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Saturday, 27 August 2011

First Victory! Deadlock Broken: Parliament Adopts Unanimous Resolution in Both Houses Adopting Anna Hazare's Conditions

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, August 27, 2011

Breaking the Deadlock: A Long Day in Parliament

Both Houses of Parliament Concluded Today After a Daylong Debate on the Anti-Corruption Movement.  In all, 27 speakers spoke in the Lok Sabha, in the session that started at 11 am and ended at about 8 pm, and a similar number also spoke in the Rajya Sabha.  At the outset, Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee gave a history of what had happened so far, even admitting that the government had made some mistakes, and said that the objective of parliament was to come to some resolution on the three points raised by Anna Hazare as necessary preconditions for ending his fast, not indulge in academic debates.

Unity in Parliament

On the whole, while some speakers took issue with specific provisions of Anna's demands, such as the establishment of state lokayuktas conflicting with the separation of federal and state powers, and the Jan Lokpal's jurisdiction over the lower bureaucracy (primarily a complaint of the communist parties), most speakers said that these differences could be smoothed out after detailed discussion at the standing committee level.  If there was any evidence of friction or anger, it was only by MPs who took offense to a mockery that Kiran Bedi had made of all politicians last evening on the stage at Ramlila maidan, where she accused most politicians of being untrustworthy, and during which actor Om Puri also ridiculed most parliamentarians as being illiterate bumpkins.

Most MPs spoke glowingly of Anna Hazare, described him as a great man, and spoke from their hearts of the need to save the life of such a great soul.  Because of Kiran Bedi's antics at Ramlila yesterday, she and the other members of Team Anna were not very popular with the MPs.

The Resolution

At the end, Union Finance Minister made long speeches, first in the Lok Sabha, and then in the Rajya Sabha. Each speech was followed by the statement by Pranab Mukherjee of a resolution that, in principle, Parliament agrees to the three conditions stated by Anna Hazare. This was not followed by a vote or even a voice vote, but by thumping of the desks by all members, in both houses.

Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar stated that the unanimous thumping of desks by all members is equivalent to a unanimous resolution passed by the House. Team Anna also accepted this demonstration as evidence of Parliament's intentions.

End of Anna's Fast

Following this, a letter from Manmohan Singh to Anna Hazare was taken by Union Heavy Industries minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to Ramlila maidan, which had already erupted in joy on hearing the news on TV.  Deshmukh presented the letter in which the PM summarized the day's events to Anna Hazare and requested him to now break his fast.  Anna announced that he would break his fast at 10 am tomorrow, as he has a habit of never breaking a fast after sunset.

A Great Victory

This is a great victory, not just for Anna, but for the people of India.  It is a victory at several levels.  Let us see what has been achieved.  Beyond the immediate achievement of making parliament promise to make a very serious effort to incorporate, to the extent possible and practical, the central features of the Jan Lokpal bill within the framework of a revised Lokpal bill, the nearly two-week movement, despite being concerned with a very emotional subject for most people, was completely non-violent.  

How many movements, whether in India or abroad, can we point out where there are no incidents of violence for such a long period.  Indians can justifiably feel very proud of their country and their fellow-citizens.  Never since the time of Gandhiji have we seen such a nonviolent movement.  Even the Mahatma's movements were often marred by incidents of shocking violence (such as the famous Chaura Chauri incident where several policemen were burnt to death within a police chowky).  But, despite the fairly long movement, people refrained from violence completely in this movement.  

Anna's other great victory is in getting millions of apathetic Indians who had gotten used to a "Chalta hai" ("It's okay") attitude for decades to finally shake that apathy and march on the streets in support of a noble cause.

What's Next?

The crisis has, I think, ended in a way that neither has compromised Parliament's prerogative to discuss a bill in detail nor given up on Anna Hazare's basic demands for a corruption-free India.  The next step is the standing committee, before which the Government bill, Anna Hazare's Jan Lokpal bill, as well as suggestions from anyone else in the country, such as Aruna Roy or Jaiprakash Narayan, will be entertained.  Team Anna will be invited to present and justify their views in front of the standing committee.  While this was also the government's earlier offer, Team Anna had been very suspicious earlier of the Government's bonafides.  But now, Team Anna has clearly made its point, the Government has also made a strong show of its honest intentions, and it will be very difficult to just brush away Anna Hazare's very pertinent points even if they change their minds.

