India: Civil society takes on the political class

Tuesday, 28 June 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In this column on 16 April 2011, I wrote on ‘Moral Authority and Legitimacy of Social Activists’. The column recorded the effect Anna Hazare had in India, a Gandhian who forced the political class in India to agree to a joint committee of ministers and civil society members to draft and have Parliament enact a Lokpal Law, anti corruption legislation, which India’s political class had been successful in sidelining for six decades since independence.

The common man’s anger at the recent corruption scandals involving the political class, such as the Delhi Commonwealth Games, the 2G spectrum allocation and land and housing allocations

(for which a number of politicians are State guests at Delhi’s Tihar jail) was successfully mobilised by Hazare and the Government was forced to agree to a joint committee of politicians and civil society nominees to draft the Lokpal Law.

The other example in that column of civil society’s power was Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi an educated, unemployed young man who self-immolated after being assaulted and humiliated by Government inspectors who seized his fruit vending cart through which he was trying to earn an honest living.

Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked off the ‘Arab Spring,’ which resulted in dictators Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt being disposed of and open civil war against Qadaffi of Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. NATO has got involved in the battle against Libya with UN Security Council sanction (veto wielding China and Russia abstained) and the Yemeni dictator has been seriously wounded and is under treatment in Saudi Arabia.

Syria, Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan are among other Maghreb, West Asian and North African states which are feeling the pressure from their own civil society in this ‘Arab Spring,’ which has morphed into a scorching Arab summer of discontent, strife and violence.

Indian political class fights back

Now the Indian political class has decided to fight back. The senior-most Minister on the joint drafting committee – veteran Congress politician from Bengal Pranab Mukherjee – fired the first salvo: The civil society movement led by Anna Hazare amounts to a “sinister move of destroying the fine balance between the three organs of Government enshrined in our Constitution. If someone dictates terms from outside to the Government, does it not weaken or subvert democracy? It is a big question… We are all civil society, no one is uncivil.” Mukherjee questioned the authority of civil society to dictate terms to an elected Government.

The Minister’s outburst is laughable, if you do not consider the seniority of the person making it; in the Indian political establishment, he is a Bengali, an heir to the rich literary and cultural traditions of Rabindranath Tagore!

The average Indian, like the majority of his counterparts in the rest of South Asia, has decided long ago that their political class is totally ‘uncivil’. For Mukherjee-ji, to maintain anything else is a mockery, especially in the context of an anti corruption law, which India’s political class has stymied for six decades, now being on the front burner of the national discourse due to the Herculean efforts of non-political civil society members. It reflects the comical, self-serving and pathetic desperation of the political class!

The professional politicians’ fear of civil society is reflected in the fact that even the opposition Communist Party (M), that erstwhile promoter of people’s revolutions worldwide, has come down heavily against civil society movements.

The General Secretary Parkas Karat criticised them saying that the so-called civil society activists were seeking to undermine the importance of political parties in ushering in social and economic transformation in a democratic system: “Civil society movements cannot be substitutes for political parties at any stage.”

Digvijay Singh, abrasive and outspoken Minister and senior office bearer of the Congress Party, went so far as to say that if civil society wanted to enact legislation, “let them contest elections and enter parliament to do so”.

Congress spokesman Mahesh Tiwari MP, also hit out at Hazare and his civil society colleagues as being “unelectable”. He said: “If this democracy faces its greatest peril from someone, it is from the unelected and unelectable.”

The accepted definition of civil society among development activists refers to ‘a wide array of non-governmental and not for profit organisations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations’.

Civil society can include community groups, NGOs, labour unions, indigenous groups, charitable organisations, faith-based organisations, business chambers, professional associations and foundations.

Congress seems to be trying to retrieve its position of abject surrender to civil society, after Hazare’s threatened fast unto death in April this year. Wags in Delhi quipped that the governed chickened out and gave in to the civil society demands before Hazare and his fellow activists on the fast could even work up a decent appetite, let alone attempt to fast unto death!

Six major points of disagreement

There seems to be six major points of disagreement between the Government and the civil society team on the draft Lokpal Bill. First, on the Prime Minister and the PMO being subject to the Lokpal. Second, the power of Lokpal to investigate corruption allegations against judges. Third, power of Lokpal to inquire into allegations of MP’s taking bribes to vote or for asking questions in Parliament.

Fourth, coverage of the Lokpal over Government servants, civil society wants all levels covered, Congress wants only joint secretaries and above. Fifth, civil society wants the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Central Vigilance Commission to be under the Lokpal so that they will depoliticised and autonomous, Congress disagrees, says those institutions operate under special laws and should not be changed.

