Against Jan Lok Pal and the politics of hunger strikes

Tackling corruption requires economic reforms and a popular re-engagement with electoral politics

The idea of a Jan Lok Pal is flawed and profoundly misunderstands the causes and solutions of corruption in India. It seeks to create another chunk of government, more processes and rules, to solve a problem that, in part, exists because of too many chunks of government, too many processes and rules. [See Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s column and this editorial in the Business-Standard]

If the Jan Lok Pal presides over the same system that has corrupted civil servants, politicians, anti-corruption watchdogs, judges, media, civil society groups and ordinary citizens, why should we expect that the ombudsman will be incorruptible? Because the person is handpicked by unelected, unaccountable ‘civil society’ members? Those who propose that Nobel laureates (of Indian origin, not even of Indian citizenship) and Ramon Magsaysay Award winners should be among those who pick the Great Ombudsman of India—who is both policeman and judge—insult the hundreds of millions of ordinary Indian voters who regularly exercise their right to franchise. For they are demanding that the Scandinavian grandees in the Nobel Committee and the Filipino members of the Magsaysay foundation should have an indirect role in selecting an all-powerful Indian official. [See this post at Reality Check India]

The argument that people should be involved in drafting legislation is fine, even if it misses the point that the government is not a foreign entity but a representative of the people. It is entirely other thing to demand that the legislation drafted by an self-appointed, unaccountable and unrepresentative set of people be passed at the threat of blackmail. If we must have representatives of the people involved in lawmaking, we are better off if they are the elected ones, however flawed, as opposed to self-appointed ones, whatever prizes the latter might have won.

The Jan Lok Pal will become another logjammed, politicised and ultimately corrupt institution, for the passionate masses who demand new institutions have a poor record of protecting existing ones. Where were the holders of candles, wearers of Gandhi topis and hunger strikers when the offices of the Chief Election Commissioner, the Central Vigilance Commissioner and even the President of the Republic were handed out to persons with dubious credentials? If you didn’t come out to protest the perversion of these institutions why are you somehow more likely to turn up to protest when a dubious person is sought to be made the Jan Lok Pal?

But this is us. Given this reality, the solution for corruption and malgovernance should be one that does not rely the notoriously apathetic middle classes to come out on the streets. The solution is to take away the powers of discretion, the powers of rent-seeking from the government and restore it back to the people. This is the idea of economic freedom. Societies with greater economic freedom have lower corruption. We have long argued that we are in this mess because we have been denied Reforms 2.0.

How can we have Reforms 2.0 if “those politicians” are unwilling to implement them? The answer is simple: by voting. Economic reforms are not on anyone’s political agenda because those who are most likely to benefit from them do not vote, and do not vote strategically. At this point, it is usual to hear loud protests about how voting doesn’t work, most often by those who do not vote. This flies in the face of empirical evidence—when hundreds of millions of people turn up to vote. If it were not working for them, why would they be voting? They might not be demanding Reform 2.0, but something else, and are getting what they want. Instead of ephemeral displays of outrage—what happened to those post 26/11 candle-light vigils?—it is engagement in the electoral process that is necessary. There are some innovative ideas—like that of voters associations—that can be attempted.

There are no better words than those of B R Ambedkar on the place of satyagraha in India after Constitution came into force on 26th January 1950:

“…we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.” [B R Ambedkar/Constituent Assembly]

In my view civil disobedience in general and hunger strikes in particular must be used in the most exceptional circumstances where constitutional methods are unavailable or denied, and only till the time constitutional methods remain unavailable or denied.

Some contend that the system isn’t working, or has been so perverted by the incumbent government, that it is necessary to resort to public agitation. This is a dubious argument. Constitutional democracy is an enlightened way to make policy by reconciling—to the extent possible—the diverse interests, opinions and levels of political empowerments of a diverse population. Any other way amounts to coercion in one form or the other.

If we are to allow that hunger strikes and street protests do better than constitutional methods, then how would you decide issues where there are sharp differences? If two Gandhians go on hunger strikes asking for polar opposites, do we settle the issue by seeing who gives up first? What if competing groups escalate the agitation to violence against each other? Should we condone civil war?

The working of those constitutional mechanisms can and must be improved. By us. The anti-defection law must go. India doesn’t have a comprehensive law governing political parties. It needs one. Police reforms have been stalled for decades. There is a substantial reform agenda that must be pursued. By us.

However, the inability to implement these reforms is no excuse for resorting to civil disobedience or, as it happens in other countries, calling in a dictatorship of the proletariat, the military or the priesthood.

