Hunger strike, Lokpal Bill, Middle Class and pseudo-intellectuals

When he ended his fast, Anna Hazare probably had the tacit backing of a good chunk of middle class (MC) probably going above 100million people. Most of the followers of this movement didn’t come out on streets or did candle light vigil. But they were the ones who read papers/internet, had modern communication tools and were providing tacit support through various means. The agitators rightly called themselves the Civil Society, for they were not elected representatives, neither govt. employees nor army. They were all what our govt. calls “aam aadmi”.

There has been a lot of criticism about the hunger strike from Journalists, Politicians and some section of the society as well. A lot of these folks made fun of the ice-cream eating revolutionaries; as if revolutionaries by definition need to be subsist on some staple diet. Indian Express edit went to the extent of calling this as Carnival society!

I wanted to reflect over some of these issues and put my thoughts more clearly.

1.       Hunger Strike is un-democratic in a representative democracy like ours

The biggest myth that’s being spread is how we are a representative democracy!

In 1985, the representative nature of our democracy was replaced with Anti-Defection law. An MP whom I elect can’t vote for/against a bill unless his party decides to do so. If he violates the Party Whip, then he is disqualified from the house (Effectively ending his representation of a constituency).

Who is the ‘party’? Typically the president and a small clique of people controlling the party, who most of the times are not even elected democratically even within their own party, leave alone by General electorate. So, effectively a handful of folks decide the law & policy for our country.

Can there be any law in this country that is opposed by the ‘defacto’ Monarchs of this country? Who gave ‘nehru family’ that veto? Even during the NDA regime a non-representative body like RSS was deciding on policy/law!

How is that democratic?

While Hunger strike is an extreme action, that is the humblest form of protest (as versus Strike calls and Bandhs that our political parties frequently resort to). In a Hunger strike, there is no coercion unless the call gets a huge moral support by the people, forcing political parties to think again about the right course of action.

Compare that to Bandhs and other strike calls where stones are thrown and people are killed. That is patently un-democratic, for it violates the concept that your freedom ends at my nose. In hunger strike, people are keeping a safe distance from everyones nose!!

2.       Hunger Strike is Blackmail

Blackmail is when you hold someone to ransom.  Exerting ones point forcefully, peacefully and forcing someone to accept the strength of argument thru sheer number of supporters is not ‘blackmail’. It is a legitimate political action.

There are enough blackmailers in our politics. We have had our parliament closed down for months on a single demand. If Hunger strike was going to work better, surely they’d have done it??

But, no!  They can’t do it because, for a hunger strike to succeed you need very high moral stature, a just demand and popular concurrence of your demand. Otherwise a simple police action of putting you on drips will end the hunger strike and no one will even notice.

Hunger strike by Anna Hazare was meant as a trick to galvanize support for the cause of independent Lokpal. His target wasn’t the govt. but the people. He was giving a clarion call for people to wake up by a dramatic action. His hunger strike spoke far louder than a thousand speeches anyone could’ve made on the subject.

The coercive element wasn’t the hunger strike. It was the massive support he received from people. And when people from broad sections of the society come up to support him, that can’t be called black mail. After all how can the electorate send out a signal to its elected class? It can’t be just voting them out?!!

3.       Middle class doesn’t vote so they shouldn’t raise their voice.

This is the most absurd argument I’ve heard.  Voting or not voting is a function of finding motivation to do so. If the middle class could come out of their comfort zone to support Lokpal Bill, there is no reason why they won’t vote if they found a credible candidate.

Voting in Indian democracy has become an exercise of selecting a lesser scoundrel in most constituencies. Indian voter can’t do negative voting (as in NONE OF THE ABOVE), and making sure no undeserving candidate wins.  First past the pole will declare a winner even if someone gets 10% of the votes, if every one else got lesser!! Since our elections are fractious, if a voter votes for a fringe candidate without the support of big money/publicity, that vote is bound to go waste.

