The civil society's campaign for a stronger lokpal bill has challenged the supremacy of the elected representatives for the first time. Never before the elected representatives at the constitutionally highest house of Parliament were set an agenda for discussion. Members of both houses of Parliament belonging to all political parties may all have seethed in anger when they were given a deadline by civil society leaders to debate and approve a given draft of bill, that too by foregoing their Saturday holiday. The ruling and opposition parties had no alternative but to bite the bait as all of them had realised to their horror that the civil society leaders indeed had the people's mandate, although none of them has ever won an election.
The speeches of some leaders during the day-long debate in Parliament on August 27 revealed their frustration over being dictated terms by the people gathered on the streets of New Delhi and the cities and towns across the country. The speeches by Kiran Bedi and actor Om Puri, which lampooned the elected representatives angered the MPs most. Bedi and Puri might have gone overboard while addressing the protesters but no one can deny the fact most agitators on the streets shared the opinion voiced by the two.
The country has a rich tradition of studious parliamentarians with clean image like Jawaharlal Nehru, Ram Manohar Lohia, Madhu Limaye, Atal Behari Vajpayee and George Fernandes, whose long speeches in the house had held elected representatives spellbound. Nowadays not many politicians enjoy such a stature. The frustration of the masses over the poor image of their elected representatives was palpable when people marched on streets, donning the "Mai Hu Anna" caps.
This is not the first time people have come on the streets spontaneously to press their demands. There have been popular stirs for formation of linguistic states, construction of Ram mandir at Ayodhya and according important status to local languages. But most of these were led by political parties, in most cases by opposition parties. The elected representatives like MPs or state legislators were not at the receiving end of the agitations.
In contrast, there was not a single politician or a political party involved in the protests against corruption. It may seem that the stir for a stronger lokpal bill is directed against the ruling Congress at the Centre. But that is not exactly the case. The BJP and other political parties might have been too happy to see the ruling UPA being cornered and the government machinery coming to a standstill when social reformer Anna Hazare was on an indefinite fast for 12 days. But neither the BJP nor other political parties was in a mood to accept Anna's jan lokpal bill. None of the political parties was happy to see the campaign against corruption gaining such a huge popular support. They feared the protesters would soon come knocking at their doors. As Anna's team kept politicians of all hues at bay, all political parties avoided being part of the stir. Thus it why for the first time that daggers were drawn between elected representatives and the people who had elected them.
Anna Hazare has been saying that the jan sansad or the people's parliament is supreme to Parliament and at the lowest level, the gram sabha is supreme to the gram panchayat. In theory, no one should have any qualms in accepting this. But how can this be translated into reality? How can we know the people's mind on a particular issue? Elections are rarely contested on specific issues. Often, emotive issues sway the poll verdict one way or the other. A referendum may be a way to know the people's mind and Parliament cannot have any option but to honour the referendum result. But holding a referendum will nor be easy. And it will involve a lot of expenses. In post-independent India, the country has conducted referendum only once. A referendum was conducted in Goa, Daman and Diu in 1967 to seek people's opinion on whether the territory, then freed from Portuguese bondage, should be merged into neighbouring Maharashtra or retain its independent identity. The people had then decided to keep the territory's distinct identity with an impressive margin.
The provision of the right to recall will permit the electorate to keep the elected representatives in check and prove the maxim that ultimately people are supreme. Hazare has been pressing for this electoral reform for long. The demand must be considered seriously. A time frame of a couple of years after the election will have to be fixed before seeking the recall. Or, else there could be a continuous chain of recalling the elected representatives.
India is a vibrant parliamentary democracy. The popular agitation on the lokpal bill has clearly shown that a large percentage of the electorate, specially the younger generation, does not trust politicians. This spells danger for democracy. The elected representatives should understand this and work out a tangible solution to realise people's aspirations about a clean social and political life. Only this approach will avoid frequent confrontations with the civil society.