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Melas With Missions

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It is truly said that when taxi drivers start to talk about the stock market, it's time to get out. My own mantra is that when simple minded laymen take to the streets to agitate on legal fine print, it's time to head for the nuclear bunker. In the last two months, India has been witness to two truly surreal melas, both led by incongruous national solution providers in search of a rational definition of the problem. Both, I am convinced, are manifestations as much as of the desperation of our polity as for India's appetite for political absurdity.

Let us consider the essential facts. In June of this year, a TV yoga guru packaging himself as the next great messiah lasted four days into his great anti-corruption jamboree before he fell off the stage disguised in a sari and found himself in police custody. We then found that all his years of yoga did not train him to survive one week into a hunger strike without medical intervention. It later turned out that he had been land grabbing in Hardwar and his second in command had forged documents to get a passport. Looking back, we can sport a twinkle in our eye and slap our thighs in silent mirth in but at the time, everyone and their insane uncles took him seriously enough. Even then, we knew that the man wanted India to "nationalise" properties overseas and sold dodgy medicines with names like Divya Pidantaik oil which use cow urine as an ingredient. If we still followed him, it is because so many of us were beside ourselves with frustration.

The frustration is still very real. It is no body's case that India doesn't have a problem with corruption, least of all the ruling party. But then, it is also no one's case that the ruling party is not trying to do something about it. It is nobody's case that this government does not have a comprehensive multi-pronged approach to the problem. It is nobody's case that this government has not introduced the Judicial Accountability Bill. It is nobody's case that this government has not already tabled whistle blower legislation in parliament. It is also nobody's case that this government is not trying to get some sort of Lokpal legislation into the statute books. It is nobody's case that this government has not successfully steered the first impeachment of a judge. The frustration comes from the multitude of power centres and vested interests that will simply not let this, and perhaps any other, government do what needs to be done.

Who then can argue if movie stars and retired cops damn the entire legislature for these follies? Even as I write this piece, the government is trying to get some sort of regulatory order into the manner our sports bodies are structured and governed. Voting on these measure are people who have everything to lose if these sports bodies do get regulated. The result is paralysis. Indeed, you could easily argue that despite all its moralistic rhetoric about the Lokpal bill, the opposition has comprehensively undermined India's attempt to legislate against corruption and pretty much everything else by paralysing parliament for the best part of a year, or more. What principle of political absurdity allows the opposition to be the noisiest in condemning the ruling coalition on the corruption question?

In this backdrop, we then had another tamasha played out in August by a desperate group of well-meant citizens led by the incongruously anachronisticretired army truck driver. For sure, this was a man with far greater credibility than the TV yogi but his brand of absurdity came from both the things he believes and the specifics of the cause that he was ready to die for. He wants death penalty for corruption, he recommends public flogging for boozers and he wants compulsory sterilization of young men in the best Sanjay Gandhi and emergency tradition. Yet, we followed him, because, as I have said, we are desperate enough to draw a distinction between the man and message. Unfortunately, it was just as hard to believe in his well-intentioned self-righteous attempt at suicide.

When you get past the high decibel rhetoric, what you have left in the whole Lokpal tamasha was a bunch of issues that bear no relationship to the hype that has been created around them. It seems to me that most people don't have the foggiest idea what Anna wanted. We need to suffer this understanding to appreciate the absurdity of the Anna fast.

First Anna wanted the Lokpal to investigate the judiciary while protecting whistle blowers and victims of corruption. In turn the Government wanteda separate Judicial Accountabilityandwhistle blower legislation? On a toss-up, do you care just so the job gets done? Second, Anna wanted all levels of the bureaucracy and all MPs to be under the preview of the Lokpal. The Government felt that it was enough to investigate senior bureaucrats, it being understood that a clean senior bureaucracy will mean cleaner departmental inquiries and consequently, a cleaner lower bureaucracy. The real question was this: could the Lokpal handle complaints against a million babus? As for MPs, there's the question of parliamentary privilege which required some pondering. Third, Anna wanted a national Lokpal while the Government did not want to disturb our federal structure. I wouldn't want our constitution jettisoned for a Lokpal either. Fourth, he wanted the politically tainted CBI to be run by the Lokpal while the government wanted to keep its sleuth. Frankly, so long as the Lokpal had the ability to investigate, I don't care whether it's the CBI or Lokpal Bill?

And so it went on point after point. On removing the Lokpal, the government wanted to reserve that right while Anna wanted the Supreme Court to do so. Anna also wanted the Lokpal to determine his own budget, determine how far it would delegate its functions to its subordinate officers, proactively prevent corruption and sue the corrupt in court. He also wanted special fast track benches to hear corruption cases. He wanted higher punishment for wealthier people! The government wanted Lokpal to investigate complaints against its own staff while the Anna wants to create another independent entity that will police the Lokpal! About the only issue on which I think everyone, including Singh our King, could agree was that the Lokpal should have jurisdiction over the Prime Minister. That point was easily taken and as easily conceded by the Government.

Am I the only one who thinks that most of these debates are either about fineprint or genuine differences of opinion? We can argue backward and forward about this or that provision and there are probably as many views as there are people. This is not the heart of the issue. A democracy must embrace all shades of opinion if it is to function at all. It cannot be good liberalism to say that we will do things my way or I am going to starve myself to death and start a riot. I cannot for the life of me find an issue here that justifies a life and death ultimatum to the country. Legislation is a long and complex process with multiple levels of consultation and compromise. As a lawyer, I cannot accept the idea that one small group of no doubt well intentioned souls can thrust their will down my throat by intimidating me with their suicide threats to accept their vision of what the brave new India should look like.

As it finally turned out, Team Anna dropped many of their demands with the result that they would have ended up in substantially the same place if the fast had never begun. So what is the net takeaway from this particular mela? Officially, the difference between the position on the eve of the fast and the position at its conclusion was only that parliament had passed some resolutions supporting (a) citizens charters, (b) to consider some sort of mechanism for the lower bureaucracy and (c) structure state level lokayuktas. In effect, they only promised to be well intentioned when the Lokpal legislation finally showed up at their door. We will soon see how their intentions play out into actions.

Since this is India's 9th attempt at Lokpal legislation in 43 years, I suppose this resolution is no mean feat. Perhaps we should be pleased because at the best of times, nation building is a slow, ponderous, slippery path. On reflection though, the real benefit of the mela may well have been in the 'awakening' it brought, bringing to the street, people who are widely seen as defeated and listless. Although a rhino like hide seems to be mandatory for those who enter politics, notice may well have been served on members of parliament that this legislation needs to be passed. If you are brutally honest, you will agree that this is small ticket achievement for the massive effort the nation made. You could be forgiven for asking yourself if this mela was everything it was cranked up to be. Perhaps, when it all comes down to dust, you will concluded that while we Indians have always loved our melas, we have now progressed to organising melas which have an ostensible mission even though in the long run, its only so much redundant drama, symbolism and emotional purgation. 

The author is managing partner of the Gurgaon-based corporate law firm N South and author of the pioneering business book Winning Legal Wars. He can be contacted at [email protected]