Anna and the Lokpal Bill: ‘Short-Cut’ Democracy?

Sinderpal SinghSinderpal
Research Fellow, ISAS

The continuing saga over the Lokpal Bill’s purview has been front-page news in India for the past few weeks. Seemingly riding on a wave of public discontent against large scale corruption scandals involving the UPA government, Anna Hazare and his fellow NGO-wallahs have demanded far-reaching legislation in the form of a Lokpal, a body that will serve as a watchdog against institutionalised corruption at the highest level. The main bone of contention between the UPA government and the ‘Anna team’ has been about whether the Prime Minister should be included within the ambit of this Lokpal.

The UPA government’s opposition to this inclusion, and thus to Anna’s demands, is based on the simple premise that Parliament, as the elected representative of the people in a democracy, should not be held hostage to Anna and his people. Several people sympathetic to Anna’s demands have dismissed this argument as flimsy – an excuse by the UPA to evade action on the issue of institutionalised corruption.  The Anna team went even further – they conducted surveys in several localities, which they claimed demonstrated that the majority of Indians supported their version of the Lokpal bill. The UPA was quick to respond – they challenged Anna and his team to enter the electoral fray and contest elections on the basis of his Lokpal bill. As much as this might be standard political rhetoric – that steadfast adherence to the central tenets of representative democracy is probably not the main reason for the UPA’s stance – it does throw up interesting questions. Who actually ‘represents’ the people in this instance? Who can claim they have the ‘people’s mandate’ when it comes to legislation?

These questions also relate to a long-standing debate about whether there is an ‘Asian’ form of democracy and the view that ‘good governance’ and ‘liberal ‘democracy seldom go together. You either choose ‘good governance’ or ‘liberal’ democracy. This was the debate in vogue in the 1980s, with certain Asian states like Singapore extolling the virtues of a democratic model infused with  ‘Asian values’,characterised by restricted liberties and controlled political contestation. This came, seemingly, with the real goodies – ‘good governance’ which came with social order (no messy riots or strikes) allied with economic growth. Certain non-Western countries, like India, it was argued, had ‘too much’ democracy and that explained most of its ills. Democracy, in this rendition, was a means to an end and not an end in itself.  In the ‘Asian’ democracy, ‘good governance’ model, it did not matter if important decisions were made by individuals or bodies that were not popularly elected in free, competitive elections – as long as they ‘got the job done’.

Turning back to the Anna saga, those who strongly defend his attempts to pressure the government on the specific details of the Lokpal bill should think again. Institutionalised corruption is obviously a major problem in India and any attempts to address this problem should be welcomed. The way in which it is done, though, is equally, if not important. Allowing shortcuts in a democracy, where unelected individuals or institutions are given more political power than elected representatives can lead down a very dangerous and slippery slope. Subverting the democratic process, even when it is done for seemingly noble goals, can be fatal – democratic processes should not be discarded when some ends are not deemed to have been fulfilled. Beware the short-cut – you never know where you might end up.

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