KAFKAESQUE NO JAN IN THIS LOK

Published: Tue, 09/06/2011 - 07:07

The Jan Lokpal Bill centralises power. It reads like a sheaf from a dystopian novel or the pages of Stalinist credo. It is so lacking in imagination that it merely scavenges on existing institutional and legal structures
Rahul Govind Delhi

The primitive is magnetic in its pull. The Jan Lokpal Bill envisions a ‘central committee’ and its own ‘cadre’ who will set corruption right in a country with over a billion people, entrenched in a history and geography (we are no island) of inequality and violence. We are not told precisely how the central committee (chairperson and the benches) or the cadre will be formed. A man, who, according to reports, has personally administered floggings, by hanging his victims on poles, is the new Mahatma. To say all this is not to lack either an informed sense of history or economics (one wonders what the economists say about corruption), or even politics, but the poverty of what the ancients, in another context, might have laudingly called turiya, the fourth state, beyond deep sleep. Only from such a state can the primordial fantasy of a band of heroic souls salvaging the nation take such phantasmagoric shape. 

In such a simple world, corruption is essentially theft; you just need to find the thief. Personalising corruption in such a way allows the searching and finding of heroes of subcontinental stature (‘Anna is India’). The conceit of the movement is that corruption is the most urgent and pervasive issue facing the country today, with the urban media as pliant index. 

We, unfortunately, do have a less than finite attention span and resources. Issues such as the growing discrepancy between rising GDP and lagging employment, significance of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act of 2003, debates which directly affect governmental responsibilities towards a poverty-stricken populace, and shocking statistics that put millions below the poverty line with scarce access to food and drinking water — all of this has to do with livelihood (if not life).This includes armed insurrections and the arming of civilian populations that a recent Supreme Court judgement on Salwa Judum has drawn our attention to, which is, a question of life for large numbers of those involved. These are issues which affect the nation and need to be discussed. Or, better, acted upon. They are too complex and pressing for exhibition. 

The problem is not just that the draft Jan Lokpal Bill centralises power. It obfuscates, in the crudest and oldest manner possible, the manner in which such centralisation is to take place: through silence. Its response to bureaucracy — lacking the nuance of a Max Weber or the insight of a Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi — is to multiply it infinitely. The draft envisions giving prosecutorial and juridical powers to the Lokpal, refusing to spell out how — or on what basis — this is to be achieved. It is so lacking in imagination that it merely scavenges on existing institutional and legal structures. 

For instance, the ‘search and seize’ powers allow it to confiscate any article (in the expanded sense) or access any information it may deem important, for which it requires no authorisation outside itself. While the provisions of the formal privileges extended to government officials at present need to be done away with urgently, this cannot be accomplished by instituting yet another supra-bureaucratic authority. Gandhi had suggested that the Congress disband itself as a party and work among the masses for their upliftment on the verge ofIndependence, because real transformation could not be institutionally engineered. Therein lay his moral-philosophical-practical challenge to modern ‘institution building’ — germane to which is the greed for power and the violence of its exercise. 

The Jan Lokpal Bill, in its present form, reads more like a sheaf from a dystopian novel or the pages of Stalinist credo. Rather than receding from State structures, as Gandhi argued, it ends up expropriating the State’s armoury. The chairman and his benches simply refuse to provide for their own rationale, as does Parliament through representation or the judiciary though its ‘expertise’. 

When Gandhi fasted, his demands were razor sharp in their specificity, while resounding with a humility that took responsibility for the issues at stake. Anna Hazare’s cry against corruption is a tarring of the night sky, with the Himalayan hubris of one who can deliver the light. Many of Gandhi’s initial fasts were ways of purifying himself at the same time as those who he considered had erred — such as when there was opposition to including a Harijan (his well-known term) in the ashram. (This would not be the right place to discuss Gandhi’s complex and controversial position regarding caste). 

The genius of the Salt March lay in encoding the brute realities of the colonial mai-baap, where salt taxes had a differential and disproportionate effect on the poorest, into the symbolic resonance of salt as a cultural signifier of fidelity. The violence of government and the resultant poverty of the people were grasped as characterising the nature of policies rather than an isolatable object of punitive wrath; a lesson well worth reviewing. 

Many of Gandhi’s fasts were in direct response to communal bloodshed in the fervent demand for peace. We tend to forget the many attempts on his life, or that he lost no time in rushing to the eye of a violent riot. 

Independent India has not witnessed the ebb of such violence even as it searches in vain for the requisite moral will that would prove a worthy combatant. The ‘hunger artist’ did not have video cameras and super-elite doctors scurrying around him, or a former police officer’s clarifications; we were indeed told that the slightest indication of the fast putting Hazare’s life in danger would end it like nothing else. Medical administration for mere existence — the object of a scathing critique from the writer of Hind Swaraj— was the determinant in the last instance. 