Sixth, there is disagreement on the basic structure of the Lokpal institution, civil society wants an autonomous body with its administrative and investigative units, while Congress wants the Lokpal to be only a body which will take decisions on whether or not to investigate.

Attempt to stymie the process

Even a cursory analysis of the six areas of digression shows that the politicians are trying to stymie the process. Exempting the PM and the PMO has no merit, it is the pinnacle of political power and in India, in the past it was the focus of the famous Bofors corruption scandal.

Some politicians have said that may be when the PM ceases to hold office, the Lokpal may assume jurisdiction! This too is meaningless, when India has weak coalition governments at the centre; the PMO has enormous power and patronage and must be subject to normal checks and balances.

There is no logic to exempt the judiciary, especially since recently there have been humongous scandals, including and uncle (the judge) and nephew (the lawyer) court in one state! India is the home of the judicial system which gave birth to the infamous ‘tamarind tree witness,’ professional witnesses, branded such by colonial British judges, who loiter around under the tamarind tree in the yard of the court house, chewing betel or smoking beedis, until an assignment comes up, who can be coached to recite any story as an eye witness within minutes under oath before the judge and withstand the most rigorous cross examination.

MPs being bribed to raise questions in Parliament and vote is as old as the Westminster system; there is no ground for exempting that from the Lokpal’s scrutiny. Baksheesh, Santhosam and whatever else is used to describe bribery in the Indian native languages catches up all levels of administration, there is no logic in limiting the Lokpal to joint secretary and above.

Like in the rest of South Asia, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Central Vigilance Commission have been hopelessly politicised and they have to be made secure from political interference. Recently the Supreme Court of India, on a public interest petition, forced out the Government’s nominee for Chief Vigilance Commissioner, saying he was unfit to serve; the PM accepted the full blame for allowing such an officer to be proposed for the post.

Without the power to investigate its own secured budget and its own administrative mechanism, the Lokpal will be a castrated, impotent and flawed institution, like many of its South Asian counterparts, in which at crucial times all investigators on secondment from the Police Department are transferred out by executive order, such things have actually happened.

Absolute contempt

It is about time the South Asian political class in general and the Indian politicians in particular realised the absolute contempt with which the average citizen views them. It is very easy for the political class to challenge civil society by saying, ‘if you want to make policy, contest elections and come to Parliament’. But the fact is that no honourable citizen of south Asia with an iota of self respect would be willing to prostitute his values and do the things which are necessary to win an electoral political contest.

South Asian elections are violent contests; muscle power, blatant lying, violence, intimidation, cheating, bribery, impersonation and booth grabbing are the order of the day. Sometimes whole provinces have been blocked from voting. Being unelectable, in the south Asian context, amounts to a virtue and an honour!

One example is Professor Yunus of Bangladesh, Nobel Laureate for microfinance. He tried to found a political party in Bangladesh, egged on by military rulers who wanted an honest alternative to the two Begums who are systematically looting the country. He soon gave up in frustration. He has since been ousted from the Grameen Bank he founded by one of the said Begums!

Totally politicised

The humble voter dare not show this contempt in the open in these societies in which law enforcement is totally politicised; the exception are civil society activists, business persons and professionals who have the autonomy and economic independence to speak out.

In a totally politicised system, the average man has to go behind the politician, his bodyguards, his relatives, his catchers and general hangers-on to get the simplest thing done. He may put on a benign, humble and servile exterior, but inside he is boiling and seething with anger and frustration. This hate is what is switched into what is euphemistically described as ‘post election violence’ once the ‘rogues are voted out,’ which happens whenever a free and fair election is held.

Mass impersonation

South Asia is unique in that it has contributed a new process to election laws. In south Asia’s election law, mass impersonation is challenged by the number of the voter being written on the counterfoil of the ballot by the electoral official at voting time; these counterfoils are sealed and kept in the custody of the election authorities.

If an allegation of mass impersonation is made, the counterfoils are submitted to court and proof has to be submitted that a large number of persons who say, under oath in court, that they did not vote, have been recorded as having voted.

At one time this was done only in south Asia. But it was introduced in local government elections in London some time back. A London voter wrote to the Times of London questioning this process, saying it was a violation of the sanctity of the secret ballot. The British election authorities’ reply was that more and more impersonation was being complained of in certain boroughs of London where there had been large immigration from south Asia and the authorities felt that this procedure had to be implemented, to control the illegality!

This is compounded by the fact that post election, politicians cross sides and support a set of policies which are diametrically opposed to the ones they sought election to support and were elected to implement; not out of any love for the policies, nor from any consideration for the voters, who they are betraying, but solely for their own benefit and personal gain, to be in Government and share the bounty of power and to hell with the policies and the voters who support those policies!

