IS there nothing like a civil society in a democracy? Is it an obstacle to parliamentary functioning? Does it impinge on supremacy of Parliament? Or these are hypothetical questions or mere figment of imagination of some Congressmen, who have risen to power without connect with the people?
This is the surmise of the statements of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal, Congress general secretaries Janardan Dwivedi, Digvijay Singh and spokesman Manish Tewari. Their statements befuddle us. Their outbursts against Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev leading a movement against corrupt practices lead the people of the country, who have elected them, to believe that once the election is over the common man has no role, forget about say, in the process of governance. By their assertions, the common man can at best be a passive observer and must do his duty of casting his vote so that he could continue to suffer whatever the ‘politician’ did.
The assertions ensure that the ruler – politician of the ruling party – is supreme and he is answerable to none. If anyone raises a voice against their method of functioning, then he must be a ‘renegade’ as Joseph Stalin, the general secretary of Communist Party of Soviet Union, used to say and even eliminate such voices.
This is what happens when disconnect between the people and the rulers grow and the ruling clan feels that the opposition has become a close ally, not an adversary, who considers running the government as their duty. The opposition need not be brash but has to raise the voice of the people play its role.
Mass upsurges take place when people’s voice remains unheard. The recent Arab uprising is a testimony. In a democratic polity, political parties are supposed to make the voice of the people heard. If they do not, people look for alternate leadership. (Hazare and Ramdev represent that). The centralised political system makes political process inaccessible to a large part of the population, and alienates the potential existence of the masses.
Dwivedi’s assertion is most surprising particularly as he has risen through the process of mass movement. Having been a socialist, he knows better than others the role of masses in formulation of public policies. He is aware that late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had to nationalise private sector banks to assuage the feeling of the “garib” masses and she rose to power with a thumping majority on the slogan of “garibi hatao” in 1971.
So when he says “I think saying anything against it (Parliament) is undemocratic” possibly hurts everybody. Parliament no doubt is supreme but to assert its supremacy it has to echo the sentiments of the people. If it does not it has to correct itself as it had to do in the case of Delhi Rent Control Act a decade back.
One should realise that parliamentary supremacy is drawn from the faith of the people in it. Many autocracies also have parliaments but those do not enjoy the confidence of the people. Let us not take the highest democratic institution in this country to that level. An effective Parliament reflects the aspiration of the people and that is not the reserve of the elected few.
One may ask what this civil society is. The masses have right to express during elections, it may also be asserted. So should they keep quiet till the next elections and suffer any mistake or even may be wilful misdeed of the elected people? We have seen this happening in our neighbourhood in Pakistan and Bangladesh too often.
The contribution of civil societies and civil actors have included the role of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century in the abolition of the slave trade and in other major social reforms in societies both of what is today called the North and the South, to the great democratic breakthroughs of that century in Europe, to the beginning of the gaining of equal rights by women in the early part of the 20th century, to their many contributions to national liberation struggles across the world during the 19th and 20th centuries.
More recently, it has included their contributions to the articulation of the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the mid 20th century; and it continues on today with the contribution of countless civil organisations at local, national, and global levels, in so many fields, and in large part devoted to the deepening of realisations of rights and freedoms won over this past period.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari had on June 14 attacked civil society activists, saying, “”If democracy faces its greatest peril, it is from the tyranny of the unelected”. Nothing could be more untrue. All Parliaments be it the mother of Parliament, the British or US or French, have been formed through the activities of the unelected.
So when Anna Hazare says it is neither the national Parliament nor the state assemblies but the village panchayats are supreme, he echoes the mass sentiment. Hazare insisted also on June 14 that people had full right to make their demands as they were the masters. “On 26th January, 1950, masses became the masters of this country… masters will question their servants if servants do something wrong,” he said.
Hazare has summed up the spirit of democracy. And we have seen that happening after a tumultuous struggle by Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee against an unresponsive Left Front government in West Bengal. If the state assembly was supreme, just to echo the voice of Manish Tewari, then why had the Congress to join Mamata’s mass rallies and call for bandhs repeatedly during the two years preceding the elections in Bengal? Political arguments should not just be a process of convenience. It requires conviction.
Congress has a point. It does not want Prime Minister to be covered by the Lokpal bill. The Prime Minister is certainly the first among equals. But if he is an equal why should he himself not proffer to be scrutinised. It would only enhance the prestige of the Prime Minister and the democratic traditions of this country.
It is nothing new. Mahatma Gandhi had given a call for establishing “Ram rajya”. It had a reason. Ram as the King of Ayodhya had a vibrant system of listening to the voice of the people. He banished Sita on an adverse comment of a washerman. It was too harsh but that is what a ruler needs to do. Nobody possibly has forgotten the adage “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”. This is possible when the highest authority allows him to be scrutinised not the other way round.
If the elected representatives had been above board the demand for Lokpal at this juncture would not have arisen. A surfeit of scams during the last few years has led to the rise in such demand. Elected representatives are fallible, the recent instances show. The Lokpal bill is an attempt to restore that faith in them and not the other way round.
On the question of division among civil society, Arvind Kejriwal, another activist with Hazare shot back at politicians on June 8 saying, “When did MPs in Lok Sabha were united on an issue? They are divided always. They get united only once when they want a hike in their salaries. If the civil society is divided, then Parliament is also divided”.
Democracy ensures divergence of views. It needs to be respected. The ruling party must not speak the language of the bureaucracy. The bureaucrats do not want accountability. The Congress Party leaders’ assertions are only strengthening their cause. Constitution wants a rule of the people and not of bureaucrats. The ruling party and the masses need to agree on this. A powerful bureaucracy only leads to an oppressive system and the politician becomes the first victim.
The present movement is aiming at correcting it. But Hazare and his team also need to be cautious. They are including many provisions that might make bureaucracy stronger.
Baba Ramdev had fallen into that bureaucratic trap. Hazare may take a little more time to draft the bill but must carefully go through each of the provisions so that he also does not get into one.
Whatever it is the government cannot ignore the civil society. Even standing committees of Parliament call for suggestions from the people to help it finalise a draft bill. It is enshrined in the parliamentary process. So why is this anathema?