The Jan Lok Pal bill is not a solution to the problem of corruption. It risks making matters worse. Hunger strikes are not the right means to promote a policy agenda in a constitutional democracy like ours. The promoters and supporters of Jan Lok Pal and the public agitation to achieve it are profoundly misguided. Their popularity stems from having struck a vein of middle class outrage against the UPA government’s misdeeds. That doesn’t mean that the solutions they offer are right.

The Acorn opposes Jan Lok Pal and the politics of hunger strikes as much as it opposes corruption and misgovernance.

Related Links: Offstumped has a series of posts on the subject. See also Atanu Dey, Satyameva Jayate, Sanjeev Sabhlok and the Filter Coffee here on INI. The March 2011 issue of Pragati covered these themes: see Rohit Pradhan’s take on the importance of constitutional morality.

87 thoughts on “Against Jan Lok Pal and the politics of hunger strikes”

  1. The bill hasn’t been drafted yet. It may well propose the reforms you prefer (if not as part of the bill, then as subsequent steps). So, hold your horses on the bill until it is done!

    It will be drafted by your beloved elected members too so you must be delirious.

    Jan Lok Pal might be the wrong tool, but, who is offering an alternative along with concrete steps to put the alternative in action? Let this be a notice to NGOs and even your organization that you need to do more to act (people have shown to be ready to back an effort) or else remain irrelevant (inspite of good ideas).

    Worst case, people will learn and move to the right solution. It will be a learning process for the young and hold them in good stead. You forget that democracy is not just about voting. It is also about day-to-day community participation in institution building. For the first time (atleast, in a while) people have come out asking for institutional change. It may be the wrong set of changes but they will learn. Its the best way for people to learn en mass.

    1. “vsha says:
      9th April 2011 at 20:54”
      hits the bulls eye.. “Worst case, people will learn and move to the right solution. It will be a learning process for the young and hold them in good stead.”

      What is most needed is a platform for common man to start involving. Building the platform will only happen through drama.. one ‘drama’ is worth a thousand blog posts… there are millions of people out there who need to come on board for the good social change to happen – it is not realistic to expect them all to understand refined thoughts that intellectual elites like you sincerely disseminate.

      I just wish this movement gets viral and the platform is built. Perhaps people like Atanu would be able to work with the leaders of these movements and share their bountiful wisdom.

      fingers crossed for India !

  2. I understand what you are saying and it is very logical, however voting associations (like labor unions) in India have never ever been about demands that benefit society as a whole but about narrow parochial interests, so constructing associations that vote en masse and are enthused about the same issues is very difficult and is not viable in the short to medium term though it may be the way to go after 10-15 years when enough people are online and the internet allows sufficient numbers to be marshalled without fuss. Currently all such movements have been dismissed as India Vs Bharat

  3. Hi Nitin,
    recent events have really put me into a quandary too, about what the correct way forward is. On the one hand, we have people subverting democractic procedure. On the other, we have a government which has ALSO spent a lot of time subverting it! Diluting the RTI, sticking corrupt puppets in high positions, i.e. the President of India, the head of the CVC, yada yada yada. While faith in our institutions was low, it is now below rock bottom! Let us also not forget that our constitution is among the most ‘amended’ in the world. There is a SERIOUS integrity defecit in all our institutions.

    You say that we are going the against the people that we elected – but here is the interesting part – I am pretty sure I didn’t elect any of these nincompoops. And as for the opposition – there doesn’t seem to be one. In such cases, it is perfectly legitimate for people to take to the streets – honestly that is also what democracy is all about. It is not all parliamentary procedure.

    While I am sure the Lokpal bill is a nightmare, and will probably undermine our instituions even more – you need to recognise why what should have been a trivial issue has been blown up so much. It is because the Middle Class is accused of being indifferent. You say we need to participate, i.e. vote and hold our MPs to higher standards, blah blah blah. But the entire system is set up such, that the good candidates will not make it to the point where we can vote for them. At most, we are presented with choosing one sleazy bugger over another. It is next to impossible for anyone to stand for an election if they don’t have funding & support of the existing rulers.How can we expected to challenge this system without taking to the streets?? Our democratic system is not working – but it is not in the hands of people trying to earn their daily bread and feed their families to strike out and smash the existing system. They have far too much to lose to attempt to change it. The best they can do is work around it, and build their invisible fences. This is not apathy. This is survival. We need somebody who already has a certain measure of power to rally behind. This is where Anna Hazare comes in – it was ok to express support for Anna Hazare, because his issue was presented (wrongly) in a balck and white manner. Either you are for corruption, or your not. This way, he backed the current bunch of ruling idiots into a corner, and gave the public a chance to stick it to them. You again assume that these are the people we voted for, and I would disagree with you. So India found a voice – and backed this guy – because no harm could come to them from doing so. But on a regular day – trying to challenge the powers that be is a very dangerous proposition. Try asking a difficult question at any election rally, I dare you. This is how cowed the people have become. Parliamentary democracy is not the only answer – there are other forms too, and my question to you is have we tried them? I have never voted for Manmohan Singh in my life. Or A. Raja. I also don’t understand why I need to tolerate them. Can we think of no other democratic system which may improve our governance? If yes – how do you expect to challenge the existing regime, without raising a ruckus?

