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Civil society versus government: Between rock and hard place

Saturday June 11, 2011 12:49:45 PM, Amulya Ganguli, IANS

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Till Baba Ramdev spoilt it by shedding his saffron robes and running away in an off-white salwar-kameez, the so-called civil society had managed to project its battle with the government as one between gods and demons or, to use desi terms, between devas and asuras.

Even now, a large number of people tend to see the confrontation in this light. There is little doubt that the reason for this stark perception is suspicion about the government's bona fide. Not only did it fail to enact a Lokpal bill for four decades or to bring black money home, it was more than obvious that it had no intention of doing so.

The same dishonesty was evident where the criminalisation of politics and the mollycoddling of corrupt ministers was concerned. The ruling politicians have had no qualms in harbouring bahubalis or musclemen in their ranks - at least one-fourth of the Lok Sabha MPs have a criminal background - and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh explained why the suspects remained ministers (till the Supreme Court ensured their eviction) as, otherwise, there would have been elections every six months.

It is easy to understand, therefore, why civil society activists have become such arbiters of the country's destiny - dictating conditions to the government and threatening to go on fast if these are not met. Egged on by a section of the media and sundry individuals, all of whom have experienced corruption in their daily lives - either as reluctant victims or willing collaborators - the activists have tended to acquire larger-than-life images.

With the applause of their supporters ringing in their ears and confident of their ability to corner the government, their demands have acquired a canny dimension. One of them is for recording the meetings of the joint committee on the Lokpal bill on video. Their claim is this novel procedure is for the sake of transparency. Yet, the subtext of their demand is not difficult to guess. They want to show the people how the government representatives - the asuras - are stalling on one pretext or another all the efforts of the devas to empower the Lokpal. The devas are sure they will come out in flying colours if the tapes are shown.

It is obvious, therefore, that the country is witnessing a scene where a rattled government is facing a group of pompous, self-righteous individuals who have taken upon themselves the onerous task of saving the country from a bunch of crooks.

However, since this view is widely shared, its pitfalls are obvious. For a start, once a few people who have emerged out of nowhere and used moral blackmail to press their case acquire the kind of prominence which Anna Hazare - the man from the backwoods of Maharashtra - and Co have done, they can only become increasingly uncompromising in their attitude.

Evidence of this stubbornness is available from Anna Hazare's threat to go on another fast from Aug 16 if the Lokpal bill does not take concrete shape by then. The fact that he announced the decision to go on a third hunger strike minutes after breaking his second at Rajghat is suggestive of his coercive, all-or-nothing mindset.

Such inflexibility has no place in a democracy, especially from a group which is not only self-appointed but has nothing but contempt for elections. As Anna Hazare has explained, he does not contest polls because the voters are bikaau or purchasable commodities who can be won over by liquor or money.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the devas include people like Swami Agnivesh and Prashant Bhushan whose sympathies for the Maoists, another set which has no time for elections, are obvious.

True, the asuras have little to commend themselves for. What is more, there is every possibility that the bill they will push through will not be very different from the original toothless version which had set off the furore in the first place. They are also aware that hunger strikes lose their salience if they are frequently used as a tool. Yet, for civil society, there is no other option because they do not want to go before the bikaau electorate.

In addition, the yoga guru's fall from grace and signs of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) pulling the strings from behind will enable the government to paint civil society activists with the same black brush.

For the lay person, it is a choice between a rock and a hard place. But a way out lies in civil society keeping the judiciary and lower bureaucracy out of the ombudsman's jurisdiction. The government, on its part, can free the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the police from political control as per the Supreme Court's 2006 directive.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at




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