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Electoral' democracy

Published : Sep 23, 2011 00:00 IST



We have a new leadership buoyed by the hysterical adulation of the middle class, which has little time for parliamentary democracy and its ways.

AT a time when the opposition in Parliament does not seem to have a clear undisputed leader and the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has a Prime Minister who is answerable first to the leader of his party before he is to the House which in his case is the Rajya Sabha we have, emerging from a small village in Maharashtra, a simple man who has, to all intents and purposes, been hailed by the middle class and by some sections of the poorer classes as a leader. He is seen, clearly, as the great leader who will lead us, his followers believe, to the promised land.

With just one national movement, when he fasted for 13 days to force Parliament to accept his version of the Jan Lokpal Bill, Anna Hazare, for many people, filled a leadership vacuum in the country. It was, and is, as if the Messiah has come.

One man was so overcome by this advent of the Messiah that he immolated himself; others went on fasts themselves, and thousands sported the now ubiquitous Anna cap or T-shirts with I am Anna emblazoned on them. Actor Om Puri went on stage and heaped abuse on Members of Parliament and other netas, and civil rights activist Kiran Bedi got so carried away that she did an item number' with a veil that would have put Salome to shame.

The fact is Anna Hazare has filled an empty space. The Bharatiya Janata Party has no clear leader, other parties in the opposition do not count, and the Congress has a leader who stays in the shadowy confines of 10 Janpath and has the party performing in the way she wants it to. She rarely speaks in the Lok Sabha; if the Prime Minister does, it is usually of no consequence. One has only to consider the heartfelt appeal the poor man made to Anna Hazare to call off his fast, saying he, Anna, was a great man. I salute him, he said. What was the effect on Anna? Nothing at all. He continued with his fast after, of course, saying some polite things in a letter to Manmohan Singh.

For the last few years, the country has watched the UPA government prevaricate, dither, put up weak, sometimes comic, defences of their reluctance to take any action on the manifest and huge scams that had begun to come to light.

It was only when the Supreme Court issued some stern directions and when the media relentlessly exposed lie after lie by the scamsters that the government lurched into action. Now, of course, it is making a virtue of having put a former Minister and two MPs in jail, and some chief executive officers of various firms and of the Organising Committee of the Commonwealth Games, forgetting Abraham Lincoln's famous comment: You can fool all the people for some of the time, and some people for all of the time but you can't fool all the people for all of the time.

Into this vacuum stepped in the small man from Ralegan Siddhi, a village in Maharashtra. Anna Hazare drafted a law to set up an ombudsman-like entity to deter and punish the corrupt and demanded that Parliament pass it; to make sure it did, he went on an indefinite fast.

The effect on the people was electric. Thousands gathered at the Ramlila Grounds in New Delhi where he was fasting, at Azad Maidan in Mumbai, and in Bangalore, Chennai, Bhopal, Lucknow, Guwahati and even Srinagar. Not only because of the singular lack of leadership in the country but because of the build-up he got from the media print and electronic, especially television.

What Jayaprakash Narayan never had Anna Hazare got 24x7 television coverage and anchors, ranging from the rational to the hysterical, commenting on his fast and on the millions gathered at the Ramlila Grounds (there were actually only some thousands), and comparing Anna Hazare to Mahatma Gandhi and JP and everyone short of God himself. (Arvind Kejriwal, his closest aide, called himself Anna's Hanuman; one can infer from that who he thought Anna was.)

Parliament yielded and accepted Anna's conditions and he called off his fast. There was jubilation on the streets in every city and in Anna's village but not very much, from what one could gather, in the millions of villages in the country that have access to television.

That was, however, not relevant. What was relevant was that a leader had emerged. A leader who has a mass base, one who can make Parliament that assembly of elected leaders of the country bend.

He knows that more than anyone else. Hence the emergence of that strange phrase electoral democracy. In plain English it is nonsense; democracy has built within its concept the election of representatives. But that serves the purpose of posing a counter to parliamentary democracy, which Anna Hazare and his aides say it is. And that is precisely where the danger lies, the existence of a power that can subvert parliamentary democracy and destroy it.

As it is, parliamentary democracy is an imported idea, even an alien idea. And to its alien identity has been added our own unique Indian way of making it work or not work, or work in the way we want it to. Over the years, it has, as a consequence, weakened and come to mean a Parliament that spends most of its days in protests and chaos, conducting very little business. It was easy, then, for a newly emerged mass leader, still in the grip of the headiness of adulation and publicity, to smile rather contemptuously at it and declare he would lead people to electoral democracy, that is, mass power.

He talks of bringing in the right to recall an MP and the right to reject all the candidates standing for election in any given constituency. We know now how he will set about getting Parliament to consider, and perhaps legislate on, both. In other words, whatever little legitimacy and validity parliamentary democracy has left will evaporate before this new phenomenon.

It is not just sad but tragic that we should have to see this happen. We have had occasion to be proud of our Parliament of some great parliamentarians and, ironically, of that institution when it debated the three conditions Anna Hazare had made for him to call off his fast. That was a debate where we saw, after many years of feeling ashamed and depressed by its functioning, Parliament reveal the majesty of what it was in its early years. A debate that reflected the dignity of both Houses and also highlighted some of the finest oratory that many of its members are capable of. That makes the tragedy even darker; that at a time when its relevance was beginning to be overshadowed by this new and potentially menacing institution, Parliament should reveal some of its most admirable features.

Maybe some leadership will emerge; after all, we do have fine leaders in some States, such as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Maybe we will see a new, younger, more committed set of MPs take the place of those who are tainted and a liability to the institution. Maybe.

That is what we can hope will happen, though there is little to fuel that hope except the idea itself. But what we do have is the new leadership buoyed by the hysterical adulation of the middle class, which has little time for parliamentary democracy and its ways.

This leadership will speak of people's power and electoral democracy and such other things that will become catchphrases and rallying cries for their followers, before which the established institutions of parliamentary democracy may have to, in the end, give way.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 23, 2011.)



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