    1. Lol, the funny thing is Manmohan Singh has never been elected to the Lok Sabha. So, why doesn’t Nitin tweet every day about this – its his nightmare after all – a bureaucrat with power over elected representatives in India.

  4. Please read Radha Rajan’s and Sandhya Jain’s analysis. The role of NGO’s and the need for Nobel and Magsaysay award winners is dubious to say the least. How can we prevent this from going forward.
    Radha Rajan:
    Sandhya Jain:

    From Radha Rajan’s piece, the most alarming thing is:
    …the government should pass the Lokpal Bill with draconian provisions which will give them the right to usurp the powers of parliament, judiciary and the police and make them a three-in-one monster body with vast scope for misuse and abuse of power……

    1. Oh my god, those articles are seriously disturbing and force you to question the sanity of the world

  5. Are we to throw out the baby with the bath water? The jan lok pal bill may not be the solution in it’s entirety, but there is a lot in there which is sensible. The fact that one doesn’t agree with the contents of what is proposed does not in any case negate the need for some stringent, strong and workable legislation. That is the crux of this crusade – give us some credible and strong anti dote for the rot that is our corruption.

    Also, this idea of voting being the ultimate role in democracy as far as ‘civil society’ or those not part of the system, is an insult to the whole democratic process. If the man in the street’s only contribution to democracy is to vote on demand, also implies that then for the next 5 years or so or till the next ballot, the ‘peoples representative’ is free to loot and maul the democratic process from inside?

    May sound too far fetched but then someone please explain why for 42 years this bill has been hanging fire and worse it has lapsed because five or six times since the Lok Sabha was dissolved before it could be passed. How pathetic! The fact that it constantly lapsed tells me that those responsible for introducing it showed absolutely no urgency to get it through. One can understand it happening once or even twice but half a dozen times? That in itself is the genesis of the recent upheaval.

    This is similar to Dr Man Mohan Singh’s argument that since the UPA won the last election, corruption is not an issue. It is blinkered vision such as this, which insults our very intelligence, that ultimately made the much derided middle class and youngsters and MBAs simply throw up their hands and say ‘ bus karo ji ab bahut hogaya.’

  6. Our constitutional methods are out of date, not to mention inefficiently implemented. That the Indian state is toothless to ensure the constitutional rights of all its citizens is well-accepted. What is less appreciated is that the current constitutional procedures for accountability to people are not in sync with the technologies we have today.

    When the constitution was drafted, there were no cell-phones, no computeres and no internet. The process of arriving at a popular consensus was lethargic and long drawn out. Under these circumstances, the only way to operate was by imposing a time-line of 5 years for bringing popular feedback through the process of elections. Now it is not the case.

    In fact, the Anna Hazare campaign proves how much things have changed. At the Awaaz web portal, the support for the Hazare campaign rocketed through with half a million people reached and pledging their support within a day !This is something the founders of our constitution did not envisage. It is time to take advantage of modern technology to bring people closer into the process of governing.

  7. In the absence of detailed and sensible guidelines and regulations, I am pro-“corruption”. Bribery is what is needed in these cases, to keep the economy moving. If every sarkaari naukar in India was honest, he would have to stop nearly each and every commercial transaction, since it is never obvious how to comply and still run a business which is otherwise legit in every other way.
    India hasn’t gained it’s economic independence yet. Anybody following the shale gas story in the US will understand the meaning of this. There are no direct guidelines in most American states regarding the exploitation of shale gas resources. This means that extraction can continue unhindered based on the existing rules, until new guidelines are in place. If the same scenario unfurled in India, you can be ensured that small players will be barred from business till guidelines are available, which may take decades. The big business houses, however, will be able to buy their way out of this. The end result is that the Indian consumer pays much higher price, but at least the service is made available. Without corruption, it wouldn’t even be available.

