Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jan Lokpal Bill Movement: Lessons For India's Middle & Ruling Classes



`Supercop' Kiran Bedi learnt the hard way (or so we hope) how not to hold fort when she resorted to somewhat unusual theatrics to drive home a point about elected representatives. She was on stage as Gandhian Anna Hazare fasted to get the Indian Government to agree to pass the Jan LokPal Bill, a strong anti-corruption bill. His fast ended on 28 August 2011, 12 days after it started.

The fast (and the strategy thereof) has attracted kudos and criticism alike. The critics call the fast and the accompanying protests blackmail. The supporters say politicians are not known to respond to the usual greet, meet and review process. As they have not in the past. Moreover, the country has lived with unprecedented levels of corruption for decades and across all walks of life. And cannot tolerate it any longer. Extreme conditions call for extreme responses. Both sides however agree that the issue of corruption in public life must be addressed, with some urgency.

I see it a little differently. Without getting into the merits of the Bill itself and the methodology adoped, lets look at what this movement has done.

1.It's brought India's slumbering middle class and youth together on an issue (corruption) they should have united on a few decades ago. Not that its only the middle class that's out on the streets.
2. Equally, its given India's middle class a sense of `real-politik' for the first time. The protestors and the country at large quite quickly realised the Government was being indifferent to them simply because it concluded the SMS/Twitter/Facebook fuelled gatherings lacked the support and momentum of India's masses. Never mind that the hundreds of thousands marched on their volition as opposed to being paid and carted in by the truckloads. Politician Mani Shankar Aiyar said in a television discussion two days ago that he called up his constituency in the southern state of Tamil Nadu to find out how many people were protesting on this issue. "Only 30," he was told. Mani's point: its an important issue alright but not everyone is jumping to support it.
3. Its showed that a bunch of smart thinking individuals with some public support can outsmart a government which, for all its might, demonstrated that it did not think in a calm and controlled manner. Its not that the Government does not have smart people, but the lack of an effective strategy or counter-strategy was glaring.
4. The same bunch of people had a working and evolving strategy at all times, notwithstanding Ms Bedi's theatrics. When Anna Hazare broke his fast on Sunday the 28th of August, he did so with a speech which laid out out a forward looking agenda, one that encompassed education, elections and the environment. In contrast, except for a few very notable exceptions, most Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha rambled on without making any specific points. So while Ms Bedi's antics must be frowned upon and dismissed as that of a political novice, the veterans didn't exactly cover themselves in oratorical glory. Though to be fair, the quality of debate was much higher than the median.
5.The movement created the first stirrings of a political identity for the middle classes. And one of some muscle as well. For deacades, the middle classes have watched silently and in fear as various quasi-political parties have wreaked havoc on the streets. Mumbai is no stranger to it. Time and again, the city has been warned by Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray that his boys would take to the streets if a certain issue was not addressed in his favour. And there are the infamous `voluntary-involuntary' bandhs in once Communist Party ruled states like West Bengal and Kerala. For once, the middle class can feel comfortable about getting down to the streets. Hopefully, it will maintain the peaceful and non-violent nature,as originally propogated by Mahatma Gandhi and as espoused by the leaders of the current India Against Corruption movement.

The challenge obviously is larger now. Showing consistency is more difficult than flash protests. Anna Hazare and his team have pulled through for an admirable period. More importantly, agree or not, they have laid out a vision and a direction. They seem to be cognizant of the criticism that they have hijacked parliamentary democracy. Of course they deny the charge. They also recognise that there are much dotting of the i's and crossing of the t's involved before any real legislation is passed. To that extent they are aware of the precise challenges ahead. Obviously, it helps to have at least two constitutional heavy weights on your side - former Law Minister & Supreme Court lawyer Shanti Bhushan and his son Prashant Bhushan .

The Government and its many constituents are obviously smarting. Unusually, this includes all sides of the house. And they will want to settle scores where they can. A few members of parliament will advocate greater control on media. Better still they will insist (as a few already have) that the media too be brought under the ambit of an anticorruption law. There will be other such missiles that will be fired in coming days. Some might well be justified.

But the Government can convert this into an opportunity too, by working with the prime movers of the movement more closely. It can take up prickly issues like corruption and be seen to be involving more people in fixing it rather than getting adversorial. By taking firm ownership of the issue rather than seen to be on the defensive. By doing a more broad-based, mass engagement for solutions that will fix the processes that create corruption, particularly `retail' corruption. While there has to be nitpicking on the law, there has to be greater nitpicking on the processes that lead to corruption in the first place. Particularly of the kind that involves the poor and helpless.

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