31 March, 2013

Make our 'kings' answerable to people!

Elections are coming up. Politicians will start wooing us with sugar coated promises.

This 2011 article by Chetan Bhagat has never been so relevant:


"Once upon a time, there was a king..." Haven't we all grown up listening to such stories? I don't think any of us read stories that went – "Once upon a time, there was a democracy, with elected representatives who were answerable to the people through the electoral process, the courts and the Lokpal."
We know the first line well. We don't know how it works in the second line at all. Therein lies the problem in pushing through the Lokpal Bill.
We Indians know something is wrong with our system. Yet, we find change unsettling. People came together in the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement and led it to victory. However, when we sat down to draft the Lokpal Bill, apprehensions set in, caused by the personal attacks on the drafting committee members, the projected worst-case scenarios on what could go wrong and how the Lokpal himself could become corrupt. Some intellectuals called the movement an attack on democracy.
Enjoying the citizens' insecurities and confusion, the government decided to do what it does best—hoodwink us. The latest salvo from it is that MPs and the PM should be kept out of the bill's purview, which in turn renders the bill impotent and pointless even before it is enacted.
Let's step back to the basics. Neither the movement, nor the bill is an attack on democracy. In fact, the movement was a catalyst and the bill gives Indian democracy its proper form. Right now, we are not truly a democracy, irrespective of what your civics teacher taught you in school. We are closer to an elected monarchy, or kingocracy. We elect our leaders, and give them all the powers in the world. If they do any wrong, the only people who can investigate them are among the ones who report to them. In other words, they are not political leaders; they are little kings (complete with shoe-polishing sycophants and traffic-blocking privileges).
There is a reason why we have such a system. For thousands of years, India had only kings. Then the British came, ruled us for 250 years, and left behind democracy-like parliaments, courts and governance systems. However, ultimately, India was a colony run by British leaders with absolute power. In this system, having a people's representative ombudsman, or Lokpal, was out of question.
The British left, and our own elected leaders replaced them. The election was a good thing. However, the chairs they sat on had absolute power. Everyone reported to them, and they didn't need to answer to anyone. Thus began a legacy of corrupt leaders, who in turn created one of the most corrupt nations on earth. The corruption seeped down to lower levels of power. From traffic cops to oppressive husbands — abusing power in India became normal.
The absolute power given to our politicians often attracted the least ethical and most dishonest people to the profession. The Indian politician became a shady villain in our movies and popular culture. We accepted there was no way out. Rulers had to be kings, and kings could do whatever they wanted.
Corruption rose to astronomical levels, while the country remained poor. Indians lacked basic infrastructure, education and food, and faced massive inflation even as politicians swindled thousands of crores. Yet, nobody could lodge an FIR against them, or independently investigate them. People finally became sick of it and took to the streets. Before it turned ugly, the government buckled and agreed to a Lokpal Bill.
But then came the skeptics. They asked 'how dare we question the king'? Who is this commoner Anna or Arvind Kejriwal to draft a law? What are they seeking? Are they trying to be king?
The government loved this skepticism. They proposed the bill shouldn't apply to MPs. And since we Indians love kings so much, we actually have a section of people sympathizing with the government.
The government agreed to Anna's terms to make him end his fast (and the movement). Now it's trying to scuttle the process. For what is the point of a Lokpal if the politicians are not included in the bill's purview? What's more, some media members are actually giving credence to the government's point of view. They ask 'what if the Lokpal harasses an MP'? I wish to ask 'should the MP's conduct be exempt from being questioned in the media too'? Should a TV channel not report wrongdoings of a politician? If you hold a public post, why can't a public body question you? By the same logic, should you be unanswerable to the courts as well? Does the fact that a few hundred thousand people voted for you give you the right to steal'?
The Lokpal is only an investigative and prosecution authority. It doesn't pass judgments, proclaim people guilty, or punish them. Yes, it should have the right to investigate anyone, just as the police have over common citizens. At the same time, there are rights in place for citizens that the police don't abuse. Similar provisions can be in place for politicians. For instance, a certain amount of evidence may be required to do a full-blown inquiry.
If we let the government hoodwink us, we will lose a golden chance to make our country a proper people's democracy. The 'absolute power' model doesn't work. It has kept India poor since Independence, while other nations have progressed.
We must not fear change. In fact, we must fight to change this faulty system, and take to the streets again if required. After all, the British didn't leave us after one Jantar Mantar demonstration. Either the government agrees to a proper Lokpal Bill (which, in all sanity, they should), ensure no one is above the law, or we wait for Anna's signal to hit the streets again. Jai Hind.