During the recent Anna Hazare agitation at Ramlila Maidan, many Congress leaders and Government functionaries, along with several political commentators, remarked that the movement for a stronger Lokpal Bill undermined or could undermine democratic institutions, especially Parliament. This is a development the country should beware of, we were told.
The argument is flawed on three counts. First, the statement that Parliament is supreme, and therefore it should not be forced to accept the views of a set of people, misses an important point: our honorable MPs were forced to accept the views of anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare because his campaign enjoyed the support of a vast number of people. At any point of time, there are a myriad of protestors agitating for some cause or another. A visit to Jantar Mantar in New Delhi will prove this point. It is seldom that even a government department, let alone Parliament and the media, gives heed to agitators. The very fact that the Lokpal Bill movement attracted so many people, and that from all sections of society, is a testimony to the huge popularity of the cause (though not to the rationality of Lokpal. I am not among those who believe that a new institution will redeem the nation, but my belief is beside the point).
In other words, what the Anna movement has done, and what it has been able to do, is not something against the wishes of people; nor it has been done at the behest of the Sangh Parivar or the US, the rants of Congress leaders notwithstanding. The course adopted was of course unusual but not unprecedented or even unscrupulous by the Indian convention; Gandhi did that earlier, and the Congress glorifies both Gandhi and his actions.
Second, the argument that Anna and his followers, by being generally anti-politician, are undermining democratic institutions is also misleading and ludicrous because it is the leaders of political parties who have been eroding the sanctity of Parliament and state legislative assemblies for years by their own petulance, pigheadedness, and intolerance. Anybody who has witnessed the functioning of Parliament and assemblies knows that our lawmakers weaken democracy all the time.
Even if we ignore the violence in various state assemblies as an extreme example, the behavior of our lawmakers leaves a lot to be desired. All parties are guilty of stalling both Houses. Recently, an entire session was washed out because the Opposition’s wanted a joint parliamentary committee on the 2G scam and the government did not allow it. The Congress had also stalled Parliament in the past. Similarly, it is common to see ministers and Opposition leaders being booed and shouted down by their opponents. Sloganeering often drowns speeches in a sea of decibels. The chair is disregarded with impunity. All such antics are tantamount to silencing the voice of political rivals who happen to be the representatives of people; and silencing opponents is nothing but fascistic. So, if politicians themselves have been undermining democracy for years, how can they accuse others of such misdemeanor?
It is not just the petulance of politicians that is the problem; they have institutionalized a system which strengthens the rule of party bosses and managers, stifles dissent in political parties, and stymies internal democracy in general. In the name of checking horse trading in politics, the anti-defection law was introduced in 1985. One has to be absurdly naïve to believe that the legislation cleaned up politics, for the buying and selling of lawmakers never stopped. Instead of doing away with the law, the political class chose to reinforce it in 2003. The situation is that party whips—the very term is anti-democratic—decide what line MPs should take, what should they vote for and what should they vote against. Few have realized that whipping the representatives of people into the conformity as desired by party bosses is the negation of democracy.
This has been going on for decades, yet no politician of any consequence has objected to such grossly illiberal practices; the hold of party bosses and managers continues to augment. The acts of omission and commission by politicians are responsible for making anti-politics sentiments widespread.
Third, politicians have also undermined democracy by bringing down the standards of political discourse (Intellectuals, too, have played a big role in polluting the climate of opinion, but this is beyond the scope of this article). Parliament, supposed to be the greatest forum for important debates and discussions, resonates with not only din but also loose talk, wild and groundless accusations, and nonstop garrulousness of our MPs. Worse, ad hominem attacks are used frequently to revile an opponent; the arguer rather than the argument is attacked. A recent example is Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ridiculing of Sports Minister Ajay Maken’s college background, while evading the substantive points Maken raised. So, if you dare to question the efficacy of caste-based reservations, then you are anti-Dalit and an enemy of the poor; if you suggest a tough line against terror and Pakistan, then you are anti-Muslim; if you call for labor reforms, then you are a stooge of Big Business; if you stand for smoother flow of FDI, then you are a lackey of the World Bank, IMF, etc. The denouement? Shrillness passes off as passionate erudition, shibboleths masquerade as profundity, and sloganeering is equated with oration.
Democracy, after all, is not just about voting in five years; it is also about being responsive to the people; further, it has something to do with civilized and informed public discourse; it has a symbiotic relationship with tolerance in general. Our politicians have hugely undermined democracy. They are being sanctimonious when they accuse Anna of hurting democratic institutions.