Anna Hazare and the Iberian Scorpion

Written by  //  August 17, 2011  //  National Politics  //  4 Comments

Scorpions, in Iberian folklore when ringed by flames, would sting themselves in the back and die. Whereas several saw this as an early example of animal suicide, others believed that in panic, the scorpions became their own worst enemies. The Government of India by arresting, dithering and then releasing Anna Hazare in the last twenty-four hours has, much like the scorpions of folklore, come across as panicky at best and suicidal at worst. By doing so, it has united a previously fractured civil society, bolstered the Gandhian credentials of Anna, invited comparisons with its own shameful behaviour during the Emergency, and contrived to fashion itself as the common object of hate for protesters of all stripes, with or without causes.

The argument used by the government to pre-emptorily detain and arrest Anna Hazare and his aides, i.e. that it was upholding the letter of the law and preventing a breach of the peace, is specious. While no government can be faulted for adhering to the rule of law, when the law it purports to uphold, contains restrictions on the constitutional right to protest to such an extent that it emasculates the said right completely, upholding such a law can be morally problematic. Any government in the world is capable of decreeing any inconvenient activity illegal by passing a self-serving executive order. Per se, such an argument adds little in the way of justifying such action. Further, as in the public protest by Baba Ramdev, it was apparent that the government allowed the protest to go on in defiance of the permission given to it (the law), and upheld it only when it became clear that the protesters could not be deterred through negotiations. For a government and a nation for whom the rule of law is more akin to a tradable commodity rather than a sacrosanct virtue, any sudden resort to it to justify an action, must be viewed with utmost scepticism.

The legal argument notwithstanding, the political judgment shown by the government in first arresting and then releasing Anna Hazare, is curious. In the three intervening months between Anna’s first fast in April and now, much water has flown under the bridge. Significantly, at certain times in the past three months, Team Anna has been roundly criticised by civil society itself for its authoritarian approach as well as the substance of its draft Bill, which has been panned for its flawed institutional vision. Instead of capitalising on these differences, the government has, on the contrary, inadvertently bridged them by arresting Anna, which has been perceived by all and sundry as an attack on democracy and the constitutional right of protest. By doing so, it has also lost the moral high ground of being a reasonable government that is willing to negotiate and open to compromise with civil society campaigners, albeit through constitutionally entrenched parliamentary channels.

The government’s action is especially surprising given the actual nature of the two draft bills prepared in the course of the last three months. Whereas the government’s draft has its share of problems, as it reserves the majority power of appointment of Lokpal members, circumscribes its jurisdiction to prospective acts (2G and Commonwealth scams excluded) and has significant penalties for complaints found to be without substance, the civil society draft is equally if not more problematic as it naively seeks to create an all-weather institution, a go-to behemoth for all of India’s problems. It is inexpertly drafted, pays little heed to the constitutional principle of separation of powers and the time-tested necessity of checks and balances to ensure that power is not used irresponsibly. Some of these defects have been pointed out by Aruna Roy and other members of the NCPRI as well as Justice JS Verma, a former Chief Justice of India, both prominent members of civil society. However, despite these deep flaws, not once has the government attempted to show the public that its own draft, legally and institutionally, proposes a wiser solution. No attempt to widen the already existing fissures in civil society has been witnessed, nor has there been any criticism of Team Anna, barring discussion regarding the inclusion of the Prime Minister and the higher judiciary, on the unworkable and arguably unconstitutional provisions in their draft, whose wholesale adoption is the cause behind the proposed fast in the first place. Either this is extraordinary political naïveté on part of the government, or perhaps, it does not want a strong, anti-corruption institution after all, despite vehement promises to the contrary. Either way, debates on the substance of the law have been conspicuous by their absence and the government’s willingness to allow this to happen is particularly surprising.

This is not to detract from the blackmail involved in indefinitely fasting for the passage of a particular draft of a statute. A distinction must be drawn here between a fast for the passage of a strong Lokpal bill, as had happened in April and the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill drafted by Team Anna, as is happening now. A key aspect of the democratic process is the room for reasonable disagreement. By adopting a method of negotiation that scuttles this room completely, Anna’s fast refuses space for actual differences of opinion amongst people and holds the government to ransom. Tomorrow, mining barons from Bellary, Hindu fundamentalists from Kandhamal and land mafia from all over the country could kick up large crowds and have analogous protests wanting their versions of the mining bill, the communal violence bill and land acquisition bill passed. Modern Indian democracy is not the rule of the mob. Anna’s latest salvo takes the country dangerously close to that path.

In the final analysis, it is however the government that has allowed the situation to come to such a pass. By allowing the debate to degenerate into a simplistic corrupt government v. non-corrupt civil society polarisation, it has ceded vast amounts of space to civil society and the opposition. At the same time by using coercive measures unwisely, it has been hoist by its own petard. Time and again, it has been caught out, and has bungled— with the sudden constitution of the ad hoc joint Lokpal Bill drafting committee, the flip-flop over Baba Ramdev’s protest and now the continuing dithering over Anna Hazare’s latest fast. Embattled by controversy, it seems that the government is set on emulating the scorpion of legend by plotting its own end. Ancient Iberian myth meets modern day Indian reality, Delhi, Circa 2011.

4 Comments on "Anna Hazare and the Iberian Scorpion"

  1. ASG August 17, 2011 at 2:16 pm ·

    Very well expounded. Is anybody in the Govt. listening?

  2. Vignesh August 19, 2011 at 7:28 pm ·

    Arghya- I can’t agree with you more. I am very surprised that party strategists were in support of the arrest, given the broader ramifications.

    I feel that his Obama-esque approach of the Anna machinery is very telling. It almost looks like the masses think of the Bill’s passage as the “magic wand” (as Nandan Nilekani put it) to get rid of corruption.

  3. Arghya August 19, 2011 at 9:00 pm ·

    Thanks Vignesh, yes… I think in an increasingly complex world, the black and white simplification that Anna offers, is refreshing to most- reading the bill is an inconvenience. It’s perhaps not the right way of thinking about things, but perfectly understandable.

  4. SSG August 22, 2011 at 6:06 am ·

    A key aspect of the democratic process is the room for reasonable disagreement.
    But as you rightly pointed out Anna is holding the government to ransom. This is definitely not what matured, thinkers of India would appreciate. But looking at the massive processions yesterday, the streets of Mumbai and Delhi took me back to the streets of Rome as delienated by Shakespeare and the fury of the mob while Anthony delievered his oft-quoted “Friends, Romans………”.
    What shall follow, I hope, would be more conducive to the democratic fibre of modern India and the rationalism that some of us do still believe in.
    Great read Arghya.

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