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We don't need 'Mr India', we need governance

Last updated on: April 12, 2011 09:45 IST

We don't need Mr India, we need governance

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India needs sustainable political and governance reform, not 'Mr India'-type prime-time populism, says Sanjaya Baru

Anna Hazare got his timing right, as Kumar Ketkar, a distinguished journalist from Mumbai, put it. Considering this was obviously planned as a television-based mobilisation of middle-class India, pitching it between the cricket World Cup and the Indian Premier League series was perfect timing. Even as Mr Hazare fasted, a large number of his supporters joined him between meals, at New Delhi's Jantar Mantar, and around TV dinners in urban India. 

Hazare's message and medium struck a universal chord and he captured widespread anger against the lackadaisical response of the entire political class to the genuine revulsion against corruption and crony capitalism.

But this is not the first time Hazare has fasted. The last time he did so, in 2007, sitting somewhere in Maharashtra worrying about farmers' suicides, national television showed no interest.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent his colleague Prithviraj Chavan, then a minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office, with a glass of lime juice and assurances. A media strategy was put in place in case the situation got out of hand. The media didn't take note and Hazare drank up the juice.

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Image: Anna Hazare
Photographs: India Against Corruption
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'Mr India' is not the solution

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Jantar Mantar was different. Hazare and his strategists planned well. Not only did they get the timing and place right, they also got the medium and the message right. This was not about farmers in Vidarbha. This was about people like us paying bribes and watching all the bribe takers in page 3 parties!

The Hazare brigade also offered a solution that much of middle class India feels comfortable with -- an all-powerful superman like Rajinikanth, called Lok Pal -- a 'Mr India', so to speak!

Given the mood of the middle class, few in the media were willing to ask how a new Lok Pal, however empowered, could banish corruption when so many of the existing institutions have not done that. (A few voices have begun to be finally raised and, hopefully, these will find an echo in the days to come.)

It is easily assumed by many that the fact that the Lok Pal Bill has been debated since the mid-1960s with no action suggests the entire political class has conspired for over four decades to keep 'Mr India' under lock and key like the Count of Monte Cristo!

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Image: A poster of the film

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Why should politicians conspire against a Lok Pal?

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Could there have been a different reason? After all, in these four decades every national party, from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left Front, had enough influence in New Delhi to have brought such a Bill to Parliament. Why didn't successive governments do that? The simplistic NGO view that there has been a conspiracy of silence and inaction on the part of the entire political class is just that -- simplistic.

After all, several states have enacted the Lok Ayukta Act. What has been the experience of Lok Ayuktas? If India's politicians and political parties have been willing to live with a Lok Ayukta, why should they conspire against a Lok Pal? Is it possible, one might ask, that there could be other valid reasons? Moreover, the fact is that Narendra Modi's Gujarat has no Lok Ayukta. Yet, many people testify to the fact that there is less corruption in Gujarat than Karnataka -- both ruled by the BJP -- where a distinguished person holds the office of Lok Ayukta.  

But votaries of Lok Pal may reject the Lok Ayukta comparison. In fact, they would say, that is precisely why India needs a 'Mr India' kind of Lok Pal. That's a pity. For governance to improve, good politics must be in command. Populism mobilises people; politics empowers them. 

What India needs every now and then is governance reform in the existing institutions of the state. This must become the focus of policy for the United Progressive Alliance  government in its remaining three years in office.

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Image: Karnataka Lok Ayukta Justice N Santosh Hegde

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We need reforms in governance

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Incidentally, the UPA's national common minimum programme of 2004 did commit itself to the enactment of a Lok Pal Bill. So, in getting the legislation through, UPA-II will really be implementing one of the few 'unfinished' agenda items of UPA-I. 

Chances are the negotiations on a draft Lok Pal Bill could see acrimonious exchanges and the government could be placed on the defensive repeatedly and not necessarily for the right reasons.

Thus, anticipating this possibility, and in a bid to revive its badly damaged reputation, boost the sagging morale of the government and the ruling coalition and, finally, give itself a positive agenda for the remaining term, UPA-II must come forward with an agenda for governance reform.

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Image: Supporters of Anna Hazare at Jantar Mantar
Photographs: Sahil Salim
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Civil society should not shun politics

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A good starting point would be the reports of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission chaired by Veerappa Moily. Comprehensive reform of the government, the judiciary, and legislative and electoral processes will re-energise India. All this requires credible and effective political and administrative leadership.

In his very first address to the nation, on June 24, 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "When I chose to enter public life I did so because I was convinced that our democracy needs more professionals to become more engaged and active in politics. I, therefore, now appeal to each one of you to also participate in our public life so that governments at all levels -- central, state and local --are all constantly put on notice and not just tested once in five years. When I travel across the country I am always heartened by the increasing number of young and idealistic people I meet who work with voluntary organisations, empowering the dispossessed and the dis-enfranchised. We shall make effective use of the resources of the civil society to improve the quality of governance and delivery of important public services." 

Civil society has the right and responsibility to seek a responsive state, not shun politics, nor seek to replace it through prime-time populism. That way, as Dr B R Ambedkar said in the Constituent Assembly in 1949, lies anarchy.


Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Photographs: Reuters
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