On the face of it, it began as a protest for formulation of Jan Lokpal bill that would pave the way for appointment of a central ombudsman for investigation and prosecution of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and protection of whistle blowers with around 128 agitators launching fast-unto-death at New Delhi.
But as minutes and hours ticked by and the government and civil society representatives argued for and against their case, the trickle grew into a torrent and it became apparent that it was not simply a fight against corruption. It was much more than that.
For one it gave vent to peoples’ angst against petty bribery culture that has flourished across police, civic agencies and government departments over the years. It was a demonstration of the helplessness and pent up frustration that common man has felt over ineffectiveness and slothfulness of anti-corruption mechanism against the powers-that-be. The enormity of 2G spectrum, CWG, Adarsh and cash-for-vote scams apparently became an immediate trigger for it.
But more than this it had undercurrents of a battle for supremacy between the elected political representatives who have hitherto enjoyed unbridled discretionary powers to accumulate wealth and the electors with the latter asserting their rights guaranteed under the constitution of India, a socialist, democratic republic.
As they say war throws unlikeliest of heroes, the India-against-Corruption movement which mainly got its sustenance from youth put a diminutive septuagenarian Kisan Bapat Baburao Hazare, popularly known as Anna Hazare, who has for long been identified as a champion of Right to Information Act (RTI) and local self-governance, into the lead! The campaign has not only pit him against parliamentary formalists but also raised the hackles of certain social scientists, who see in Jan Lokpal symptoms of an authoritarian arrangement. They feel Hazare and his band heroically pushed the demand for a wrong cause and was being utopian.
Their question is how can a dictatorial set up alone check corruption in the absence of electoral, judicial and police reforms? How can the 74-year-old bachelor, who till now tenaciously worked for self-rule and making villages self-sustainable, advocate for equipping Jan Lokpal with unfettered powers?
After all, Hazare, a former army havaldar, put his first step towards fame by metamorphosing his arid, poor, theft and violence-prone, alcoholic, perennially drought-hit village, Ralegan Siddhi, into a self-sustained community. He motivated his fellow villagers to build weirs, contour and staggered trenches, gully plugs and resort to drip irrigation to conserve water. For electricity, he promoted solar power, biogas and a windmill. Not only did he ensure plenty of non-conventional energy and water sources in the village but also inspired the villagers to construct a school, a hostel, a grain bank and even a milk bank. Simultaneously, he campaigned for literacy, tree plantation and abolition of regressive customs like dowry, ostentatious weddings, tobacco consumption and entrenched caste system. The campaigns transformed the village so much that Maharashtra government was forced to adopt it as a model village. His efforts put Ralegan Siddhi into the tourist map of Ahmed Nagar district, otherwise famous for Shirdi.
The pristine man, who lives in a ramshackle temple and leads a spartan lifestyle, has fought for empowerment of Panchayats and Gram Sabha in his state for over two decades. In fact, his demand for decentralisation was also a precursor to central government legislating 73rd and 74th Amendments for introduction of self-governance through Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs).
In 1991 when he first sounded the bugle against corruption by forming Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Aandolan (BVJA) and launching an indefinite hunger strike in Alandi (Pune district), his target was not just 42 forest officers and their half a dozen mentor-ministers who had apparently duped Maharashtra exchequer of billions of rupees, but also empowerment of Gram Panchayats and Gram Sabhas. For he believed that corruption could be checked if people knew they could ask questions and make demands for their local governments. He argued for putting power in the hands of people.
Inspired by Vivekananda’s philosophy that the ultimate motive of human life should be service to humanity and striving for betterment of common people is equivalent to offering a prayer to God, Hazare has for long crusaded for supremacy of the voter. This is what surprised many people when he went whole hog to push for an autocratic Lokpal.
He was trying to dispel these doubts when on 4th day, he said, “There has not been a decentralisation of power. Corruption rose as power was centralised in the government. Lokpal Bill is for decentralisation and our agitation is precisely for that.” He even cited the instance of how RTI (remember he successfully fasted for implementation of RTI in Maharashtra, his home state, in 2003, three years before the central government enacted the same for the rest of the country) had fostered devolution of power to the people.
Since then he has tried hard to synonymise Jan Lokpal with decentralisation. “Give the option of napasandi (dislike), if all candidates are bad, then voters will not vote for anyone,” was his constant refrain at Jantar Mantar. “Until power is transferred to the electors, corruption cannot be checked. Right from Palika Sabha in Municipal Council, Municipal Corporations and Gram Sabha (in Panchayats) to the Parliament, voters should have a right to recall,” he emphasised after breaking his fast on 9th April.
But slowly the cat is getting out of the bag with social activists like Arvind Kejriwal, Medha Patkar and Swami Agnivesh who flanked Hazare during agitation and Hazare himself admitting that they will have to launch another movement for police, electoral and judicial reforms and decentralisation of power to achieve transparency and accountability in governance.
RTI activist and Magsaysay award winner Kejriwal has promised another movement for electoral and judicial reforms and decentralisation of power. Social activist Medha Patkar is also not sure whether Jan Lokpal would bring about a change. “It has given us a platform. We will have to fight for just land acquisition and resettlement laws. Without electoral reforms, Lokpal will not make such a big difference,” she says.
Even Hazare is getting ready to launch another agitation to find answers to questions on farmers, education, labour and decentralisation “There should be decentralisation of power in governance right up to the village level (to root out corruption).”
Anyhow the movement should serve a timely wake up call to the government that it can ill-afford to delay decentralisation of policing and justice. Besides, putting power back with people should be its first priority.
It is clear that delay in justice is good breeding ground for corruption. Thus, the government must initiate police and judicial reforms right now. For this, the first requisite would be dialogue with the civil society. The government would do well also to revive the system of Nyaya Panchayats as dispensation of justice at the local level could go a long way in redressing grievances of the people.
Hazare and his followers too would be served better if they desist from making impractical statements like ‘the entire process (of drafting the Lokpal bill) should be videographed.’ Let prudence not be a victim of populism.
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