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4 October 2011, Gateway House

Looking at the Lokpal’s fine print

The anti-corruption protests have offered some suggestions for the media and the cognoscenti to take forward. Now what is required is deeper discussion, which can create an example of a healthy democratic process of citizen participation in governance and policy making.

Development economist, activist and Gandhian

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The first learning that has emerged is that “people” – that wonderful cross-section that the Economic Times captured on 28th August through its on-the-spot survey of the “crowd” at Ram Lila – are keen to design structures and laws that have a direct impact on their citizenship. The professionally-done survey illustrated that the largest group were young people, followed by shop-keepers, professionals, with rural participation coming in last. The survey also indicated that change is no longer to be left only to election manifestos and parties, but to active participation by the citizens.Now that the hurly burly of the anti-corruption movement in Pragati Maidan is behind us, and the battle is both lost and won, let us turn our attention to the issues that need to be discussed, and mobilize opinion.

Many political scientists have commented on how political “ordinary” people are. These citizens aren’t rich or highly educated. They include the young and the old, men and women, from rural and urban India. They believe in universal adult franchise, and that regular elections have guided their political activism. Economist Amartya Sen illuminates this phenomenon in his book, The Argumentative Indian by giving several examples of Tarka Sastra as an old study of logic and argument.

The kind of voices heard from protest sites across India, thanks to the television channels, revealed the people’s zest. From the scenes broadcast from the Ram Lila grounds, and from the responses to the activist leaders at the dais, it appeared that the “crowd” was in sync with the messages.

Much of the angst of political commentators on television came through the media outlets performing the post-mortem of the movement. But some suggestions from the main characters in the drama offer an opportunity for the media and the cognoscenti to take it forward. In fact, for those who found the whole media coverage atrocious, the fine print may offer them the opportunity to “do” and to “be.” In other words, there are some actions to be taken, and there are some actions that require us to be part of that doing. As the support of the masses has indicated, people are willing to obey their messiah from the Ram Lila Grounds to get started on their next mission.

That mission is electoral reform. The importance of electoral reform – including inner party democracy, and the right to refuse to vote – has been on the Indian agenda for some time. This is the time for a follow-up discussion and some forward-looking strategies to be created, with those who have been the bridge between civil society and the election commission – such as the Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi and groups such as Association for Democratic Reforms.

The media should bring this debate into the public domain with a discussion on the progress made so far to avoid a Gandhi versus S.Y. Quraishi-style debate. Confrontational debates on television have become the mode, almost like encouraging cockfights which the audience enjoys. The goal must be to have an informed and inclusive discussion, followed by the law-drafting process that ends with legislation. The absence of such a process could reignite similar angst from civil society – as was the case with the Lokpal Bill-drafting process.

This is the moment to build that process. It will also help in moving the debate from being solely internal discussions to larger, transparent public processes, where people understand both the impediments to, and benefits of, the issue.

To that end, the call by Arvind Kejriwal – who has been controversial – on Sunday, August 21 had some value.

One of his actions was to initiate a pledge asking each person present at the protests to vow against taking or giving a bribe. For many of us “ordinary” people, this is more useful than the bill. It is action. It is a constructive approach, as Gandhi would have it – following the Satyagraha.

The second was his call to stimulate the elected councils at the grassroots. He requested publicly: “Please enable meetings and raise the issues we have learnt, get people’s opinions and let them also engage with this cleansing and democratising of the political and economic space.” Interestingly, immediately after, on August 29th, Omar Abdullah, Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, pledged to strengthen these local-level bodies in the development process. After all, these local bodies in Jammu and Kashmir should also have a healthy discussion on the same issues raised at Ram Lila Grounds. This is a better way to deepen democracy and strengthen vigilance rather than rely on the top-down approach of the Central Vigilance Commission.

The third suggestion was regarding the discussion on the Lokpal system itself. For instance, the media can call a panel of the existing Lokayukta members and discuss the challenges and the differences. This will answer key questions: What will be the circle of governance and quality of the state Lokayuktas? How does the inclusion, or exclusion, in the Central Lokpal bill affect the Lokayuktas? This can be extended to the selection of the Lokpal itself, and the kind of panel that it would finally include. These issues have been debated in the various consultations by civil society groups but not by the larger public.

The most refreshing and inclusive idea on the Lokpal’s formation was to set up a search committee formed by eminent knowledgeable people, scholars, and social leaders. Then the candidates can be presented to a selection committee, which includes people outside of government, before it goes to a final high-level committee that includes the Prime Minister.

Finally, it was also suggested that the committees and panels, especially the national Lokpal, should have representatives from women, minority groups and the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Caste categories. These are important topics to debate publicly; especially after the Anna Hazare campaign has taught us how much media and social networking can enable information-sharing. For the majority who will not be “online,” television, especially the regional-language channels, is a very important medium. I preferred watching Aaj Tak and other Hindi channels, even though I didn’t always understand them, as I found the English channels more involved in panel discussions than listening to the people at the Ram Lila Grounds. Now the discussion can go to the Gram Sabhas via regional media channels and print as well.

So let us have a look at the small print, and without inhibition recollect the best of the “calls” from the Ram Lila podium. The public is already familiar with these topics. All we have to do is enable a deeper discussion, and create an example of a good healthy democratic process of citizen participation in governance and policy making.

 Devaki Jain graduated in economics from Oxford University, UK, and then taught the honours course in economics at Miranda House, Delhi University. She is a Gandhian, feminist economist, and a writer on public affairs with a special focus on poverty-removal.  

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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