  8. Thought this might be interesting for this forum – Why Anna Hazare or the Jan Lokpal Bill cannot stop Corruption? « On A Different Note

  9. We the indian people are more affected by corruption by those who are in responsibilty to develop and welfare of the society. Within a few days those people becomes so rich that without corruption they have no other alternative way to have such. Each and every sectors are exploited by them who announce publicly for development. On the otherhand they are the hurdles for development and by misappropriating the public money they even by their seat and whatever they wish they can depriving and exploiting the common people.

  10. Hello, I had a look at the Janlokpal bill & here are my two cents : –

    1.) No mention of prison sentences for corrupt members of Jan Lok pal bill including the chairperson, members & the employees & confiscating any recovered wealth as a result of corruption ? Why not ?

    The bill seeks prison sentences for convicted public servants, politicians, private bodies & it seems that the court can also send a false complainant to 1 year prison sentence in case of malafide intent. However nowhere in the bill & also from what I have seen on TV, the Jan Lok pal members only mention dismissal of corrupt lokpal members/ employees within 1 month. Why the double standards? Why does it not lay down equal punishment – If they seek prison sentences for others they should hold themselves to the same standard of punishment including seizure of any ill gotten wealth.

    2) No esteemed private citizens like Mr Narayan Murthy who have volunteered their services or new members of the civic society from outside have been appointed. All the people who are already connected to the Jan Lok pal bill have self appointed themselves as members of the committee in leading positions. On TV I have heard few of the Janlok pal members say that they are the most competent people to handle the bill., I don’t believe there are no other competent people in India besides themselves. If they had taken 2 new people from civic society it would send a signal that they are not interested in appointing only themselves!

    3) The chairperson , members & each employees of the Jan lokpal bill should also be made to declare their assets. There is no mention of this anywhere which is surprising considering that members who drafted the JanLok pal bill are mostly ex public servants & judges themselves.

    4) Why can’t anyone sue Jan Lokpal in a court of law? Again from my knowledge ( limited & I may be wrong ), even the CBI can be sued so why is the Jan Lokpal seeking immunity – if their own workings & members & employees are transparent & honest. If their own workings & member / employees are found to be corrupt why can’t they be sued ?

    5) What is the approximate estimated cost to Indian tax payers in setting up Jan Lokpal, paying salaries & hiring new employees for creating this huge institution & army of new public servants at centre & state level ? A clause in the Janlokpal bill even mentions that :-

    This clause in the bill states :-

    “ (5) There shall be a separate fund by the name of “Lokayukta fund” in which penalties/fines imposed by the Lokayukta shall be deposited and in which 10% of the loss of Public Money detected/prevented on account of investigations by Lokayukta shall also be deposited by the Government. Disposal of such fund shall be completely at the discretion of the Lokayukta and such fund shall be used only for enhancement/upgradation/extension of the infrastructure of Lokayukta.”

    Again will there be transparency in how they spend this money, they don’t mention anything, Can the RTI be used against the Janlokpal ??

    Personally I do not like the idea of Janlokpal bill in its present form. It seeks to create new public servants & bureaucracy with too much power in hands of few self appointed leaders with zero accountability to anyone. I also do not agree with diluting autonomy of existing institutions of democracy, how can the JanLokpal be above the parliament & Judiciary, it doesn’t make any sense.

  11. no rationale is of use unless u take firm stand in open.. all the political parties have till now taken opportunistic stand.. they haven’t stuck to their ideologies… that is why people don’t trust anything can happen in so called constitu…tional way.. mindset of people in India today is that they want something to happen.. they are not happy with processes happening with crawling speed..

    when u say u can vote wisely to solve problem..u assume parties r willing to carry on with reforms..no party has clearly taken stand on wht reforms they seek..they r jst happy with fighting and winning elections on money power, giving chance to ppl who can win on muscle power rather than ppl who r eligible..

    not everyone in country wud like to join the politics to clear this mess.. its not jst top level bosses who do corruption.. its complete chain.. so i don’t think its unwise to support such so called unconstitutional even radical movement.. we don’t care if situation become worst.. coz we knw its already worst.. if those so called intellects knew wht is right wht is wrong then they shud hav come forward with courage.. ppl wud have supported them too with same enthusiasm.. they r nt supporting one person they jst want some change..

    lastly..if u can give 10 reasons to justify yr stand.. ppl in india have 1000 reasons to justify their stand..

  12. “hunger strikes and street protests ”

    Seems that former military Ambulance Driver (MKG) and Truck Driver (AN)
    were/are off track ?

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