(By Aswini K Ray, The New Indian Express, September 2, 2011)
Peaceful mass movements around a popular single issue, insulated from political parties, has been a new experience to Indian democracy surprising all its stakeholders — government, Opposition, bureaucracy (especially police), media and academia. In fact, its scale, prolonged shared focus, and non-violence seems to have surprised even the activists, including its leadership, all unfamiliar with the logic of mass movements in India, as distinct from its recurrent violent political agitations. Their stereotypical initial responses showed it.
The government’s initial response was as against all Opposition-led agitations: to discredit its goals, methods and leadership till they boomeranged. Predictably, the police followed the script: dramatic arrest of the leader to provoke mob-violence and deal with it coercively as another law and order problem; this too misfired, and when the discredited police released the leader, it was faced with the most unfamiliar predicament of the prisoner refusing to be released, and worshipped by the prison staff, their families, and other prisoners, using the jail office to negotiate his own terms of release to emerge as a potential new mass leader of a widely-shared popular anguish who was largely following his instinctive moral judgments than any concerted political strategy. The masses found a new icon outside the targeted power-structure, including the Opposition, and the discredited section of ‘Macaulay’s Children’ in the media and the academia critical of the methods and sceptical about its goals. From a relatively obscure regional public figure, Anna Hazare suddenly emerged as a national leader being the closest approximation to the Gandhian legend to the present generation of the country. It became an all-class and cross-national movement against the Establishment, unlike the earlier ‘Bhoodan movement’ led by Vinobha Bhave which, though based on the Gandhian principle of non-violence, threatened the interests of the powerful landed aristocracy and alienated them. It was also refreshingly different from the Sarvodaya leader JP-led Nav Nirman Samity movement with its all-encompassing goal of an utopian “party-less democracy’ while targeting the Indira Gandhi-led Congress, thus limiting its salience within a section of people in Bihar and Gujarat.
Parliament, media and the intellectual community soon joined the initial bandwagon as a virtuous circle to help its emergence as a mass movement. Yet their initial responses, as in the case of some of the organisers, and many initial critics, showed their unfamiliarity with the momentum of a peaceful mass movement stridently resisting predictable attempts by various political parties and NGOs to hijack it. The excess histrionics of some organisers perhaps matched some of its critics’ charges of “blackmail” against the movement. But the more serious criticism stemmed from two arguments — that it was “unconstitutional” and hence “undemocratic” and the time given to Parliament to legislate on the ‘Jan Lokpal’ issue was unrealistically brief. Both are specious criticisms.
As for the second, many critical Bills have been passed in shorter times, often without quorum, thus violating the principle of ‘procedure established by law’ in the case of fundamental rights. For example, the 59th Constitutional Amendment (1988) allowing the imposition of Emergency in Punjab was passed without a quorum and in the absence of the necessary 2/3rd majority in Rajya Sabha; the amendment of the Indian Post Offices Act (1898), opposed by many parties, was passed in the Lok Sabha with only 20 members present, and in 40 minutes; in 1985, the extension of the ESMA (1980) was done in three hours, and in a lunch hour without quorum; in August 1985, amendment of the TADA was concluded in 59 minutes with 50 members; in 1987, the National Security Act was amended in 82 minutes by 100 members; in 1988, the Lok Sabha took 19 minutes to establish the Special Protection Group. More significantly, the endorsement of the IMF’s ‘conditionality’ clause to launch the ‘economic liberalisation’ agenda was passed by the minority government, and within one month of a general election in which no political party included it in their election manifesto.
The criticism of the movement being “undemocratic”, because it was “unconstitutional” stems from a conceptual mystification between the unconstitutional — as not being expressly provided for in the constitution but possibly implied — and the anti-constitutional, in the sense of being against the spirit of the constitution. In all democratic constitutions the concept of ‘implied powers’ not specifically codified is an accepted principle of jurisprudence; and in India, the Supreme Court judgment on the ‘basic structure’ underscored it. Consequently, even legally, except the ‘basic structure’ as defined by the apex court, all other provisions of the constitution are open to amendments by Parliament.
The liberal criticism of the mass movement as “blackmail” is based on the axiomatic assumption of India’s operational version of parliamentary democracy as a liberal democracy, because of its institutions of western liberal vintage. Empirically, in no non-western society, western liberal democratic institutions have been able to replicate an operational version of any of its original prototype. India is perhaps among the better case-studies of a democracy surviving through continuous innovations to suit local specificities, howsoever aberrant from its original inspiration.
That explains its many constitutional amendments, twice the number in 60 years than the US in over 200. India’s parliamentary and electoral procedures; its three-tier federal system, with variations of regional autonomy; its protective discrimination through reservation; above all, its secularism evolving from its western versions of the state being equidistant from its many religions towards being equally supportive of them with special provisions for minorities, separate civil codes, are creative operational innovations reinforcing its democratic continuity.
Parliament’s sensitive responses to mass movements incubated within the civil society underscores its structural democratic deficit and need for institutional reforms. Such responses, far from capitulation to ‘populist blackmail’ by Parliament reinforce its contested democratic legitimacy, because mass movements are different from pressure groups; and they are legitimate democratic upsurges within its political economy of economic liberalisation and democratic de-liberalisation. The lessons of the recent mass movement, may be useful for India’s political class, institutions of governance, as also its intellectual community still grappling with the problem of interpreting Indian democracy’s specificities with the concepts and categories of western liberal democracy.
Aswini K Ray is a retired professor of political science, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.