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THE FLORA OF DEMOCRACY
- It takes an average of ten years for land acquisition in Britain

In February, I visited Luxembourg by courtesy of its government. Soon after I returned, I watched the government of West Bengal’s handling of the Singur affair. It made me aware of a difference between the Indian and European practice of democracy, which I wrote about in The Telegraph of March 13. In India, democracy is taken to be a way of deciding who is to rule a state. The party that wins takes it as a licence to do what it likes for the next five years. In Europe, on the other hand, an election is used to decide who will form the government, but even more important, it decides who will take part in a never-ending debate. Members of legislatures come to the house respectably dressed, observe decorum on the floor, listen to whomever the speaker has given the floor, and use debate as a way of settling differences and reaching solutions. The killings by the West Bengal government were a way of settling differences in Nandigram; the channel the Europeans would have used — debate in an elected house — was defunct in Calcutta.

Two months later, the government of West Bengal did call an all-party meeting to discuss Nandigram, but the format — the chief minister staying away, the presence of a single representative from each of too many parties, and a scarce half-day allowed for speeches — ruled out any serious discussion. It was designed to fail, and it did. It was Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s failure. But he could not continue to fail. I wrote on June 6 that he should establish lines of communication with the opposition in Singur and Nandigram, listen to his adversaries, and become his own man, not his party’s marionette.

Well, Buddhadeb preferred to dance to his party’s tune, and it next time organized killings on a much larger scale in Nandigram, in the obvious hope that overwhelming violence would teach its opponents that if they resist, they will be “paid in their own coin”, and will learn that violence against the Communist Party of India (Marxist) does not pay. A few days later, Muslim rioters in Calcutta showed that they had not learnt the lesson. And this time, the CPI(M) itself learnt the lesson that it was prudent sometimes to capitulate to violence, and asked Taslima Nasreen to leave Calcutta as the rioters had demanded. Now the CPI(M)’s message is no longer so clear: does it want its subjects to believe that they can bend it to their will by violence, or that it will still put down opposition with an iron hand' Its opponents will just have to endure some more killings, loot and arson from the CPI(M)’s captive police and hooligans before the answer becomes clearer. It may take time for the CPI(M)’s mind to clear; meanwhile, its opponents will have to pay with their lives and property.

Because the government talks with the stick and the gun, there is no one around to talk to it. Recently, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation took me to Brussels to look at how the European Union functions. There I came across another feature of European democracy that I had not been aware of: Brussels simply teems with lobbyists. Daniel Guéguen is a prominent one. For 20 years he worked for the sugar lobby. Then he graduated to working for the agricultural lobby. For the past decade he has been a lobbyist on hire. His knowledge of the political landscape of Brussels is unparalleled. According to him, there are about 3,000 lobbies in Brussels, employing some 15,000 people. The most interesting one I came across was FACE — Fédération des Associations de Chasse et de Conservation de la Faune Sauvage (Federation of Associations of Hunting and Wildlife Conservation). Most are offices of trade associations, corporations or trade unions. But there are also professional lobbyists — consultants and legal firms — who would lobby for anyone who paid them a fee. Then there are NGOs and think tanks. Even some regional authorities and municipalities maintain lobbying offices in Brussels. The most influential lobbies are COPA-COGECA, the agricultural lobby, ETUC, the trade union lobby, and BUSINESSEUROPE, the employers’ lobby. But the largest is CEFIC, the organization of chemical producers; it employs 140 people.

These lobbyists have flourished because the government of Europe provides a structure that is conducive to lobbying. Everyone in the government is required to follow a Code of Good Administrative Behaviour. It requires him to be fair, impartial, independent and objective. He is supposed not to abuse power, and to impose charges or restrict citizens’ rights only to the extent required by his objective. He must reply to every letter in the language of any member of the public who writes to him. Within two weeks, he must reply to every correspondent, give the name and telephone number of the official who is dealing with the matter, and pass on the letter to that official. The relevant official must take a decision within two months, communicate it to the correspondent with the reasons for taking it, and tell him how he can appeal against it if he wishes to. If a citizen needs to make an application or follow a procedure, the official must explain to him how to do it. In sum, it is the duty of every official to help and satisfy every citizen and institution.

That duty extends to lobbyists as well. The European government does not think it enough that members of the European parliament are elected by, represent and take up the complaints of their constituents. The entire government is supposed to satisfy every European; thus, lobbying is a legitimate part of administrative practice. And this is not just in Brussels; the European Commission would ensure that lobbyists had the same access to national governments. The lobbies themselves are generally federations of national or industry associations. So their members have access to every level of the government, from their local authorities to the government in Brussels.

So if Nandigram had been in Europe, it would have had farmers’ associations and trade unions independent of political parties. The government would have appointed a responsible official, and set up quasi-judicial court to manage land acquisition. The court would have given an exhaustive hearing to the local lobbies, and would have worked out a solution that was acceptable to all. On top of the court, there would have been an appellate body; citizens who were dissatisfied with the court’s decisions could have appealed to it. The court and the appellate body would have been set up specially for Nandigram land acquisition; the ordinary courts would not have been burdened with it. The administrative decisions would have been available on the web. The responsible official would have readily given copies of documents to any concerned citizen who asked for them. The entire process would have been designed to ensure maximum acceptance for the process adopted, and an assurance of fairness even to those who did not accept.

It might have taken ten years; but that is actually the average time taken for land acquisition for new towns in Britain. West Bengal is hung up on the outcome — land acquisition — but in a democracy, it is the process that is important.

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