Mainstream

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2012 > The People are Not Always Right

Mainstream, VOL L, No 6, January 28, 2012

The People are Not Always Right

Why We Do Not Need A Super-Strong Lokpal

Tuesday 31 January 2012, by Lalit Uniyal

The people are not always right, even though they usually are.

i. Socrates was sentenced to death in a direct democracy by popular vote in a popular jury. He was the greatest man Athens ever produced and was unquestionably one of the noblest men of all time.

ii. Similarly, the Treaty of Versailles was a link in the chain of events that led to the decline of the great civilisation of Europe, indeed its near-destruction. Yet that insane Treaty was made under pressure of public opinion in two democracies—England and France. Slogans like ‘Hang the Kaiser’ and ‘Make Germany pay’ dominated the British general elections of December 1918, and the demand arose that every single war expense incurred by Britain (right down to pensions and separation allowances of soldiers) must be paid for by Germany. Lloyd George was eventually forced to take positions his better sense would never have allowed.
In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes draws a vivid picture of the contrast between the economic condition of ‘a Europe starving and disintegrating’ and the petty political goal of ‘reducing Germany to servitude’ through reparations. This goal was zealously pursued by the leading lights of the Conference, Clemenceau and Lloyd George. They easily bamboozled President Wilson, whom Keynes calls ‘a blind and deaf Don Quixote’. When at the last moment Lloyd George attempted to bring some moderation, he discovered (as Keynes puts it) that it was harder to de-bamboozle the Don Quixote than it had been to bamboozle him.
It’s not that the British or French people were bad. It’s just that they were temporarily over-come by a passion for revenge; and they had never really understood the nuances of inter-national politics and international economics.
The lesson to be learnt is that every movement must be subjected to criticism and must itself possess the capacity for self-criticism. If it lacks the latter quality, it will tend to become irrational, hysterical, and dangerous.

II

EVERYONE agrees that we must have a Lokpal. But an environment has been created by Anna, and now by the Opposition parties as well, that we need a ‘strong’ Lokpal. So, in effect, a political crisis has been created on this issue.
The one trait by which a true leader may be distinguished from others is this. When facing a crisis, he takes decisions rationally, as if there was no crisis. He does not panic, but upholds the sound principles he has previously arrived at. The crisis might change his priorities, but not his principles or his fundamental social understanding.

This crisis is therefore an occasion for re-stating first principles. The main purpose of a government is not to fight corruption, but to take decisions for the welfare of the people in complex and changing circumstances, and to ensure the proper implementation of those decisions on the ground. It is only insofar as these primary tasks (decision-making and implementation) are subverted by corruption that it becomes a matter of concern. Now decision-making by its very nature demands a large measure of freedom, including the freedom to make errors of judgment. If the requisite freedom is not allowed, or if mere suspicion can trigger a witch-hunt, then decision-making will be adversely affected. Therefore the fight against corruption should be so organised that decision-making does not become a casualty. In other words, the institutional arrangements for checking corruption must have some commonsense restraints built into them. Implementation, on the other hand, requires supervision and is improved by continuous monitoring.
Hence the Lokpal (like the Comptroller and Auditor General) should have constitutional and moral authority, but not punitive powers. Institutions evolve; they grow in response to specific social needs. We should trust this process and not seek to give to the Lokpal a finished ‘strong’ form. The Election Commission was once India’s most ineffectual constitutional authority; today that one-time moribund institution is our most vibrant constitutional authority. We should make allowance for growth and not be fanatical. The Lokpal should have limited powers and his jurisdiction should be confined to top political and bureaucratic authorities. Given the fact that our political class is highly faction-ridden, it would be sensible to keep the Prime Minister outside the Lokpal’s ambit during his tenure. We should never forget that India is embedded in a ‘gravitational field’ of international forces, and that the higher one ascends in the government hierarchy, the more important this ‘gravitational field’ becomes. To place the man at the apex in a situation where he has routinely to spend his days—and nights—fending off charges of corruption is a recipe for national disaster. There may be many reasons for not liking the present Prime Minister, but there is no reason for emasculating the institution of the Prime Minister. Tomorrow, when some other party comes to power, it will rue the day it insisted on tying up the Prime Minister in this way.

Limiting the Lokpal’s jurisdiction will also ensure that his secretariat remains lean, manageable, and clean. If the Lokpal is required to deal with the entire bureaucracy of the Government of India, his secretariat will not only become unwieldy but will also be exposed to temptations. After the Lokpal submits a reasoned report on a matter, the moral forces within society should take over and do the rest. Despite the Lokayuktas not being ‘strong’, indictments by them in Karnataka and UP have led to the dismissal of one Chief Minister and at least five Ministers. It is not necessary to send every corrupt politician to the slaughterhouse. If, on the other hand, the moral forces are thought to be weak, Anna’s movement can provide new energies to them even now by following the suggestion given below.

III

THE mistake which Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) had made is being repeated by Anna. Certain Socialists had advised JP to turn the youth towards the village and work for the implementation of land reforms—instead of targeting Indira Gandhi. In the same way, it would have been far better if Anna had chosen a Tehsil, say, to fight corruption in the implementation of welfare schemes for the poor. With the media behind him, he would surely have succeeded. He would also have created a youthful cadre of active workers (not mere windbags) and shown the way to people in other Tehsils all over the country. The poor would feel liberated; fresh moral energies would be released; and the people would learn how to fight corruption where it affects them directly—instead of tilting at distant windmills. Moreover it would become obvious that there is a requirement of district level (even Tehsil level) structures to combat corruption in the administration.

But Anna hates politicians and is obsessed with them. There is little however to suggest that he loves the people, or is similarly passionate about them. But it would benefit us as a society (and as individuals) if we pursued the good of our people instead of the evil in our politicians, and if we fought that evil only while pursuing some tangible good of the people. Unfortunately, Anna has a fuzzy vision arising out of a failure to comprehend the true nature of the problem facing the country. The real problem is not corruption but the helplessness and demoralisation of the people, and the cynicism this has bred in the educated classes. What the people need and seek is a path, a way, a method to tackle the problems they regularly encounter in the course of their normal existence. Gandhiji, who never sought publicity, was always driven by this strategic vision; and the communist movement earlier possessed vitality precisely because of its genuine concern for what it called ‘the day-to-day struggles of the toiling masses’. By whipping up hysteria over a single anti-corruption institution, Anna has made us forget these simple truths.

On the other hand, Anna is unwittingly causing injury to the very democracy which he claims to be seeking to strengthen. Democracy is being injured because the people are being led to believe that every politician is corrupt and an enemy of the people, and that every bureaucrat, policeman, and judge is corrupt. Idle chatterers perhaps indulge in such loose talk. There could even be some relation between the reality of things and the loose talk evoked by that reality. But that is not the point. The point is whether such idle talk can be the ideological basis of a putative national movement. Such propaganda erodes the very possibility of trust between the people and state functionaries, and thereby knocks out the foundation of democracy. If the intention was to supersede ‘bourgeois’ democracy, there would at least be some logic to this approach (whether one agrees with the objective or not). But when the declared intent is to strengthen democracy, then one cannot but be alarmed at the prospect of the movement becoming a vehicle for the spread of irresponsible lumpen thinking. No revolution will ever come out of this. But the anarchy of distrust could eventually lead us to the system of governance which does not require the trust of the people—namely, a dictatorship.

[An abbreviated version of the above article was published in Hindustan Times on January 12, 2012.]

Lalit Uniyal is based in Aau village of Banda district in UP.

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted