Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is there a teaching moment we're missing today?


Every moment is a teaching moment, I believe, because every moment is a learning moment.

In the noise and clamour of the social network, it is hard sometimes to have a coherent thought. Rather like being caught in a mob in the real world and struggling to get out of the way of a stampede. But some things must be said, even if out of sequence and context, and in the quiet of an unknown blog.

1. Everyone who is not a beneficiary of corruption is against corruption; I think we can take this for granted.
If someone finds they have questions with your particular solution, it does not mean they favour corruption or support the corrupt. It means they want to think things through to find another solution. You want these people around. They help us move towards perfection.
In today's context, it means that those who have issues with the Jan Lokpal Bill are not necessarily government supporters or themselves corrupt. It means they have identified specific problems and would like to have them satisfactorily resolved. It may mean they have a better idea.
It also means that those who speak for institutions, and who believe that constitutional processes must be respected, are not favouring the corrupt. They are simply speaking their mind (and I happen to agree with this view) given what they have seen and read of human history.
Those who support the government position also have a fundamental right to do so. Just as government critics have the right to protest peacefully within the limits of the law.

2. People can disagree but support each other's right to hold and express their views.
Today this means that a lot of people who are very sceptical about the Jan Lokpal Draft are also upset by arbitrary arrest and disproportionate responses. But bear in mind that these people may also consider serving an ultimatum to an elected Parliament a variation on this theme. And that even if they think that, they will concede that the state always bears a greater moral burden for good behaviour.

3. Institutions do matter.
In fact, they matter even more when you want to enforce accountability. What is an institution? Political scientists use the word to describe anything that endures, that has a certain set of functions, rules and procedures attached, that adapts and that is not arbitrary. Institutions are essential for 'rule of law,' which all of us want.
The Lokpal, in all its avatars, is an institution. It will be bound by the functions and rules we invest it with, just as Parliament is bound by its rules.
As the constabulary (a local law and order institution) cannot start doing the work of the Income Tax Service, and the Income Tax Service cannot take over the Air Force, and the Air Force cannot become the Indian Forest Service--though individuals can, institutions can't--so must each institution do its own work. The Lok Pal cannot become the judiciary, and the judiciary cannot become Parliament.
Moreover, when institutions function properly, they act as checks and balances for each other's excesses and over-reach. An overpowerful Prime Minister, an excessively endowed Army or an ombudsman (Lokpal) with sweeping powers, destroy the fine balance that is needed for democratic governance.

Here, I want to interject, that every description of the Jan Lokpal, ever cry for a powerful, avenging Lokpal, has reminded me of Robespierre. Remember him? After the French Revolution, he rose to the position of the chairman of the Committee of Public Safety. His extremely strong convictions and his confidence that he (alone) was right, was an important factor in ushering in what came to be known as the Reign of Terror. I think after learning about him, extremely self-righteous people fill me with a sense of anxiety. And should such a person assume such an office with sweeping powers? Maybe it's just me.
Maybe the younger generation which is so sensitive to every question about its lifestyle choices can find a way to live with Robespierre. So then, what I think really doesn't matter.

4. Civil society is not the same as democratic government.
Civil society is a rubric that takes in all manner of beasts (including my organization, Prajnya) and creatures (me). We're like the entire range of non-human actors in the Puranas--sometimes animal, sometimes magical, sometimes scary. Democratic government may contain some of us, or many humans that are worse, but it's great virtue is that someone took the trouble to choose those people. (Were you one of them? I was, and next time, I may vote differently. Or not.)
Civil society cannot be empowered to make laws; that would be a democratic travesty. But civil society must inform citizens and governments about policy choices and concerns; and civil society must hold government accountable on behalf of citizens.
Somewhere along the way, civil society has forgotten that it has this public education role, and begun to sound like it always knows best.

We've all failed in this role. Those of us with the training and temperament, haven't taken the trouble to engage with and create opportunities for engaging with this important debate, of which the Lokpal proposals are really only a small part. So, this is what my organization and I are doing to somewhat atone: http://www.prajnya.in/lokpaldebate.htm It's a resource page we created following the National Campaign for People's Right to Information's call for a real debate. Do use it to inform your discussions. And do suggest resources we should add.

5. Either/or is a pointless way to engage with others; it's actually code for, I don't really want to talk to you.
See this, see that, mine is better, is also not a way to have a public debate. This is the kind of debate we've had so far on this question.
The Lokpal is one institutional measure to ensure accountability. Have we given any thought to others? Can we breathe normally, talk civilly? Today, I just don't feel optimistic.

I don't know. Today I am again feeling really sad. In despair. At the way the government has acted. At the tone and terms of the Jan Lokpal campaign. Thinking that these are all really intelligent people with lives of public service behind them. That it's become about sides, and not about India. It's become a screaming battle about loyalty and ad hominem attacks. That we are forgetting that governance and policy-making are really complex issues. I am in despair that this may not be a teaching moment after all. But a moment for putting your head in your hands and closing your eyes and hoping for the best. Hoping it will all go away.

I don't know what to learn from today. And I don't know what to teach.


This post has now been featured in the Britannica Blog: http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2011/09/anna-hazareteaching-moment-missing-today/ 


Abhishek said...

Well said. Couldn't agree more!

Anonymous said...

Well, you are not alone.

NoPretense said...

Hi, I came across this post through Shefaly's FB post. it is great reading throughout but in the endpara it feels like loss steam of conviction.

what is constitution...something which defines the present government framework. this consttn also came up after some brainstorming by un elected civil society members of that time, of course with more than prominent reference from the english kanoon.

but if today the framework of constitution changes through a legislation, the same is the part of evolution, right or wrong of which we might know later. but change is due. sometimes many of us well meaning ones say that there is no recourse other than army rule in a nation like india where elections are never fought on real issues. and even if they are, the issues remain in the manifestos only.

In any institution i would like to put an extra constitutional layer of some respected and beyond doubt people by consensus(needs defn) who can always intervene in the times of constitutional crisis and ensure fair elections and have tacit extra constitutional power.

So even if it means doing away with some basic tenets of the present govt structure, it should be welcome. What is it that the MP or MLA can discuss or debate better than the people those are in the anna team.

If anna team is showing some lack of transparency, it might be as a tactic to safeguard against the unwarranted intrusion. let the government contest the contentions of anna on merit. let them expose the malaise of anna gang...

NoPretense said...

To continue, if a solution involves suppression of some tenets of 'democracy', even that is fairly try-able. ultimately it is not the democracy for which the govt is, but it is the other way round:-)

Anonymous said...

Yuur eloquent blogpost is an instance of that teaching moment. Thank you!
Lata Mani

Anonymous said...

Just this morning I was chatting with my cousin and both of us were a little dismayed by the way the janlokpal campaign was going. I told him how uncomfortable I was feeling and you have put in clear succinct words the discomfort I was struggling to articulate. Indhu

Swarna Rajagopalan said...

Thank you, everyone! There are so rarely comments on my posts that I don't remember to look.

I am glad the post resonated. I just wrote it from my heart.