Whether or not the joint committee to draft a lok pal bill agrees on anything, the Jantar Mantar crowd that spread the word through Facebook, Twitter, SMS and gushing emails has absolutely no doubt who should be the ombudsman. Kisan Bapat Baburao Hazare, whose bespectacled countenance under the Gandhi cap resembles a genial owl with a parrot’s beakiness, is the ‘Modern Mahatma’. Swept away on a heady current of populism, people with no thought of long-term stability believe he alone can keep India on the straight and narrow.
That’s because Hazare, the former military truck driver, does not baulk at merging the roles of investigator, prosecutor, executioner and prophet and politician. No namby-pamby due process, softie constitutional freedoms or individual rights affected his determination to exorcize the devil drink from his native village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra. Confucius would have admired his communitarianism, Senator Joe McCarthy applauded his ruthlessness in stamping out un-Indian activities. Indira Gandhi might have ordered him to administer her Emergency.
The government had given up trying to impose prohibition and the legendary dry days had been relegated to just that — legend — when Hazare formed a youth group to help him take the law into his own hands. Their pledge to purge and purify the village was taken in a temple, because, like his mentor, Hazare knows that India’s masses respond most fervently to religion. The saffron-draped (or undraped) godmen fluttering about the Jantar Mantar invested his crusade against corruption with a special aura, while a resplendent Bharat Mata presiding over the stage ensured this was not another mundane political rally. It was popular puja that Uma Bharti and Om Prakash Chautala couldn’t be allowed to defile. The two actors flanking Hazare got up to resemble Manmohan Singh and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi paid public compliment to the prime minister even though Hazare mocks Manmohan Singh’s job, chuckling smugly he can achieve more from outside.
When he banished drink, drinking and drinkers from Ralegan Siddhi, some defiant villagers dared to buy their poison in another village. Those free marketeers wouldn’t have been able to do that if the real Mahatma had succeeded in abolishing trains. But Gandhi was also a softie. Richard Symonds, a British Quaker, claims he looked the other way when Sabarmati Ashram inmates surreptitiously wolfed chocolates and biscuits behind the bushes where cyclist pedlars secretly catered to their craving. Gandhi also allowed Symonds to drink beer when recuperating from a long illness in Delhi because his landlady in London had told him beer was strengthening.
Our Modern Mahatma is made of sterner stuff. Drinkers had to be taught a lesson. So they were tied to poles and soundly thrashed. Hazare justified the punishment by arguing, “Doesn’t a mother administer bitter medicines to a sick child when she knows that the medicine can cure her child? The child may not like the medicine, but the mother does it only because she cares for the child.” He cares. No wonder he is hot property. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh proclaims his virtues (while he wriggles uncomfortably). His ‘model’ chief minister, Narendra Modi, seeks his blessings (which now embarrasses him). Modi can’t be serious against corruption, sniffs Assam’s Tarun Gogoi, since he hasn’t instituted a single case with the Central Bureau of Investigation. Gogoi has instituted no fewer than nine. Gujarat hasn’t even had a Lokayukta for seven years.
The Congress chief of Uttar Pradesh wants Hazare to crusade against the corruption and human rights violations said to flourish under Mayavati. Lal Krishna Advani is torn between trying to co-opt him against the United Progressive Alliance and stealing his thunder by claiming that only the Opposition’s unparliamentary antics during Parliament’s winter of discontent triggered the jana andolan. But a combined opposition crusade in Lucknow would oblige Mayavati’s own Bahujan Samaj Party to campaign against her. Since the BSP’s Shafiqur Rahman Barq lumps the Babri Masjid’s demolition with the spectrum scam to demand a joint parliamentary committee to investigate both, the demonstration would also pit BSP against the Bharatiya Janata Party. Mayavati herself might then feel the need to join the protesters against her government in order to flaunt her repugnance of corruption and respect for human rights. What Bengal thinks today etc., for did not Ajoy Mukherjee march against the United Front government in which he was chief minister? Others are cashing in on contradiction. A Rajasthan minister of state, Golma Devi, has announced a fast unto death to protest against her government’s treatment of her parliamentarian husband. That’s democracy.
Fasting is powerful emotional blackmail. Akshay Kumar Singhal in Ahmedabad is fasting unto death against reservation for minorities. Surjit Singh Dang of the Jagrat Bharat Party is threatening to do so to expel criminals from politics. But not all fasts are productive. Irom Sharmila Chanu beat Hazare hollow (she is the world’s longest hunger-striker, having started on November 4, 2000) but there is no sign of the authorities repealing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Instead, Irom is arrested and force-fed whenever her condition deteriorates. Some fasts, like that of Potti Sreeramulu, are posthumously rewarded. Like those Sabarmati cheats, some hunger-strikers are suspected of a quick munch and sip when no one is looking.
Taking a lesson from Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, which doesn’t tolerate armchair analysts, Digvijay Singh demands that Hazare should experience the hurly-burly of elections before criticizing politicians. That might teach him that it’s impossible “to practise politics without corruption”, as the president of Karnataka’s Janata Dal (Secular) puts it. India adores martyrs and martyrdom as much as it admires showmen and showmanship. Enthusiasm knows no bounds when both are harnessed to a popular cause, like getting rid of the British or cleansing public life. Hazare must be responsible for an intriguing SMS giving me unrecognizable strings of letters to complain to “if any Central Government employee demands money (bribe) for any official work”. Presumably, state government employees can demand what they will. So can Central employees for unofficial work. Nor does the ban extend to gifts, favours and introductions.
Such and other exceptions have killed all previous attempts at anti-corruption legislation. No Lok Pal can perform miracles if the highest officers of state are beyond the reach of the law. No law can be effective if courts are understaffed and dilatory. Apart from the mammoth backlog of cases, a petition challenging the appointment of Rajasthan’s ombudsman has been pending for 20 months. Courts have to rely on investigating and policing agencies which are themselves rotten in most parts of the country. In the circumstances, absorbing street theatre such as Hazare provides or Kapil Sibal’s plausible claim that not even the most dynamic Lok Pal would have any impact on daunting challenges of education and healthcare can be the government’s alibi for inaction.
Hazare’s popularity indicates the intensity of passion in a land where everybody has at some time or other paid a bribe for a normal service. But he will only obstruct remedial action by continuing to hog the footlights. Media support will vanish if he plugs the scope for leaks and scoops by insisting that committee proceedings are videographed. His ignorance of history is exposed when he proclaims that “the second independence struggle” is against “the kale angrez (black Englishmen) who rule us today”. True, many politicians and civil servants mimic the hauteur of their British predecessors, but the all- pervasive corruption that is destroying India is as desi as Kautilya.
Only an elected representative government has the moral right and administrative competence to fulfil public demand and rescue India from drifting further along the road of failed states. However tempting the Ralegan Siddhi prescription may appear, 1.2 billion Indians cannot be tied to poles and thrashed. The most realistic remedy would be to ensure that the systems we already have start functioning again as they did before the kale angrez took over.