For Gandhi, on the other hand, the fast was a spiritual technique, sustaining a moral courage that took him well beyond the medical administrative pale to the brink of life itself. Whereas Gandhi emphasised moral qualities for social transformation, risking and testing himself on the historical stage, only to disavow institutional power, the Anna movement capitalises on a vague moral indignation to entrench a supra-bureaucratic power, crucially leaving the basis of its coming-into-being in the dark. 

The initial demandto use the Jantar Mantar grounds is telling. This is, after all, the space sanctioned for protest by the State under its characteristically authoritarian regulations. The insistence on using this space indefinitely was a desire that had already, perhaps, been accomplished in the media; that is, to say, the desire to appropriate protest itself (other issues will be literally disallowed voice in Jantar Mantar). This protest is to subsume all others, as this issue does all others. While violence forced the media to earlier at least acknowledge massive displacement and oppression, whether in Chhattisgarh, the Northeast, Orissa or Kashmir, all this now seems doused with ‘anti-corruption’. 

Will mass poverty or draconian State laws even be acknowledged? Urgently, impinging on, and painfully corroding, the millions not in our midst. 

Before being put in the dock of non sequitur, surely, one can still believe that the fight against that grandiose term — ‘corruption’ — would have something to say about this abject state of affairs that is the economic condition of our country, of which large sections experience near war-like ‘emergency’ situations and concomitant (non)legal frameworks. Rearming the State, a locus already overburdened with authority and authoritarian impulse, with yet another set of powers? 

The State, because members of the selection committee to select the Lokpal committee seem to largely include the political class as well as ‘civil society’ — those ‘educated’ and who by their very nature form an elite class. No question of one of those millions outside this charmed circle coming here, even while, in theory, they might take part in the electoral process. 

A leaf out of Georg Wilhelm FriedrichHegel and Karl Marx, as theorists of civil society in the 19th century, might stand us in good stead here. They argued that ‘civil society’ was that which through its economic position in the body-politic was able to exercise (political) power over the less privileged through structural inequalities. Civil society is that which allies with the State, is arguably no different from its expansive definition, and perpetuates its privilege, which is arrived at, and maintained through, historically produced and legally reproduced, inequality. The ‘economy’ was precisely that sphere of control and expropriation which was outside of, and thereby, in a sense, maintained by formal legal structures. 

In translation (with a little help from Leon Trotsky), while Ratan Tata and a daily wage labourer might have one vote each, such a right does not by itself, or in isolation, guarantee an equal world. Far from representing the people, civil society, as it has developed historically and is presently constituted, has an in-built exclusionary character in a way that politics — whether as narrowly construed through parties, or broadly construed to include large social movements such as anti-displacement campaigns or even militarily armed insurrectionary movements — cannot be accused of. 

The so-called civil society, as the draft bill and benches admirably capture, has no conception of its own elitist basis and, therefore, requires its ‘selection’ to be all the more opaque. It only succeeds in hollowing out even the nominally inclusive nature of the democratic representative system, which, at least in formal terms, and however ineffectively, oversees the State machinery. There is simply nojanin the Jan Lokpal draft, because the Lokpal’s selection will inherently be exclusionary in a country where more than a quarter of the population is barely literate. Neither is there a place or vision forlok, both in the sense of people, and more importantly, in the sense of a world, wherein the word derives its power and richness:lok as a world where human beings can lead a human life. 

And accountability? That can neither account for its existence nor mode of operation? In this it is different from the RTI, to which it has been compared, which seeks to make the existing institutions of parliamentary democracy (through its bureaucracy) more accountable to the jan. 

The pointing finger of cynicism has grown larger. Why not make a beginning? Indeed, the beginning of what? 

There are large crowds gathered (of which the amassing swagger of aggression and paper plates of consumption cannot be missed). The pages of history have told us what other crowds have gathered for. The least benign of which could be a cricket match or the Commonwealth Games opening. But politics has to be measured by intentions and agendas. Mere (or manufactured) indignation does not a political movement make. 

The Jan Lokpal Bill in its present formulation, with its violently authoritarian bent, has to be wholeheartedly rejected. For what it stands. And for what it obscures. Perhaps, this is the pull, the dream of the rule of the righteous, for just as blindness is never about the eyes, deep sleep is not confined to the hearth. 

The writer teaches history in University of Delhi   

The Jan Lokpal Bill centralises power. It reads like a sheaf from a dystopian novel or the pages of Stalinist credo. It is so lacking in imagination that it merely scavenges on existing institutional and legal structures
Rahul Govind Delhi

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