May 26, 2020
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Ethical Cleansing, Not Ritual Purity

Arvind Kejriwal’s public rift with Anna must not distract us from the necessity of his political foray

Ethical Cleansing, Not Ritual Purity
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Ethical Cleansing, Not Ritual Purity

Anna Hazare may not be part of the proposed political party that is yet to emerge from the womb of what was an unprecedented movement against corruption. The questions he has raised, however, must be answered. Not just because they are his questions; he being the symbol of probity in public life. They need to be answered because these are questions that crores of ordinary Indians, the ANA (Aam Non-political Aadmi), would like to pose. And, quite simply, because they are good questions. The first query is about the very need for a foray into politics. This has been answered by the experience of the Jan Lokpal movement itself. The protesters demanded an independent, effective and strong anti-corruption agency. The political establishment agreed to the principle, both houses of Parliament passed a unanimous resolution and the prime minister wrote to promise that it would happen. Yet nothing happened. As soon as the political class felt that the protests were losing steam, they were back to their old games. Business as usual. I’m not suggesting that the Lokpal Bill is doomed to rot in lawmaking limbo forever. It may still be passed. But its fate will depend not on its rational or moral force; it will depend on the political pressure that the ruling establishment feels.

What befell the Jan Lokpal movement was no different from what has happened to a score of popular movements, including such irrepressible ones as the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the anti-POSCO movement, the anti-nuclear plant agitation and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. Anyone who tries to effect a fundamental change in any one aspect of our public life will have to take on politics. Medha Patkar and Aruna Roy realised that the only way to get the marginal voices heard was to organise protests and exert pressure, in other words, “do politics”. If politics is about shifting the balance of power in a society, then not resorting to politics is not an option. Politics is the yugdharma of the times we live in.

Perhaps Anna won’t dispute it. His real question—and it’s one voiced by many in the social movement space—is: why form a party? Why can’t we continue doing politics the way we have: through protests, agitations, representations and negotiations, instead of directly entering party politics? Clearly, it would be short-sighted to overlook the substantial achievements won by social movements that have adopted this method. We owe some of the most progressive measures of our times—Right to Information, Forests Rights Act and, to some extent, NREGA and Right to Education—to this indirect mode of doing politics. It must continue. At the same time, it is hard to not notice the limits of this method: its success depends upon the very political class that so often is the source of the problem. Given a favourable situation, the indirect path succeeds. More often than not, it doesn’t. The demand for a parliamentary act providing basic security to unorganised labour has been hanging for more than two decades. Besides, this route is not viable if the goal is to bring  about a fundamental change—one that might threaten the interests of the political class. This Parliament is unlikely to pass any legislation that controls the education mafia, not to speak of the big corporates that fund all political parties. In other words, movement politics is necessary but insufficient; in itself it can only be the second-best option. For those who dare to think big and press for fundamental systemic changes, there is no substitute for a political instrument of their own.

To effect fundamental systemic changes and shift the balance of power in our polity, A political instrument of our own is crucial. There is no substitute for politics. It is the yugdharma of our age.

So why not adopt a policy of selective intervention? Anna has indicated his preference for supporting a few honest candidates across parties. Other people’s movements have tried different versions of selective intervention: contesting panchayat elections first, putting up independent candidates, using elections to create public awareness about popular issues and so on. The trouble is that these experiments have not been very successful. The high threshold for viability in our electoral system discourages voters from voting for even the best of Independents. The system of party whips means that our elected representatives are slaves of their party high command, not servants of the electorate, who carried them into power. Not doing anything during the election is not an option either. It is no secret that some of the finest people’s movements are milked by some of the wiliest politicians during elections. Clearly then, the best option is a direct and open intervention by presenting an alternative.

This is where the other and more difficult set of questions come in. Is it possible to move away from the high command style of ticket distribution that makes leaders unresponsive to their own workers and supporters? Changing this structure is not going to be easy. The proposed party seeks to make a radical departure from existing practice. The basic idea (as articulated in a document released along with the vision statement) is to institute a ‘primary’ where the candidate is selected by the party workers in the locality, not by the party’s central or state leadership. At least six months before the elections, the party will solicit nominations, asking for details of public service, assets, criminal records etc. These will be verified; false declarations and dubious records (communal, criminal and corrupt activities or character deficits) will be screened out. The remainder will be encouraged to reach a consensus, failing which all party members from the constituency will vote to elect their candidate. We do not know how well this system will work. But there is good reason to believe someone who has ‘won’ her ticket from her constituents is more likely to be responsive to them. ANAs must look at this possibility.

What about resources for elections? Clearly, the new party will simply never have (or need) the resources to ‘buy’ votes. (The going rate is anything from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 per vote) The real question is whether it can muster enough resources to contest the elections seriously and remain a visible and viable option for an ordinary voter.  The ‘upper limit’ of expenses set by the EC is about the minimum that any candidate needs to spend on legitimate and necessary campaign activities. Securing that level of funding is not going to be easy, but it is not impossible if there is public sympathy. Ordinary voters do not say no to money, but they do not necessarily vote for those who offer it either. Or else the incumbents should never lose elections. And once in a while, as in 1977, resourcelessness can become the most valued political asset.

Finally, how do we ensure the members and leaders of the party won’t themselves be corrupted? And how do we assure the people that the elected representatives of this party will behave differently? To begin with, this new party has proposed a code of conduct for all office-bearers and candidates: they have to declare their assets, must not be involved in criminal activity, in spreading caste or communal hatred, or engage in exploitation of women or drug abuse. There is also a proposal for additional codes for elected representatives: no lal batti, no claptrap of security, no big official bungalows, no use of discretionary quotas of schemes like MPLADS. To be sure, a code of conduct isn’t a novel idea though the proposed rules for elected representatives improve on existing practice.

Where the proposed party makes a radical departure from all others is in its provision of an independent and powerful mechanism for investigation and action concerning violations of the code of conduct for office-bearers and elected representatives. The proposal is to have an internal Lokpal, a committee of retired judges independent of the party leadership, to whom any citizen can bring complaints about violations by a party office-bearer or elected representative. This Lokpal will then make its investigation, examine if there is a prima facie case and if so recommend appropriate action. These recommendations shall be binding on the party. This provides, perhaps, the strongest anti-graft mechanism within a political party that we know of.

Does this guarantee a corruption-free democratic party? Of course not. Rules can be bent, constitutions can be amended, institutions can be misused and authorities can be compromised. There is no mechanism that can deliver clean and good politics by itself, unless there’s political will and popular vigil.  Democracy offers no guarantees. Searching for foolproof solutions can be self-defeating. Democracy must live by the belief that ordinary citizens have not sold their soul, at least not in perpetuity. A democrat cannot but trust his people.

(Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, Yogendra Yadav has been associated with several people’s movements in the last three decades and is currently active with the proposed new party)

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