Interview with Aruna Roy, civil rights activist and a member of the National Advisory Council.
WHILE maintaining her support for a Lokpal institution, Aruna Roy, a prominent civil rights activist and a member of the National Advisory Council, took a critical position in respect of the Jan Lokpal Bill drafted by the activists of the India Against Corruption campaign. A recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2000, she heads the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (a trade union of workers and peasants) in Rajasamand, Rajasthan. In an e-mail interview to Frontline, she talked about her position in the anti-corruption movement and stressed the need for greater public debate and discussions with respect to the Bill to enable the strengthening of democracy.
How do you think the Jan Lokpal Bill will empower citizens and democratise power in India, something that the RTI Act did so positively?
The Right to Information Act took nine years to come to fruition after intensive debate and discussion and [after] being tested through State legislation. It has made it possible to access and place information in the public domain. The system itself has to both judge and deliver its own sentence. It is necessary to have a Lokpal Bill. But the Jan Lokpal Bill, as it stands today, needs to be critiqued, amended and made more rational. It needs to be disseminated, understood and analysed. The citizens and users of the RTI Act would be able to find some system to fix accountability for omissions and commissions if an adequate and balanced Bill comes out at the end of this process. The Lokpal should enable overseeing of those who claim impunity, and successfully hold public servants who misuse power (either for personal profit or for ideological reasons) responsible for their actions. It should theoretically improve governance and empower citizens. However, in its current form, power will be centralised in the Lokpal itself without adequate checks and balances (including separation of powers) and there is a danger that the Lokpal may well become a dictator, who may be benevolent. But that is not a guarantee.
Will a strong Lokpal Bill succeed in tackling corruption in the country?
The word corruption is simple enough, but the definition would have us all quarrelling. It is not merely misuse of money, but arbitrary use of power. The Lokpal can look at one kind of corrupt practices and investigate impartially without prejudice to status and position. A single institution cannot take the onus of tackling corruption in the country. To expand, the current public sentiment and the hopes pinned on the Lokpal Bill are overburdening a single structural intervention with the task of cleaning the Augean stables. A task which needs plurality of organisations and roles.
Corruption articulates itself through a complex institutional democratic matrix. Will the Bill single-handedly address this problem?
The recent hunger strike and its media coverage concentrated on the angst of the common citizen fed up with a government that does not deliver. The consensus was the reiteration of what people have felt and discussed many times over. The middle class expression of anger was new. But along with it have come the contradictions and complications of an ideologically divergent group expressing its solidarity on the sound and not the substance of their dreams. The campaign was successful in bringing people together. But the legislation and its promises were exaggerated. The overburdening of expectations on a necessary but insufficient structure may well spell its doom. Given the fact that there was so much media and print coverage, the campaign failed to use the opportunity for public debate, even to begin a process of education. The Joint Committee has an obligation to make space for public consultation and dissent to analyse the strengths and shortcomings of the Bill. They have to ensure its assessment publicly by people and professionals across the spectrum; evaluate the performance of Lokayuktas in 17 States of the country and list best practices; study international experiences with an office of the Ombudsman like in Sweden, etc.
The movement resounded with slogans that decried politicians and not their politics. The crowd was talking about overhauling the system, while the movement's idea was actually about strengthening the system through a system of checks.
This movement or campaign used a populist and simple statement which alone could have bonded the entirely contradictory political groupings that were seen sharing the dais. The moment the idea began to define itself, problems began for them. For many onlookers, this was writ large on the wall. You cannot have the aspirations of Baba Ramdev and Prashant Bhushan meet, ever.
[Taking] the high moral ground and condemning the neta' is simplistic and naive. In a democracy, the burden of mismanagement is shared by its people, even if it is infinitesimal. The only factor is that the conscience keepers the government cannot themselves swerve from the path of truth and justice and the constitutional obligations to the people. The integrity of any and every group is suspect. The boxwallah, the neta, the babu, the jholawallah, the corporate conglomerate, the judiciary, the feudal structure, the professional classes, castes, etc. are all perpetrators and victims of corruption.
The National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) is now concerned with the larger issue of lack of people's participation in being able to contribute their thoughts and ideas about new legislation. By working to ensure an open and inclusive pre-legislative process, citizens can join the process from policy to Parliament without undermining the role of the executive or the legislature. If this process is transparent, inclusive and consultative, it might take time, but should help strengthen democratic processes in every way.
What do you say about hunger strikes as modes of resistance?
How much a hunger strike should be used as a weapon of protest is a decision that is the prerogative of the organisers. The fact that the government caved in so quickly shows that an emotional chord was struck. There is no doubt that the general demand had popular support. The specifics should not be worked out with a threat of hunger strikes. They should be worked out on the basis of broad public participation and an open mind. That is how democratic practice will be strengthened.
Unfortunately, the government has remained immune to Irom Sharmila's 10-year hunger strike, and that of many of those activists who have, in sheer desperation, fasted for 25 days for issues of survival, without achieving their ends. Many of these strikes have also drawn the attention of people, but the government clearly makes political calculations in deciding its response.
Nominated bodies such as the proposed Lokpal have been historically hijacked by some or other political parties in independent India.
