vol-LXXXVIII : September 1, 2011

Dear Colleagues

Eid Mubarak!

This version of is focused upon the issues arising out of the recent anti-corruption movement in India led by Anna Hazare.

1. The anti-corruption movement in India galvanized millions of Indians throughout the country, cutting across class and age lines. It tapped on the feelings of indignation and frustration that most citizens in India feel towards various government agencies, departments and services. Not only that bribe is sought to do any work anywhere in the government system, the sheer apathy and disregard towards citizens trying to access those services is widespread. Thus, Anna’s fast triggered a spontaneous protest everywhere, the likes of which had not been witnessed in independent India. The movement served an enormous educational purpose by informing ordinary citizens about deficits in democratic governance today and the roles of citizens in demanding accountability of the political system. Claiming citizenship is becoming an integral part of civil society actions. How to sustain this conscientisation and mobilization is a challenge for civil society?

2. The response of the ruling political leadership was initially aimed at ‘arresting’ the movement by sending Anna to jail, and denying a place to protest in Delhi. The sheer arrogance of senior ministers in Man Mohan Singh’s cabinet (like P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibbal, Ambika Soni) in dealing with the movement was visible in the manner they spoke to the media, and believed that it will fizzle away once Anna was arrested. Political leaders in democracies seem to become no less arrogant and self-centred than in dictatorships; authoritarianism once in power is a characteristic of democratically elected leaders as well. How will humility be the driving force of democratic political leadership?

3. There was an intense debate in the public and media around the question of parliamentary supremacy; government leaders and parliamentarians demanded that they had the exclusive and supreme authority in law-making. Civil society countered this by demanding that citizens can voice their opposition to inadequate or detrimental laws and policies being made by parliament, and generate sustained pressure on their representatives to listen to their concerns and preferences. It was rather disturbing to see how some of the parliamentarians became angry that citizens were protesting in front of their homes; aren’t they ‘people’s representatives’? The implications of this discourse could go either way in future; it may open up more informed interaction between citizens and legislatures; it may also make legislatures, and some elected representatives, more hostile towards civic voices around key policies.

4. As protests of citizens seemed to gather momentum in support of Anna’s demands for a strong Lokpal Bill, several other voices began to appear in the media challenging Anna’s movement. Most of these persons have ‘comfortable and official’ relationship with the ruling regime in Delhi; some deliberately tried to paint Anna as a Hindu communalist; some advised against ‘undermining parliament’ in the same vain as the politicians. It was intriguing to see that certain members of such civil society even presented alternative concept papers on Lokpal Bill (NAC and Loksatta are credited with these) when the stand-off with the government had intensified. A similar ambiguity was visible in the responses (or lack thereof) of trade unions. In a way, in pursuit of democratic pluralism, were the actions of such civil society actors not undermining the citizens’ movement and Anna’s leadership of the same? What will happen in future if another political formation comes to power in Delhi and begins to harass and intimidate this set of civil society actors? How can united stands and voices of citizens be amplified?

5. Finally, the movement showed the changing nature of civil society in India as represented through small, informal, neighbourhood associations, youth groups, students and professionals. The use of new information technology supported physical mobilization of people and media; both old and new media were disseminating information—television news and blogs together. The discourse in parliament on Saturday August 27 showed enormous maturity of leaders of main political parties—Congress, BJP, Left. However, the statements of smaller, one-state, one-leader political parties (RJD, BJD, DMK, AIDMK, BSP etc) were incoherent and disrespectful of Anna and the demands of the movement. If the political class in India recognizes the aspirational shift that this movement represents, it may accommodate the evolution of a new social compact between citizens and the state in ‘older’ democracies like India. If not, then democratic governance in India would be facing more intractable conflicts in the coming decade?

What are your assessments of, and reactions to, similar (or otherwise) trends in your own contexts?

Rajesh Tandon