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Standards for moralists

Standards for moralists
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First Published: Wed, Oct 26 2011. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Thu, Oct 27 2011. 12 30 PM IST
At the heart of the civil society’s apparently non-political campaign against corruption is a political project. It wants to be a political actor without appearing to be part of politics. It wants to remake India in its image without going through the constitutional steps necessary. And in showing contempt for the politicians, it shows contempt for the people who choose to elect them to power.
This is not to defend the politicians or the sort of choices the voters make. But it helps to get a clear understanding of what the project is all about – anti-corruption campaign is the first step, the right to recall next. Being a democracy, India has the means to debate these decisions. That’s hard work – the prominent individuals surrounding Kisan Hazare want to take the express elevator.
The Hazare team believes it has the legitimacy to do so based on the credibility its members have earned for good deeds in other fields. Hazare himself lacks Mohandas Gandhi’s moral authority, but has imitated his gestures and tactics to make a new generation of Indians think he is the real thing. Prashant Bhushan becomes the lead interlocutor because of his fine record as a public interest lawyer. Kiran Bedi seeks prominence because she was a senior police official. Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax official, wants to be heard because an international award recognised his efforts to establish the right to information.
They have every right to participate in the political process. But as yet they don’t want to stand for elections. In condemning politicians consistently, in effect they insult the electorate, which continues to prefer these politicians and not people like them. If voters don’t elect people like them, what is to be done? (The German writer Bertolt Brecht, in a short poem, had recommended – elect new people. But the Hazare Team hasn’t thought that far yet).
While claiming to be non-partisan, their public forays in elections, such as in the Hisar by-poll, have targeted one particular party. When criticism of their conduct emerges, they want special treatment: Kejriwal wants the income tax department “to waive” his dues (as it is done for others, presumably), and Bedi sees nothing wrong in claiming reimbursement of business class airfares when she flew economy. She claims the difference went to fund her non-government organisation. Even if it were the case, it is a convoluted way to seek donations – why not ask for a contribution, or a speaker’s fee, instead? Should NGOs even seek business class fares on short-haul domestic flights?
The claim of being “civil society” implies as though those who aren’t with them are uncivil, or not part of society. It presumes a group of wise men and women, who act supposedly dispassionately, only with national interest at heart – a bit like Plato’s philosopher-kings. Some of their ideas are good – Bhushan is right in seeking the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the lunatics who beat him up deserve prosecution. Likewise, Bedi’s work in rehabilitating prisoners in Tihar Jail deserves praise. But they don’t have a monopoly on goodness or good ideas, and nor are all their ideas necessarily good. If they wish to parlay the goodwill they enjoy into political support, they should become political actors. But they want to legislate without having earned the right to do so.
To be sure, they have the right to lobby for specific laws, even to lead campaigns. But parliamentarians are under no obligation to rubber-stamp their demands. Nor are they an unofficial equivalent of the controversial National Advisory Council. Many think the Council wields disproportionate influence in setting India’s development agenda. By pushing for specific rights (such as food and education) without recognising the limits of what the state can do or its inefficiencies, and by mandating a nationwide employment guarantee scheme without thinking of consequences like farm labour shortages or rural inflation, the NAC has shown that good intentions aren’t enough. But the NAC can only advise; it is for the government to decide if it wants to accept it. Other democracies have such councils, too. American presidents have appointed advisers helping them fix a range of problems, including, recently, rescuing the auto industry and creating jobs. British prime ministers have appointed business executives to advise on reducing costs, evaluating taxation, and suggesting banking reforms.
But Hazare’s team – assuming it is still a team –wants power without working for it, without responsibility. It picks causes no one would disagree with, such as anti-corruption, and then insists that only what it proposes must be implemented, within a time-line it determines, even if adhering to such a time-line is unrealistic and would subvert constitutional processes.
That’s outrageous. They might think they are the wise men and women Plato had in mind in The Republic. India is a republic, but it is not a village called Ralegan Siddhi, nor a city called Athens.
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First Published: Wed, Oct 26 2011. 01 15 AM IST