Time to step back

History repeats itself, first as farce and then as more farce. But in this drama both the so-called civil society and the state are bringing out the worst in each other, to the point where they both, in different ways, represent a threat to democratic values. There is no doubt that Anna Hazare's movement powerfully expressed anger against corruption, even as its own proposed solutions border on unreasonable daftness. But it has to be said that the way in which state power is being exercised to control and squelch protest is a dangerous trend for Indian democracy. Democracy requires a delicacy of moral judgment. So we are now in the awkward position of worrying that though the state is right in asserting the supremacy of institutions, it is becoming dangerously arbitrary and arrogant. Hazare's approach and proposals are ill-considered. But the right of that movement to protest needs to be defended. Unfortunately, both the state and civil society are in a "if you are not with us, you are against us" mood. That does not augur well for Indian society.

Consider the state first. It is becoming apparent to everyone that the Indian state has several tools at its disposal to regulate and curb protest. No one denies that the state needs to regulate certain forms of protest for logistical purposes or law and order. But it is now clear that the state regulates protest to an unconscionable degree, remnant of a licence-permit raj. The idea that the capital does not have a space where large numbers of people can, of their own free will, assemble is a travesty of democracy. The Delhi Police's requirement that the number of protesters be specified in advance or limited to 5,000 is absurd. Coming after the eviction of thousands of supporters of another farcical movement headed by Baba Ramdev, this portends a dangerous trend. There is no evidence yet that any of these movements intended violence or incited any criminality.

"If we don't have a right to protest, we don't have anything at all." These words were uttered by none other than Law Minister Salman Khursheed, criticising Mayawati's use of Section 144 to curb protest. The irony of this should not be missed. The Congress feels entitled to walk into a state and rabble-rouse in a situation that was actually violent; but it will use every bureaucratic means at its disposal to thwart protest. Its integrity is compromised right there; and its ability to pre-empt movements through the use of state power should frighten those committed to a liberal democracy. We don't see too many protest movements because the state is, oddly enough, quite effective in pre-empting them.

Add to this the fact that the state's attitude is bordering on thuggishness. In Ramdev's case, the state used its machinery to go after the movement, after the fact. Congress spokespersons have been articulating veiled threats of this kind at movements that oppose the government. This threat is being circulated in a wide range of cases, including Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh. And the Congress is no longer disguising the fact that it will use its state power to discredit any movement it finds inconvenient. Whatever the excesses of the Anna movement, the aggression of the Congress party is a matter of worry: the way it holds out threats, uses innuendo, concocts any argument that suits it. The need of the hour is some statesmanship, not bullies fighting to the finish. Whether or not the charges it pursues are plausible has become moot. The state's timing and selectivity in doing so is only compromising its credibility. Make no mistake about it: the Congress will use any state power it can to protect itself and intimidate opponents. This issue will require vigilant social action.

The Anna Hazare movement meanwhile continues to propagate the tyranny of virtue. It has elided the distinction between protest and fast-unto-death. The former is legitimate. The latter is blackmail. Second, it has elided the fact that this is not just a contest between two players, the state and the knights in shining armour of the movement. There are many other actors in civil society who disagree with their institutional proposals. By threatening a fast-unto-death, they are violating two norms of democratic society. First, they are not acknowledging that there can be legitimate differences in a democracy. And to insist that only one proposal is correct is to slight not the state but other citizens. Second, they are violating the norms of reciprocity. Their sense of virtue cannot entitle them to deny that other citizens are also making good-faith arguments to better our democracy. And in the case of a disagreement, we have to resort to the only adjudicative mechanism we have agreed on: our representative democracy.

The movement should learn from its own success so far. The significance of actors in a democracy is always complex. Often movements achieve good despite themselves; and often they produce more destruction despite noble intentions. The Hazare movement has done both. The aims of the movement embodied in the Lokpal bill are ridiculous. But it has to be acknowledged that it galvanised a consciousness on the issue of corruption. Social pressure is important. The movement should also recognise that various other institutions of the state, from the opposition to independent bodies, have, albeit imperfectly, swung into action. The game is beginning to change. But it should not destroy its own historical achievement by being unreasonable on the methods of protest, or the choice of institutions it supports.

There is also a danger that the moral climate being created by Manichean worldviews of good versus evil will ill serve the cause of justice. It is already becoming apparent that even other institutions like the court are succumbing to this view. The court's attitude on the denial of bail to the 2G accused at various levels has less the imprimatur of the rule of law. It seems to be borne out of a fear that its legitimacy will be immediately questioned in this atmosphere that recognises no shades of gray, no fine distinctions, no patience with forms. Civil society should not contribute to this frenzy, lest it itself become the victim.

One hopes that the continuing farce will not end in tragedy. All actors in the current system, whether it is the executive, courts, independent agencies or civil society, will serve society better by discharging their proper roles, not by extending their power on any pretext. We need a fine balance, not an insolent civil society or a tyrannical state.

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

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