It is very important for India to participate with the same intensity in the debates in the standing committee and to not rest until the final Lokpal bill is passed, providing for a strong public ombudsman, with enough checks and balances to make sure that this institution is both effective as well as not abused.  Certain crucial aspects of the Jan Lokpal bill also need to be pushed through without dilution.  In particular, the need for a strong ombudsman to monitor the petty bribery that the lower bureaucracy constantly engages in cannot be understated.  The resistance from organized labor in Government offices to such an ombudsman who will keep tabs on their illegal activities should also not be underestimated.  All of these hurdles cannot be overcome without continuing participation by people.

Electoral Reform

But the struggle does not end here.  A strong lokpal bill is only a start to the process of eliminating corruption in India. Much more needs to be done, as so many commentators have pointed out, especially in the area of electoral reform. One of the key reasons for the skyrocketing corruption in public life is the sheer amount of money spent on elections. In India, one cannot win even a state legislature election unless one spends at least Rs. 15-20 crores ($3.5-$4.5 million) on it.  The main source of election funding is corruption, and so reforming electoral funding (what Americans refer to as campaign finance reform) is one of the key actions needed to effectively remove corruption from Indian public life.  This will not be easy, as experience in the US clearly shows.

Changing Personal Paradigms

One of the great things that has happened in the last 12 days is the intense debate and soul searching within India. One of the points that has repeatedly come out is that Indians have grown too accustomed to corruption at a personal level over the last 64 years of independence.  Indians are so used to corruption that even when they encounter an honest official in government, they try to bribe him.  For instance, if one wants his son to get admitted to a college of his choice, but the son does not have the requisite performance in school, most parents are quite willing to bribe in order to get their son in.  This mindset must change, and this is a larger, cultural change.  Mere regulation cannot achieve this.

The Legacy of the Jan Lokpal Movement

What has happened in India over the last two weeks is unprecedented.  Millions of Indians, who have vacated the political space for decades, have finally decided to reclaim that space.  This is especially true of the middle class - though this movement is NOT simply an urban middle-class movement, as some have tried to portray it in a motivated fashion.  Having grown up in a middle-class family myself, I remember very well the way I was raised - study hard, get an education, get a job, don't fight the system, and stay out of trouble.  The last piece of advice refers to staying away from politics, public statements, and pretty much anything controversial.

There is an old saying that nature abhors a vacuum.  Before independence, a lot of educated people studied law, entered politics, became idealistic in pursuit of India's freedom, and participated in public life.  This changed once India obtained its independence.  Educated, literate people who were really capable of understanding the larger issues involved in society largely stayed away from politics, which is why the quality of our politics and parliamentarians has gradually declined since independence.  This has reached such a nadir that it is common for people to say things like "Mera neta chor hai" ("My leader is a thief.")  During the current agitation, many people had "Mera neta chor hai" tattooed on their arms to register their protest.

That sense of apathy changed for me and for millions of other Indians in the last two weeks.  I found myself, for the first time in my entire life, participating in a political rally.  I found myself downloading copies of parliamentary bills and the Indian constitution.   I also found myself writing articles such as this one, emailing them to friends, and posting them on websites.  And, for the first time in my life, I found myself today glued to Lok Sabha TV and Rajya Sabha TV for the whole day, channels to which I had not devoted more than 10 seconds at a single sitting.  Suddenly, I was not bored. I even found myself getting impressed by the oratorical qualities of some of our MPs and by their intelligence. 

This is neither foolish, idealistic euphoria, nor is it a transitory phenomenon inspired by Anna Hazare.  I am a lot more knowledgeable about various issues of civics today than I ever was, studying civics in middle school.  And I am a believer in participatory politics, since I have seen that it can work.  This experience has taught me that we have the power to change the world around us; we can no longer stick to the script that our parents wrote for us, urging us never to get into anything controversial.  I am not vain enough to think that I am some sort of singular exception in feeling this way.  Indeed, in walking the streets of Pune, in chatting over email and over the phone with various friends, and in discussions in the office, I get the distinct feeling that a lot of other people feel the same way.

The challenge for us is to make sure that we never forget this feeling.  If we continue to believe this and act accordingly, there is no limit to the positive change that we can bring about in this country.

The day we all feel this way will be the day of Anna Hazare's real victory.

Jai Hind!

Seshadri Kumar
(with inputs from Sandhya Srinivasan)

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