The movement by India Against Corruption is a call to the system as a whole to redefine the polity and the economy

The one significant question being thrown us by the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement is this: is the movement for or against the country’s much revered democracy? The answer, as often in questions relating to society or politics, is neither a clear yes nor no. It is anti-democratic in as much as democracy has become the equivalent of the holding of elections and the forming of governments. Once elections have been held and governments formed, any questioning of the rights — or, more important, the legitimacy — of any act of our elected representatives or of the elected governments, except through the due processes of law, is immediately pronounced anti-democratic. There are institutions and provisions within the democratic structures available to citizens to express their dissent, we are assured; any movement outside of these structures itself becomes illegal, and therefore illegitimate.

But the institutions and structures also have a life and a mutable character. When these have turned, or have been perceived to have turned, into fortresses for the defence of the rights and decisions of those who have been elected and those who find favour with them, never mind through what manner or means, and when these rights and decisions are perceived to be in conflict with the very lives of those who have elected them, the legitimacy, if not strictly the legality, of the institutions and structures lends itself to grave questioning. Let us remember that the declaration of the Emergency in 1975 was perfectly legal; it was its dubious legitimacy that led to the defeat of the ruling party in the elections of 1977.

Today, once again, there are serious doubts about the legitimacy of the whole system of governance which has spawned unforeseen corruption and, above all, an economy that increasingly concentrates wealth at the very thin upper crust leaving the “99 per cent” to fend for themselves. Corruption, while being an issue in itself, is indeed the instrument of the implementation of economic policies that have created, and are constantly creating fissures between the “1 per cent” and the “99 per cent”; and corruption is not merely monetary in nature; it is corruption of the whole system of governance that is at stake. Corruption of the electoral process which sends a third of elected leaders with self-declared heinous crimes like murder, kidnapping, rape and the rest to virtually every Assembly and the Lok Sabha. The judiciary has also been shown to be less than lily white. The democratic institution of periodic elections offers no way out for those at the receiving end, for periodic recirculation of power among the political parties has only brought a periodic redistribution of wealth among them and their cohorts. They are all quite happy with it.

Not exclusive

Indeed, what is happening in India is not exclusive to it; in some ways the redistribution of wealth and its concentration at the upper end is happening in a major chunk of the planet we inhabit, following the same economic doctrines. The forms of popular resistance to it are also similar — outside the framework of the legal and institutional systems. The slogan “We are the 99 per cent” originated in New York as did the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, although it did not impact the U.S. polity substantially. But growing awareness of the inequities of the paths of growth around the world is in itself a significant phenomenon denoting a restlessness that is often a precursor to encompassing metamorphoses. Even now, a different regime of economy is being experimented within parts of Latin America, to an extent in Brazil, but especially in Venezuela.

Is IAC then seeking an overthrow of the system of democracy that has evolved in India over the past 60-odd years? At any rate, is it possible at all to do that? Not quite; neither of these. The fact that a branch of IAC, led by Arvind Kejriwal, will participate in elections and seek the popular mandate to govern, should put paid to any suspicion on that score.

Right from the days of Anna Hazare’s fast at Jantar Mantar last year, the loud cry being heard was that he is undermining the country’s hallowed democratic institutions, although he would have found the competition to do so with elected representatives very hard to win. Not allowing Parliament to function when you do not have a majority does not quite enhance the spirit of democracy, and lest we forget, no party has patented an exclusive right to this practice. IAC’s actions on the streets and in public places, often verging on the absurd, highlight the conflict that has got entrenched between the institutions of governance and the aspirations of the people, contrary to the very premise of democracy which emphasises a symbiosis between the two. The movement is a clarion call to the system as a whole to redefine the polity and the economy to restore the symbiosis so crucial to an orderly functioning; it is a call for reforming from within rather than the threat of an overthrow.

(Harbans Mukhia was a professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.)

More In: Comment | Opinion