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Who Is Undermining Parliament? Civil Society or Government?

By Tapas Ranjan Saha

19 June, 2011

A debate is raging on the role of civil society and popular movements, and their impact on democracy. In a recent statement, Home Minister P Chidambaram said “Elected members cannot yield to civil society” since this might undermine “parliamentary democracy.” A beleaguered UPA Government is increasingly trying to discredit mass movements against corruption by declaring that civil society cannot usurp the right to legislate – a right which, in a democracy, is the exclusive preserve of elected representatives. This argument needs to be examined closely, because on the face of it, it seems to be premised on well-accepted principles of democracy. Are civil society activists and mass movements really holding Parliamentary democracy to ransom? Or is there a deeper, more shadowy threat to democracy that is kept hidden, with a skilful sleight of hand, by Chidambaram and his colleagues?

In the first place, the accusation that civil society activists are seeking to replace Parliament does not hold water. Civil society activists are seeking to shape the draft of laws, and they also seek to mobilise opinion on the content of the laws and hold elected representatives accountable to such opinion. In the process, common people are more closely informed and involved about specific clauses of laws and specific debates surrounding them, than ever before. But the actual task of enacting the laws still rests with MPs in Parliament; though it is true as a result of the civil society efforts at public participation, the debates within Parliament are more likely to be scrutinised intelligently and alertly by citizens.

Chidambaram and the Congress party seem to be uncomfortable with this continuous process of public participation and scrutiny of the trajectory of laws before they reach Parliament. In an article, Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari warned against street protests, which he equated with ‘street coercion' and fascism. Chidambaram criticised civil society members for challenging the Finance Minister to a televised debate, saying that after all, Parliamentary debates are televised and “voters exercise their franchise from time-to-time.” What the Government seems to be suggesting is that democracy is restricted to voters' right to elect representatives “from time-to-time.” Once people cast their vote, do they cede away their policy-shaping rights for the next five years to the representatives they elect? In other words, is the government suggesting that democracy be available to the citizens only once in five years? Do the people have no right to tell those representatives, through street protests when necessary, exactly what kind of laws they want enacted, especially when those laws often tend to have irrevocable consequences on their lives?

It is strange that the Govt which does not want civil society to dictate to Parliament, has no qualms about corporate CEOs and lobbyists as well as foreign powers dictating laws, policies and even Ministerial appointments. A glaring example was the Radia tapes revelation of how Mukesh Ambani and his lobbyist could even manage to dictate what stand the chief Opposition party will take in Parliament on a key question of energy policy. Wikileaks revealed the close scrutiny and immense influence exerted on India 's parliamentary processes, choice of Ministers (remember the Wikileaks revelation that Murli Deora's appointment as Petroleum Minister was influenced by the US ), foreign policy stances, economic policies and laws by the US . How come the Government does not consider such influence to be a threat to the sovereignty of India 's parliamentary democracy, but resents the scrutiny and influence by India 's own citizens?

Interestingly, the Government, which is raising its eyebrows about the role of civil society activists on the Lokpal panel, is itself appointing un-elected individuals – almost always corporate CEOs - in extremely strategic policy-making positions in ways that seriously undermine Parliament as well as people's right to know. A crucial instance is that of the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) – which has recently secured “in-principle” approval from the Cabinet Committee on Security. NATGRID's CEO is one Captain Raghu Raman, former CEO of Mahindra Special Services Group. Through what parliamentary or democratic process was he appointed? People are in the dark about why he was hand-picked by the Home Minister. Moreover his views and stances are not known to the public.

Civil society activists are public figures, whose ideas are ever open to public scrutiny and debate. We may not agree with everything that Anna Hazare proposes – but his ideas are out there in the open for us to criticize or assess on our own. But things are very different with the likes of Captain Raghu Raman. How many people are aware, for instance, of his views on national security and India 's democracy? When he was the Mahindra SSG boss, he penned an article titled ‘ A Nation of Numb People' in which he opined, “Enterprises would need to raise their own protection units…The idea is to … have private protection units that can work in close cooperation with law enforcement agencies. Think of it as a private territorial army . If the commercial czars don't begin protecting their empires now, they may find the lines of control cutting across those very empires.”

Can Chidambaram tell us why a man who thinks of corporations as ‘czars' with private ‘territories' with the right to command ‘private armies' to wage war on India's citizens is heading the most sensitive, all-compassing intelligence institution in our country? Are India 's Parliament and people aware that NATGRID is headed by a man whose worldview matches those of the worst banana republics?

Another instance Parliament being undermined is in the case of the UID Project. The UID Authority of India headed by Nandan Nilekani – another former CEO - UIDAI came into being without approval in Parliament, let alone wider debate in civil society. The National Identification Authority of India (NIAI) Bill, 2010 has been introduced in the Rajya Sabha, but is yet to be debated or passed, and it is yet to have been placed in the Lok Sabha. With a mere Cabinet approval as its basis, UIDAI headed by Nilekani has already signed MOUs in most states with a range of private agencies and government ministries, and UID cards are already being distributed. Does this not undermine Parliamentary democracy?

What are the credentials of individuals like Raghu Raman or Nilekani? They are not elected parliamentarians. They are not even politicians, who at any rate have to face elections periodically? Neither are they bureaucrats, bound to certain regulations and obligations. They are simply corporate CEOs, accountable only to protecting the interests of corporate profits! Yet we see they are being chosen through sheer discretion and positioned in strategic places to make far-reaching critical changes in our country's policy – that bode disastrous and irreparable implications for country's democracy and citizens' rights.

In a debate on a TV channel, responding to the issue of India signing on the UN Convention on Corruption, Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari declared piously that even a municipal law would take precedence over international laws if the former was contradicted by the latter. Such respect for India 's democratic institutions and sovereignty is commendable – but one wonders where it evaporates when it comes to economic policies dictated by the WTO? In those cases, why does the Indian Government argue that its hands are tied and it has no choice but to amend India 's laws in keeping with WTO directives? It seems the Government invokes the principles of Parliamentary democracy and sovereignty only according to convenience.

The processes initiated by mass movements and civil society activists – whether we agree with all their views or not – strengthen democracy. Citizens do have a right to tell their elected representatives what kind of laws they want enacted and what laws they want changed or scrapped. The SEZ Act was passed by Parliament without a word of dissent. But when implemented, it became clear that those citizens it would affect most – farmers – would not accept it. Would it not have been far more democratic that farmers should have had a right to scrutinise such a law before it was passed in Parliament? Now, farmers' mass protests against land grab are forcing governments to consider their opinions on existing laws on land acquisition and rehabilitation. Opinion is building in the country against the sedition law; earlier, mass protests have forced a debate on laws like AFSPA. These are all processes that are essential to a healthy democracy – and the Government only exposes its authoritarian impulse by trying to discredit such participative processes.

One reader's comment on the web page of a leading English daily that carried the news story – ‘Elected members cannot yield to civil society – Chidambaram' ( http://www.indianexpress.com/news/elected-members-cannot-yield-to-civil-society-chidambaram/800964/ ) hit the nail on the head. This reader has commented caustically, “Yes, they should yield only to corporates and plunderers of the nation.” It seems the UPA Government's bluster is able to convince fewer people every day, as the corporate-dictated corruption under its aegis becomes more and more obvious.

(The author teaches Economics at Sri Aurobindo College (Eve.), Delhi University )




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