One of the important reasons for the Lokpal Bill has been the failure of existing institutions to perform their task and correct themselves. There is a real danger that an institution as powerful as this will fall into the same trap. And to the extent that we expect it to self-correct, we might also be reposing too much faith in its capacities to correct itself. We have also failed to get the best commissioners for the numerous commissions we have fought for. This time there seems to be an assertion that the selection process will ensure good Lokpals. I wonder I think we will have both good and bad people, and too powerful an institution without adequate accountability mechanisms remains a danger.
It is therefore true that these questions remain and are important to address. That is the reason why the MKSS has continued to hold that the deliberative process is insufficient and inadequate. The haste of forcing [the] delivery of this Bill may result in a stillborn legislation.
The basic nature of the movement was too nationalistic, invoking the symbols of Bharat Mata, Vande Maataram, and so on. These symbols in present times have become associated with right-wing politics of the country. So we heard whispers that the BJP and the RSS are behind the campaign. How does such a movement on such an important issue remain clean of such controversies? In the RTI campaign, nothing of this sort was heard.
The campaign for RTI was ideologically more cohesive, the vision of the right to know was related to justice and equality and a broad democratic constitutional agenda.
There was a great deal of attention paid to obvious and even suggestive symbols. These were seen as important to both the process and achievement of the right. The battle of means and ends, internal democracy and a consistent effort to enforce democratic decision-making within the campaign helped.
The NCPRI was also careful about not sharing space with groups that did not accept equality and justice as core values, no matter how similar the demand for transparency. The greatest ally for the campaign was its unified focus on the poor as those needing this entitlement the most.
The images were not seen as de-legitimising, else they would have been removed. Nor indeed could it be naivete. These symbols have been at the centre of many controversies even in the NGO sector for anyone in it not to know their political message.
The use of the symbols has some relationship with the members of the campaign and their supporters who came in large numbers. The protest has to evolve into a proper campaign and then a movement, with a stated position on corruption, and define its limits for itself. That itself is a controversial issue. As comments on [Narendra] Modi demonstrated a day after the event.
Some critics say the movement could not appeal to a vast population in north-eastern or central India or Jammu and Kashmir, where people are waging a virtual war against the very notion of a united India and a corruption-free state. The poorest of India, most vulnerable to structural corruption, did not participate. Why?
This was India against Corruption, Bharat (the other India) was neither in focus nor a primary constituent! The main constituent parts of the campaign were from middle-class India. The campaign looked at their issues and angst. Their concerns were reflected in the people they reached out to and came. This was its strength as well as its weakness.
This campaign spoke to, used symbols and appealed to a media which saw corruption through a limited spectrum. The symbols that appealed to the urban middle class could not speak with the same force to the people under siege by the state or the poor under siege from all systems.
The RTI Campaign had to sit with each group and evolve a political lexicon to draw ideologically cohesive support. It comes down to a lack of ideological bonding. The growth will depend on the evolution of its political base. The people in conflict zones, of course, are dealing with more fundamental questions. As a result they don't focus on corruption as an issue even though they face injustice and corruption every day.
Critics also feel that civil society has become synonymous with middle-class and upper-caste activists. Most Dalit and tribal organisations kept away from the movement.
In 2007, 25,000 tribal people walked from Bhopal to Delhi to demand settlement of land disputes. There were a few cameras. None followed them on the road to show the welcome and support they got all the way. They were not civil society, but the poor toilers!
A Dalit leader said in a public hearing on corruption in Jaipur a few days ago that the middle class which assists the giving and taking of bribes is doing its prayaschit (repentance) at Jantar Mantar with havans and bhajans. A demand for democratic representation faces the responsibility of democratic practice. Civil society is a very poor term that conceals more than it reveals. In a country like India, where there are so many fundamental divides of class and caste, the term is even less appropriate. The MKSS has made a distinction between civil society and the people, very much as we distinguish between India and Bharat. This has always existed.
The power of RTI was that people (Bharat) defined and pushed the need for the law. Civil society (India) obliged by helping fashion it, with sympathy and equality. In this case, the term might actually help explain the obvious disdain for the state and its institutions. While the poor in India sometimes see the state as a potential ally against a large force like a corporate group or the village landlord, this group was united in its lack of faith in the institutions of the state. That is why there was also a large segment that spoke with such contempt for politics and politicians.
Do you think the movement could have highlighted better the corporate-state nexus as a primary reason for large-scale corruption in India?
The campaign did not focus on specifics. As a result, the many areas of conflict were glossed over. So, there was widespread corporate support even though corporates are the biggest beneficiaries of corruption in India. The need to reflect or articulate issues of injustice would sharpen the conflicts and contradictions, but it would also help us move into concrete areas of necessary change.
The anti-corruption movement needs to start being defined by its specifics. That will help us answer many of the questions you have raised. It will also help us shape a Lokpal Act of the kind we need to fight corruption, the arbitrary use of power, and the injustice we face every day. Anti-corruption without the fight for justice is a hollow, lifeless movement.
The views expressed by Aruna Roy are the collective opinion of the MKSS, formulated after a lot of public deliberations.