sovereignty is the founding principle of such a system. A parliamentary system is nothing more than representative democracy in which citizens do have a right to tell their elected representatives what kind of laws they want enacted and what laws they want changed or scrapped. Mass movements for doing so strengthen democracy; they don’t weaken it as apprehended by our ‘intellectually arrogant’ Home Minister.

The Special Economic Zones Act is a case in point. This law was drafted without the citizens’ consent and enacted by Parliament without a word of dissent. But when implemented, those most affected by this law—farmers—did not accept it. This has led to massive resistance all over the country. Indeed, there is virtual civil war in the tribal heartland of Dandakaranya. A series of laws have been opposed because they were enacted without the involvement of citizens when India was under colonial administration. Notably, the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 and the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The first provides that fertile farm land can be acquired for a song to build super-luxury malls and bungalows by invoking the urgency clause of Section 17 of the Act. It deprives the aggrieved persons the right to object. Even the Supreme Court has come down heavily against this Act. The Indian Penal Code still has the sedition clause under which British rulers arrested patriots and freedom fighters. This section is now being used against citizens fighting against corruption and injustice. Our ‘elected representatives’ have not bothered to amend these draconian laws even six decades after Independence.

The BJP enacted the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002, without any consultation, consensus or consent. It goes against the concept of freedom. The same party’s government issued ‘The Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Ordinance, 2002’, conferring draconian powers to bank managers to take possession and sell the properties mortgaged with them by genuine borrowers. Parliament confirmed the Ordinance without debate, thereby depriving small and medium entrepreneurs their basic right and livelihood in the most arbitrary and autocratic manner.

Because the views and inputs of civil society are not taken into consideration, there are several impractical Central and State laws that are sources of corruption and black money. In the reckoning of politicians, civil society undermines parliamentary democracy. On the contrary, it is the politicians who are undermining parlia-mentary democracy through feudal and dynastic political outfits. Indeed, they are indulging in large-scale electoral corruption and thuggery. Certain parties are calling the shots. They are dominating over governments without any constitutional sanction. Our Constitution, which has provision for all institutions/instruments of governance, has nothing for ‘politicians’ or ‘political parties’.

The charge that civil society activists are seeking to replace Parliament does not hold water. In the context of the Jan Lokpal Bill, civil society activists are seeking to shape the draft, mobilise opinion on the content, and hold elected representatives accountable to such opinion. The common people are better informed and closely involved than ever before. But the actual task of enacting the law still rests with MPs. The debates within Parliament are likely to be closely scrutinised by citizens.

This is a process that is essential for the growth of democracy. Politicians and the government only expose their authoritarian streak by trying to discredit such participatory processes.

(Courtesy: The Statesman)

The author is a former IAS officer.

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