Democracy’s Saintly Challenger

India is no stranger to protest movements, hunger strikes, and the mass mobilization of citizens for a popular cause. But the recent fast by the Gandhian leader Anna Hazare, culminating in an extraordinary Saturday session of Parliament to pass a resolution acceding to his main demands, marked a dramatic departure in the country’s politics.

The Anna phenomenon reflects a “perfect storm” of converging factors: widespread disgust with corruption, particularly after two recent high-profile cases of wrongdoing (in allocating telecoms spectrum and awarding contracts for the Commonwealth Games); the organizational skill of a small group of activists committed to transforming India’s governance practices; the mass media’s perennial search for a compelling story; and the availability of a saintly figure to embody the cause. It also raises important questions about civil society’s role in a democracy.

Hazare fasted to force the government to create a tough new anti-corruption authority, the Lokpal, with sweeping powers to investigate, prosecute, and punish. Finding the government’s draft bill insufficiently strong, he demanded provisions that would give the Lokpal complete autonomy, an extensive presence in all government departments, and authority over all government servants, up to and including the prime minister himself.

Concerns that some of Hazare’s proposals risked creating a large, omnipotent, and unaccountable supra-institution that could not be challenged, reformed, or abolished were overlooked in the desire to appease him. If the current agencies tasked with prevention, auditing, and investigation are deemed vulnerable to corruption, what guarantee is there that the new institution would be any more resistant? And, if corruption does creep in, what could be done about it, given that Lokpal would be literally a law unto itself?

Such questions were set aside under the pressure of public passion, which was raised to a crescendo by incessant media coverage, especially by India’s 81 hyperactive all-news television channels. When Hazare ended his 12-day fast, his vital signs had shown dangerous indications of deterioration, leading to serious worry that if he were not persuaded to abandon his protest, his life could be imperiled, with incalculable consequences for public order.

The parliamentary resolution that resolved the crisis does not in fact create the Lokpal – that still awaits legislation, including detailed consideration by a Standing Committee and further debate in both houses of the Lok Sabha. But Anna Hazare’s movement nonetheless implies a major intrusion into lawmaking.

It can be argued that a society makes laws to regulate itself, and that civil society, therefore, is a source of law. Indian democracy accords specific rights to citizens to enable them exercise their political freedoms: freedom of speech and association permit members of civil society to rally, argue and discuss, debate and criticize, protest and strike, and even go on hunger strikes, in order to support or challenge their governments. This is an essential part of promoting governmental accountability between elections.

No Indian seriously argues that a citizen’s democratic rights begin and end with the right to vote. But civil society’s impact on lawmaking is confined to the influence it brings to bear on elected legislators.

Of course, extra-parliamentary pressures cannot simply be ignored. In 1952, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s government reversed its position and constituted a States Reorganization Commission in response to a hunger strike by the Gandhian leader Potti Sriramulu, who demanded the creation of linguistic states (and died in the process). The Commission’s report led to the redrawing of India’s administrative and federal map in 1956.

But the rule remains that lawmaking in India is responsive to civil society through the process of consultation and debate by people’s representatives chosen through democratic elections. This constitutional mechanism has been strained by recent events. Thanks to Hazare, the idea has gained ground that laws can be dictated from the street.

In a parliamentary democracy, only elected MPs can make laws. Their claim to represent the people, whose votes they have sought and won, cannot be lightly disregarded in favor of those who have not earned the right to represent the people through a democratic election. The notion that the ability to mobilize a crowd or attract television cameras to a cause is enough to supplant the results of such elections is inherently dangerous. To allow any unelected group, however virtuous and idealistic, to substitute its will for that of parliament, is an assault on the foundations of democracy.

India’s political system is built on the idea that even a country with profound differences of caste, creed, color, and culture can still rally around a democratic consensus. That consensus consists in the simple principle that democracy does not require agreement on anything except the ground rules of how to disagree. Indian democracy has succeeded because it has maintained a consensus on how to manage without consensus.

Laws emerge from a political process reflective of Indian society, whose thriving free media, energetic human rights groups, and remarkable general elections have all made India a rare example of the successful management of diversity in the developing world. India gains “soft power” when its nongovernmental organizations actively promote environmentalism and fight injustice.

But to confuse the roles of parliament and these civil-society institutions does democracy no good. If members of civil society want to have a determining voice in lawmaking, they should organize themselves politically, contest elections, and enter parliament – where they can write and pass the laws they seek with the constitutional legitimacy that democracy requires.

Shashi Tharoor, a former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and UN Under-Secretary General, is a member of India’s parliament and the author of a dozen books, including India from Midnight to the Millennium and Nehru: the Invention of India.

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