India is somewhat of an exception in the case of post election crossing over and free elections of late. But remember, it is in this India itself that Anna Hazare and his civil society colleagues have been able to ignite a fire in the educated youth, the urban middle class, professionals and the business community to force a reluctant Government to put into effect a process to enact the Lokpal Bill after six decades of resolute dodging.

Strong position on corruption

Of late Indian businessmen have been taking a strong position on corruption. Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy has said that corruption has taken a toll on India’s goodwill abroad: “The goodwill for India that existed a couple of years ago has diminished now. There is no doubt, it is absolutely clear. I meet on average about 30 to 40 new people every month and out of that I would say at least about a third have spoken to me on that, in other words about 10 to 12 people every month. These are facts I have received from outside people. These are not my words or my perceptions. I personally feel that a party led by somebody of the stature of Sonia Gandhi, or a coalition led by somebody extraordinary like Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, who is another fantastic minister, could have done a much better job in dealing with what civil society is asking for. All that they are asking is that no one should be above the law.”

Kishor Chaukar, Executive Director of Tata Sons, the family-owned holding company of the multinational conglomerate, has said: “The dimensions of these corruption scandals are so large and the wrong doing is being brought into focus in such a public manner that a large number of youths are saying ‘this is enough’ to crony capitalism, ‘let’s get rid of it’. It could lead to something that is good for India’s economic and political system… What is happening in the Arab Spring is giving our people encouragement. They are saying if we can demonstrate and network and we are unified, then things can be changed.”

People have realised that policy making is too vital to be left to politicians.

World perception

The business community in India is worried about the world’s perception of transparency and accountability in India due to its impact on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), tourism and exports. No right-thinking person would want to invest in, visit or purchase goods from a country which has deficits in its governance and accountability mechanisms.

I remember when tourist arrivals from Germany to Sri Lanka were dropping in the late 1980s I asked a German friend why this was. His reply: “Who is the right-thinking person who would want to visit a country for a holiday, which has its citizens claiming refugee status are standing at every other junction in German cities?” This is especially true of bribery; it gives a country a negative connotation.

FDI by a foreign private corporates, rather than a Government-controlled fund, is the kind of stable, long-term financing that most south Asian countries are chasing after. Such investment represents a lasting long-term strategic interest, lifting productivity through a partnership of internal labour and resources with external skills and technology.

India unfortunately is doing less and less of it. Last year FDI flows to India actually fell according to UNCTAD. External perceptions of India’s internal problems, including rampant bribery and corruption, may be one reason. This would apply to the rest of South Asia, too.

The Lokpal Bill process

Home Minister Chidambaram, a member of the Lokpal Drafting Committee, has clarified the position as to the process. Earlier there was some talk of two drafts going to Cabinet, one ministerial draft and one civil society daft. At Cabinet level, the civil society draft would have got short shrift!

The Home Minister now says that that only one draft bill will be sent up to Cabinet, but wherever there is any divergence of views, two alternative formulations will be mentioned alongside. The deadline is 30 June.

The latest report is that there has been another backtrack after the last round of discussions on 21 June between the ministers and civil society representatives; the parties exchanged two conflicting drafts. The ministers are unable to accept the civil society proposal for an anti corruption Lokpal with sweeping jurisdiction over the PMO, judiciary, actions of MPs in Parliament and merging the CVC and CBI into Lokpal.

One minister declared that such a Lokpal was “answerable to nobody”. The short answer to that is that the Lokpal is answerable to the law, as implemented by the Supreme Court of India, not to any politician, which is probably anathema to the good minister and his ilk!

Anna Hazare has said that they are dissatisfied with the minister’s draft which does not create a “comprehensive, independent and empowered institution”. Hazare plans to resume his fast on 15 August.

Crucial months ahead

Civil society has succeeded in dragging the Indian political class, kicking and hysterically screaming, almost to the point of enacting the Lokpal Law after 60 years of prevarication and dodging. The next few months, the monsoon session of the Indian Parliament, will be crucial.

It is amusing to hear the political heirs of Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement, the first real exposure of the world to fasting and civil disobedience as a political weapon, mocking at Anna Hazare and civil society’s use of fasting as a method of political enforcement.

Home Minister Chidambaram says: “I can’t recall anywhere in the world laws being drafted by sitting on hunger strikes and dharnas!”  Minister, you don’t have to ‘recall’ beyond India’s battle for independence! Whether civil society will be able force the politicians in India to enact a Lokpal Law with teeth is yet to be seen. South Asian civil society would do well to monitor what is happening in Bharat/Dhambadhiva.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

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