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 naÔve; 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.

The various drafts of the Jan Lokpal Bill are, very frankly, an institutional nightmare. To be fair, the bill is a work in progress. But the general premises that underlie the various drafts border on being daft. They amount to an unparalleled concentration of power in one institution that will literally be able to summon any institution and command any kind of police, judicial and investigative power. Power, divided in a democracy, can often be alibi for evading responsibility. But it is also a guarantee that the system is not at the mercy of a few good men. Having concentrated immense power, it then displays extraordinary faith in the virtue of those who will wield this power. Why do we think this institution will be incorruptible? The answer seems to be that the selection mechanism will somehow ensure a superior quality of guardians. Why? Because the selection committee, in addition to the usual virtuous judges, will have, as one draft very reassuringly put it, two of the "most recent Magsaysay Award Winners". Then there is no sense of jurisdiction and limits. It is not going to look at corruption only. It can even look into "wasteful" expenditure. They can, potentially usurp all policy prerogatives of democratic governments. So many accountability institutions, in the name of accountability, are not distinguishing between policy issues and corruption. They are perpetuating the myth that government can function without any discretionary judgment.

But the demand is premised on an idea that non-elected institutions that do not involve politicians are somehow the only ones that can be trusted. This assumption is false. Institutions of all kinds have succeeded and failed. But the premise of so much accountability discourse is not just contempt of politicians, but contempt of representative democracy. This contempt is reflected in two ways. There are several mechanisms of accountability in place. They have not worked as well as they should; vested interests have subverted them. But interestingly, despite those interests, governments are being called to account. Most of us are as aghast as any of the agitators about the evasions of government. But it does not follow that creating a draconian new institution that diminishes everything from the Prime Minister's Office to the Supreme Court is a solution. The net result of a "Lokpal" will be to weaken the authority of even other well-functioning institutions. No agitation focuses on sensible, manageable reform of representative institutions; all agitative energies are premised on bypassing them. Perhaps some version of a Lokpal is desirable. But reasonable people can disagree over this matter. To many of us, this proposal seems like the way we approached educational reform: if BA is not good quality, introduce MA; since MA does not work, have MPhil; since we can't trust our PhDs, have a further NET exam, endlessly deferring to new institutions at the top of the food chain without attending to basics. We should, as citizens, not be subject to the moral coercion of a fast-unto-death on this issue.

But the claim that the "people" are not represented by elected representatives, but are represented by their self-appointed guardians is disturbing. In a democracy, one ought to freely express views. But anyone who claims to be the "authentic" voice of the people is treading on very thin ice indeed. It is a form of Jacobinism that is intoxicated with its own certainties about the people. It is not willing to subject itself to an accountability, least of all to the only mechanism we know of designating representatives: elections. The demand that a Jan Lokpal Bill be drafted jointly by the government and a self-appointed committee of public virtue is absurd. Most of us sharply disagree with elected government on matters even more important than corruption. But no matter how cogent our arguments, it does not give us the right to say that our virtue entitles us to dictate policy to a representative process.

In an age of cynicism, Anna Hazare is a colossus of idealism. His sacrifices should cause all of us to introspect. It should be in the service of self-transformation, not a vilification of political processes. Virtue has an impatience with processes and institutions that needs to be checked. It is a dangerous illusion to pedal that badly designed new institutions will be a magic wand to remove corruption. All they will do is promote wishful thinking and distract from the myriads of prosaic decisions that will be required to get a better politics.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, express@expressindia.com

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