The Ombudsman’s Dilemma – The Fallacies of a non-participatory process

The persistence of the Indian news cycle is formidable, if on no other account but the sheer size and energy of a rapidly expanding media market. The Hazare drama has stuck because of its sensationalist appeal in that it generates stories on action and governance after a prolonged news season that moved from one corruption scandal to another.

While there is little doubt that the Congress government is paying politically for taking Anna Hazare into preventive custody, it is the promise of a legitimate fight against corruption that is keeping journalists and newsreaders glued to this story. The true sensation then is not the Anna but the power of his promise.

For starters, Mr. Hazare is demanding the establishment of an independent ombudsman with broad powers that is appointed by a panel of noble laureates, judges and officers on the election commission. He wants the lokpal to have the authority to investigate even the prime minister. Mr. Hazare’s supporters claim that his demands are simple – have an apolitical, independent body that has the authority to investigate and consequently suspend political officials suspected of corruption. The sentiment is naïve at best. It is also dangerous.

The roots of a democracy lie in the participatory process that it involves. People vote in regular election cycles to elect a representative. If they are unsatisfied with the person’s report card in office, they can chose to elect someone else. Mr. Hazare’s demand therefore is undemocratic. The Economist on April 14 2011 says, “Urban activists, a tiny minority, must not force the hands of politicians picked by hundreds of millions, they intone… in a democracy it must be voters, not Nobel laureates, who decide.”

As he continues to fast, Mr. Hazare ought to get his hands on the works of Juvenal and understand the meaning of “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes”, or “Who will guard the guards”. He clearly has no proposal to check on the corruption of the ombudsman he proposes. His proposal to have any member of the public move the Supreme Court against any member of the lokpal is a logistical nightmare, if not completely laughable.

Equally troubling are comparisons between the Anna and the Mahatma. Mr. Hazare’s supporters are now rallying around the slogan “I am Anna,” equating his hunger strike to those of Mahatma Gandhi during India’s struggle for independence. Gandhi’s hunger strikes were often a response to violent acts and were motivated by non-violence. Mr. Hazare on the other hand has publicly asked for the execution of corrupt officials.

The Mahatma accepted the challenges of the democracy that India would become and ultimately wanted power base to shift from the elite to the masses of India. Mr. Hazare’s proposal wants a core group of intellectual elites to have carte blanche authority over the executive. Furthermore, Gandhi’s political movements were directed at a foreign unelected power. Mr. Hazare wants an urban populist surge to override the legislature that was elected by millions of voters across India. [D1]

Mr. Hazare certainly has the right to be heard, and the government was wrong to detain him before his latest planned hunger strike. The costly political mistake has shifted the story from the discussion of a lokpal bill to the process of Anna Hazare. The real problem is not the lack of an oversight authority but rather the Indian voters penchant for re-electing crooks. Laloo Yadav ruled Bihar with an iron fist year after year and only in the last national election was he finally politically decimated.

The people of Uttar Pradesh take pride in switching from a corrupt Mayawati to a corrupt Mulayam Singh.  [D2] Mr. Hazare needs to realize that the focus needs to be on greater participation because the biggest safeguard already exists. It’s called an election.

If his movement is to have the impact he wants it to, Mr. Hazare needs to step up and bring the debate back to corruption and not how he has flummoxed the government. He has brought energy to a nascent political movement of young people. He should therefore use this opportunity to debate the issue within the confines of the democratic process. For now, he seems focused on exposing the Prime Minister as weak and unable to stomach a strong version of the lokpal bill.

He must recognize that a weaker Prime Minister only makes passing a bill through parliament more difficult. In a strong and functioning parliamentary democracy, the PM must be able to guide an agenda effectively.

Lastly, while swift action on corruption may sound politically appealing, Anna’s demands of pushing his version of the lokpal bill through the parliament by August 30 is childish. In a country with an intricate and complex penal code, the lawyers need plenty of time to draft the requisite penalties and safeguards into the bill. This should be important to Mr. Hazare. If the lokpal bill provides any substantial loophole, the entire movement and the expenditure of political capital would have been a waste.

There is no doubt that the problem of corruption is rampant in India at all scales. The Common Wealth Games that were to serve as a parallel to the Beijing Olympics ended up as a case study in the depth of corruption in Indian bureaucracy. The frustration of the “urban activists” is therefore understandable. Their solutions are an entirely different story.

The undemocratic sentiment in this movement is echoed in the careless remarks of Mr. Hazare who said that ordinary Indians are too dumb to recognize the value of their vote. Once he has had the chance to catch up on his diet, he would do well to realize that the constitution does not require an IQ test before granting universal suffrage.

Teevrat Garg