One thought on the whole Anna Hazare thing (updated below)
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One thought on the whole Anna Hazare thing (updated below)

By no means am I an expert on Indian politics or society but there are some things that have that familiar ring that I am well accustomed to. The endless and mindless corruption, the middle class angst at said corruption, and well, that’s about it.

Anyway, this whole Anna Hazare thing has me intrigued for one reason above all, and that is the fact that someone like that could try something like this…and actually succeed! Let me explain.

For those completely unfamiliar with the story, here’s the basic rundown: lots of corruption leads social activist to declare hunger strike in favor of a particular bill leads to politicians acceding to said demands. Done and done.

Now, there are plenty of reasons to not favor these developments. Much of the stuff I’ve read on this issue focuses on the actual content of the bill, which contains provisions such that a body of unelected members to be drawn from social activists and Nobel prize winners (“good” people) get to make and execute decisions on justice and corruption. This has a whole bunch of people upset, almost all of which focus on the “who will watch the watchdog” type of argument; that is, unelected people, now matter how moral, shouldn’t get to do Really Important Stuff and be unaccountable to anyone else. There are other important objections to the bill, but based on my reading, that seems to be the most common, and you can read for yourself here, here, here, herehere, and here (many thanks to all that tweeted me articles on this stuff).

One of the pieces linked above, from a blog called Run From Big Media, summarizes this line of thinking this way:

The  draft Jan Lokpal bill (as present on the website foresees a Lokpal who will become one of the most powerful institutions of state that India has ever known. It will combine in itself the powers of making law, implementing the law, and punishing those who break the law. A lokpal will be ‘deemed a police officer’ and can ‘While investigating any offence under Prevention of Corruption Act 1988, they shall be competent to investigate any offence under any other law in the same case.’

The appointment of the Lokpal will be done by a collegium consisting of several different kinds of people – Bharat Ratna awardees, Nobel prize winners of Indian origin, Magasaysay award winners, Senior Judges of Supreme and High Courts, the Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the Chief Election Commissioner, and members of the outgoing Lokpal board and the Chairpersons of both houses of Parliament. It may be noticed that in this entire body, only one person, the chairperson of the Lok Sabha, is a democratically elected person. No other person on this panel is accountable to the public in any way. As for ‘Nobel Prize Winners of Indian Origin’ they need not even be Indian citizens. The removal of the Lokpal from office is also not something amenable to a democratic process. Complaints will be investigated by a panel of supreme court judges.

This is middle class India’s dream of subverting the ‘messiness’ of democracy come delightfully true.

I’m sure this is all fair enough and I agree with the basic thrust of these arguments. Lord knows we in Pakistan are well aware of middle class heroes such as Imran Khan or Iftikhar Chaudhry, who are supposedly men of such pure virtue that they by themselves will be able to tackle systemic and complex issues like inequality and corruption, and finally get rid of the evil politicians. That part I get.

But here’s the crazy thing: this dude actually succeeded! To be clear, he is not part of the system. He is outside the system. And he’s brought about this change — a real, legislative change.

Why this is surprising to me as an outsider is this: the basic model of politics I have in my head is that there’s this big system, and there’s people inside the system and there’s people outside the system. The system is very big. It is a structure. Individuals are very small. They don’t generally matter much. They are weak.

The picture that comes to my mind when I think of this is that awesome picture of a guy standing next to a trillion dollars. And yes, I know social structures are invisible, but it helps to visualize it, okay? And when I think of agents and structures, I think of the guy standing next to a trillion dollars.


Now, change, whether “positive” or “negative” can come about in a couple ways (again, this is not how politics actually works per se, just the way it looks in my head):

1. The people inside the system are replaced by people outside the system. This is more drastic and haphazard and unpredictable, like say the French or Iranian revolutions.

2. Preferences of people inside the system change. They just change their minds on stuff, owing to any possible number of reasons. This is slow and incremental change, like say tax laws or women’s suffrage or something.

Now, the only way for people outside the system to do something is (a) lead a revolution (which is hard to do), or (b) try to change the minds of people in power (easier to do, but still hard).

Here’s the thing: most people trying to do (b) don’t succeed without coercion, or the explicit or implicit threat thereof. Coercion doesn’t just refer to bombings and what not. It can be riots or strikes or whatever.

But this guy succeeded! Isn’t that a little bit surprising? Normally someone not killing people or causing economic/social mayhem would be brushed aside, or given some lame promise in the form of a committee which will recommend some nonsense which will be overviewed by another committee that will then give suggestions to some other committee and before you know it, you’re caught in this maze of bureaucratic inertia designed explicitly to ensure that nothing in the system actually changes.

But this is completely different. This is an actual law. Laws go on to books, and are hard to change, particularly in democracies. That’s the point of a law: it’s supposed to be permanent! So if somebody’s changing a law in your favor, you’ve won. Changing a law from inside the system is hard enough: ask Barack Obama about healthcare. Screw that, ask Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti about the blasphemy law. Changing a law from outside the system? Without coercion? That’s a very, very surprising outcome.


Photo: AP

Now, of course there would be those that claim that a fast unto death is a form of coercion, and honestly, I can sort of see the argument. But here’s the difference between a hunger strike and other forms of coercion: the former is operating on shame; the others on fear and anger. When a terrorist group (outside the system) causes change — and they often do — it’s because they’ve either made people within the system fearful (in which case the system gives in) or they’ve made them angry (in which case the system doubles down). Either way, there’s change, but guilt and shame don’t come into it.

The bottom line is this: I cannot imagine for even one second something like this happening in Pakistan. The equivalent might be Edhi getting parliament to to form a committee which Edhi heads and chooses who else is on, and that committee gets to encroach on parliament’s power on something parliament cares about. It literally would not happen. And this is not really an India-Pakistan thing; I couldn’t imagine it happening in the U.S. either, where ALL change comes from within the system, not outside.

I guess I’m just amazed at the sort of power that someone like Anna Hazare wields in this case. Where it comes from, I have no idea. But this sort of thing is not common at all. I find it a bit strange that no one is actually talking about how rare a political outcome this is.

Update: Important clarification, and that is that this bill has not yet become law, so technically, no one’s won anything just yet. Please see Hades’ comments for more on this. In fact, I highly recommend reading the exchange between Hades and Rohan Venkat, which is quite illuminating.

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