India's anti-democratic revolution


Veteran Indian social activist, Anna Hazare sits during his "fast unto death" against corruption in New Delhi on April 7, 2011.



NEW DELHI, India — As frustrated millions battle for democracy in the Middle East, a mass movement that raises questions about the functioning — or dysfunctioning — of the world's largest democracy is gathering steam in India.

The movement is led by social activist Anna Hazare, a 71-year-old Gandhian who earlier this month launched a "fast unto death" to force the government to enact a powerful anti-corruption law. Like mass protests in Egypt and Tunisia, it has brought thousands of angry citizens onto the streets and drawn strength from virtual protesters on Facebook and other social networking platforms.

All the signs indicate that Hazare has already won. India is debating the text of a new law, which was among Hazare's demands, that will create a national ombudsman with the power to investigate and perhaps prosecute legislators, the judiciary and the prime minister himself. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — under fire for allowing alleged "scams" to flourish during his term in office — has already promised that a bill would be introduced in the upcoming monsoon session of parliament.

But does this "win" in the battle against corruption pose more of a threat to society than the danger it seeks to eradicate? Critics say it does.

The idea of an omnipotent ombudsman, for instance, as someone who is accountable to no one is a step away from democracy, they say.

"We are not running a dictatorship where one man decides what law should be there in the country," said M.R. Madhavan of PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based organization that analyzes bills proposed before India's parliament.

But a well-designed government based on the principle of universal suffrage may not be enough to solve some of the most intractable problems of governance. The pace with which Hazare gained mass support made that abundantly clear.

Within weeks of Hazare announcing his fast, mainstream politicians were climbing over one another to jump on the bandwagon (the movement's leaders rejected several of them out of hand as unworthy). And, far from death, Hazare had hardly fasted unto hunger before the government agreed to his central demand for the swift passage of a law creating a powerful ombudsman to monitor and investigate corruption in the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of the state.

But now that the hard work of drafting the law has commenced, many prominent Indian intellectuals are starting to voice their concern that the law is actually pushing India in the wrong direction.

"The movement has certain anti-democratic elements to it, particularly the idea that you must have an all powerful Lokpal [ombudsman]," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst with Delhi University. "It's not workable because the Lokpal is not answerable to anybody."

At the heart of the issue is the definition of democracy: questions about whether it is limited to the officially sanctioned acts of campaigns, elections, and parliamentary debates; and questions about whether it is working to solve India's problems at all.

The answers, perhaps surprisingly, are mixed.

On the one hand, India's democracy has gone great distances, albeit slowly, to redress inequalities based on caste and religion. Yet on the other, the moral character and probity of elected officials seems, at least, to have steadily declined the more democratic India has become.

So at the same time that the numbers game of winning elections has brought power to previously marginalized groups like the Dalits (once known as "untouchables") and thrown up leveling social welfare policies like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (which guarantees every rural family at least 100 days of paid work per year), the compulsions of campaign financing have turned elected officials into "earners" who must generate income to fuel party machines.

Increasingly, in other words, it appears that the official institutions of democracy are well-equipped to change the players, but incapable of changing the game.

Hazare's movement has prompted questions about how, at its most basic level, the world's largest democracy should function.

"Should people out on the streets demand that they be made part of the process of drafting laws in a democracy?" asked Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. "I would say, very strongly, yes, for the simple reason that the constitutional system that has been laid down isn't working."

But when does a mass agitation for change become a bloodless coup? Initially, Hazare and his supporters fasted and demonstrated for the passage of an ombudsman law. Then they demanded that five, handpicked representatives of civil society be included in the drafting of the bill — though these individuals were chosen through arbitrary means.

Will they baulk at declaring another fast to limit the time that the bill may be debated, or to ensure that it is passed without any amendment by the people's duly elected representatives?

"There must be an understanding that on a platform for dialogue, you can speak the loudest," said Nayak. "But if you expect that only your voice will be heard and whatever it is your voice is saying will be final, that's an unreasonable expectation."

Critics of early drafts of the ombudsman bill (Nayak among them) point out its many flaws — some of which might make the law as currently proposed unconstitutional.

Most significantly, by setting up the ombudsman as a "super cop" with the power to investigate, prosecute and punish the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government, the bill would do away with the core principle of checks and balances written into the constitution.

But there are many other dubious aspects to its current design, all centered around the naive notion that despite a relatively vague selection process, the ombudsman (a character "above suspicion") will somehow magically be immune to the temptations that plague every office in India from traffic cop to chief justice of the Supreme Court.

"Many people in India are upset about the level of corruption, and people did not do the hard work to find out this wasn't a silver bullet," said Madhavan.

Meanwhile, there's no end in sight to the protest-and-fast tactics that some critics have termed political "blackmail."

On Friday, in the Hindu pilgrimage city of Varanasi, Hazare and his core supporters will launch another round of mass agitations designed to expand his anti-corruption drive into a national campaign.

Followers in Mumbai are already planning a sympathetic rally at the Gateway of India, expecting thousands of protesters. Leaders say that similar demonstrations will be held in some 70 cities and towns across India.