Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Government capitulates. And gives Parliamentary democracy a go by

Clearly yesterday, the government capitulated to Team Anna. Faced with the failing health of Anna and the worry of widespread riots if anything untoward happened to him, the government found itself on the back foot. In the process, it agreed to most of Team Anna’s demands; including those that many felt were unjustifiable. For the many lacs who were supporting Anna, this was a huge victory. For many like me, who were supporting a strong anti-corruption law but were disagreeing with specific points in the Jan Lokpal Bill and the methods of Team Anna, this was a disappointment. This is not what was expected from a responsible government.

A dispassionate look at the turn of events last week would show that the government was itself responsible for digging its grave. It acted senselessly on 16th August by arresting Anna. This got thousands of ordinary people out on the streets. It shifted the focus away from the Lokpal Bill to the high-handedness of the government in disallowing people the fundamental right to protest. The government got panned by all sections of society – including those who opposed the Jan Lokpal Bill – for its insensitivity towards an old Gandhian. The government blundered further by hiding behind law and order procedures and claiming that it was the Delhi Police Commissioner who decided to order the arrest. This made the government look like a wimp. The last straw of course was when Anna was sent to Tihar. This is when the government completely lost any moral authority it had on the subject. It was deluged under a sea of criticism that followed. From this point on, though it made quick amends, capitulation was inevitable. The mighty sovereign government had been brought to its knees by Anna and his followers.

The government’s missteps made it vulnerable to pressure. The day Anna was arrested; I had written that it made me worried. The government would now be too weak kneed to hold on to some of its legitimate concerns about Anna’s Bill. That’s what happened yesterday. The government had to bow down to even the unjust demands of lacs of Anna’s supporters. But “lacs” is a relatively small number in a country where the size of the electorate is more than 700 lacs. The surrender raised several worrying questions: By capitulating, is it the government’s point that the views of Team Anna were more important than the views of the much larger electorate? Have the MPs who represent the electorate even gone back to the people seeking their views? Why couldn’t the government at least hold firm that the standing committee would debate and recommend changes? And that Parliament would be the final authority?  Why did it allow letting Parliament get hijacked in this manner? Maybe it should have dissolved Parliament and gone back to the people on this subject. Did it choose to rule rather than choose to go back to the people?

Almost everyone agrees that Anna’s Bill has several flaws. It’s not relevant any longer to list down what these flaws are. What is relevant is to ask whether these have been resolved through a meaningful debate or not.  The answer is obvious. There have been no discussions in Parliament. Nor in the standing committee. Nor have views of informed people been taken. Nor have other political parties been officially consulted. Nor have any of the established Parliamentary procedures been followed. A government that lost its credibility because of its own blunders has now compromised on Parliamentary democracy itself.

I must admit here that Team Anna played a masterstroke last night. On the one hand, they made sure that the Bill would not be presented to the standing committee, where the Bill could have faced criticism outside the glare of cameras (standing committee meetings are held in private). After all, we know that almost all political parties have problems with Anna’s Bill. It’s only in a private standing committee meeting that they could have expressed their views in a nonpartisan manner. On the other hand, as part of the deal, Anna’s team has forced the UPA to agree to actually support the Jan Lokpal Bill in Parliament. How could the government agree to this condition? With the UPA in a majority, the Bill will now surely be passed. The government has been blackmailed into supporting a Bill that it does not intrinsically agree with. Surely at the very minimum, Parliamentary propriety could have been protected and genuine discussion and voting insisted upon? Surely Parliament could have decided whether the Bill should become law or not? Now, the debate in Parliament will happen, but it will be a mere formality as the decision to pass the Bill in an “as is” condition has already been taken. What kind of a debate can be expected under such conditions? Why would any MP or party want to take a contrarion position (on camera) on some points of the Jan Lokpal Bill knowing that in any case the decision has already been taken by the ruling government? Why would that person/party want to risk being branded “pro corruption” by civil society? Clearly now ….a) the many flaws of the Jan Lokpal Bill will find their way into the Lokpal Act and b) the flawed Bill will be passed by an overwhelming majority in Parliament with each party trying to outdo the other in claiming proximity to Anna. In the parlance of chess, Team Anna successfully checkmated the government.

In all this, the central government has come out as being spineless. It has failed to protect Parliamentary procedures. It has failed to listen to the divergent viewpoints that exist on the subject. By presenting the Bill directly in Parliament, it has given no opportunity for people with alternate viewpoints to interact with lawmakers. By settling for a “deal” with Team Anna, it has surrendered to blackmail. It appears Anna’s “my way or highway” approach has worked. Rule of Law has been sacrificed. Agreed Anna was hugely popular, but where is the evidence that he represented the majority view of the country? In fact, Anna showed huge disdain for Parliamentary democracy itself. None of his team members even wanted to contest elections. If they were so sure about their following nationally, why couldn’t they come to Parliament by contesting and winning an election? The government may try and justify this capitulation as a “majboori” to break the logjam or even as “statesmanship”, but the truth is that it is nothing but a sign of spinelessness.

What are the long term fallouts for the country’s democratic polity? Essentially now, how do we know that the same methods will not be used again in the future? In fact, it can be safely said that the same methods will be used again and by Anna himself. He has already made his plans clear. From electoral reforms to land acquisition policy to black money to farmer rights to maybe even economic, defence and foreign policies, Anna will pronounce his views and then use the same methods against Parliament’s will again and again. Having lost the game once, the government will keep losing the game again and again. And why only Anna, every single activist will now be motivated to follow the same method. And who will decide whether each such movement should become a national campaign or not? The media. It is the media that made the Anna movement so in-your-face. If the media decides to back another activist in the future; that movement will succeed. If it decides it is not the right movement for the country, the movement will fail. Parliament has no role left in policy making. It is media and small sections of civil society that will run this country…..

The real truth is that Team Anna has unfairly and undemocratically – by threat of a fast-unto-death – pushed its version of the Lokpal Bill down the throats of the people of this country. From being victims of the government’s aggression, Team Anna has now become aggressors. Parliament has been compromised. I am sorry, but I cannot support a Bill that has been passed in this manner…..

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