Of the few, by the few

Sometimes a sense of unbridled virtue can also subvert democracy. The agitation by civil society activists over the Jan Lokpal Bill is a reminder of this uncomfortable truth. There is a great deal of justified consternation over corruption. The obduracy of the political leadership is testing the patience of citizens. But the movement behind the Jan Lokpal Bill is crossing the lines of reasonableness. It is premised on an institutional imagination that is at best naïve; at worst subversive of representative democracy.

The morality of fasting unto death for a political cause in a constitutional democracy has always been a tricky issue. There is something deeply coercive about fasting unto death. When it is tied to an unparalleled moral eminence, as it is in the case of Anna Hazare, it amounts to blackmail. There may be circumstances, where the tyranny of government is so oppressive, or the moral cause at stake so vital that some such method of protest is called for. But in a functioning constitutional democracy, not having one's preferred institutional solution to a problem accepted, does not constitute a sufficient reason for the exercise of such coercive moral power. This is not the place to debate when a fast-unto-death is appropriate. But B.R. Ambedkar was surely right, in one of his greatest speeches, to warn that recourse to such methods was opening up a democracy to the "grammar of anarchy".

Corruption is a challenge. And public agitation is required to shame government. But it is possible to maintain, in reasonable good faith, that the Jan Lokpal Bill is not necessarily the best, or the only solution to the corruption challenge. We should not turn a complex institutional question into a simplistic moral imperative. Many of the people in the movement for the Jan Lokpal Bill have set examples of sacrifice and integrity that lesser mortals can scarcely hope to emulate. But it is the high vantage point of virtue that has occluded from view certain uncomfortable truths about institutions.

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