Why should a person (not only Middle class) go all the way to the polling booth if he felt any of the candidates are not worthy of his vote? This problem won’t be solved easily. It can only be done with Electoral reforms – a different subject than Lokpal/Corruption.

And just because someone won’t vote why should he loose his voice in a democracy? By that token 40% of our citizens should have no voice as they are below 18years of age!!

4.       Hazare strike is Pushing a dangerous bill (Jan Lokpal)

Hazare and the team of protestors made it clear that they don’t believe Jan Lokpal bill is the ultimate bill. They wanted to be part of the drafting committee for they felt (rightly) that the govt. can’t draft a law that restricted its own powers. There was a conflict of interest. It certainly needed outside help. If govt. had done so on their own then this team was unnecessary.

In any case, is Jan Lokpal a dangerous bill that will create a monster agency? Perhaps. That’s where the voice of Parliament will come in. If they have a legitimate reason to amend some of the parts, they can and people will accept them. But, if those amendments are for saving their own corrupt system, then people will have legitimate right to protest.

Another argument is Lokpal will become  Investigator, Prosecutor and judge rolled in to one. That’s not correct. He still needs to fight the cases in the regular (perhaps fast tracked) courts. He can only investigate and prosecute. This is how it is done in most developed countries anyway.

Besides, having independent institution is not always bad! Our Judges are independent and can only be removed through a prescribed process. No one says they have ‘unlimited’ power!

As long as there is a way for a bad Loakpal to be removed through a transparent, independent (non-political) adjudication process, there will be sanity in the institution.

5.       Bribe Giving is the reason for corruption. An institution can’t solve it.

Its self-evident that bribe taking can’t happen without a bribe giving. However, a general culture of acceptance of corruption has seeped in to everyday life only because there is no enforcement of laws against such criminality.

In Bangalore, Traffic rules are violated more often than followed. But, everyone violates them with impunity, because they know the police aren’t enforcing it. The usual police argument is people are to be blamed, because they don’t follow the law.

That argument is both absurd and perverse. If everyone followed the law, we didn’t need police or courts to punish! The fact is people tend to follow the law only when there is strict enforcement of the law. A law that can’t be enforced is a bad law, so it should be repealed.

So, either the govt. should have good enforcement mechanism of its own laws (for which it needs independent agencies like Lokpal) or it should simply legalize a system of payment for various works to be done. They can see if people support that!!

6.       Lokpal won’t solve the myriad problems of this country.

This is a classic red-herring. Lokpal is not meant to solve problems. It is meant to enforce anti-corruption laws. Currently we have politicians controlling the police and prosecution in all cases including the ones that are against their own.

The idea of lokpal is when a citizen has a problem against the governing class, he has an independent institution as a recourse. This is a way of bringing in checks and balances to unbridled power our elected govt. enjoys.

It won’t solve any other problems directly, but indirectly it’ll force most of the money allocated for various projects have better chance of reaching the right destination.

7.       Middle class of India live in a bubble and have no stake in its governance

This is a big myth!

Middle class in India is a nebulous entity. McKinsey says it is about 5% and will grow to 40% by 2025 or so. But, using broader eco-indicators (People living on $4 and above a day) India has 30% MC as of 2010. It is not a homogenous group. But, it is the one which is made up largely of blue-collar and white collar labor, small traders and professionals.

This class is invariably blamed or made fun off by the Pseudo intellectuals for participating in what they call a blackmail or a un-democratic movement. They have also criticized this class for not voting in elections (as if it is one homogenous class). They are also blamed in many articles for the ill of the country, like – They are the bribe givers.

But, culture of bribe seeped in to Indian society long before the Middle class came in to prominence. Giving a bribe is not only an option, but almost a compulsion if you want the job done, without having to waste many days of running around.

This system can’t be changed by any one individual’s resolve not to pay a bribe. It needs a systemic response of enforcement of already existing laws (and new ones) and thus empowering the society.

In short – We have Police to invesigate ‘aam admi’ (Common Man).  What we need is an institution (Lokpal) to investigate ‘vishisht aadmi’ (Special man).