Narendar Pani

Revolt of the influential

NARENDAR PANI | Updated on November 17, 2011 Published on September 08, 2011

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HAZARE   -  The Hindu

By taking their campaign to the middle-class, Anna Hazare and his supporters have altered the means through which the policy-influencing elite operates. Policy-making has been taken from the backrooms and placed in public domain.

Anna Hazare's campaign against corruption has been widely perceived as a conflict between parliamentarians and civil society. But when we see the contours of this campaign, particularly its focus on getting Parliament to accept a specific version of a Lokpal Bill, it is perhaps more accurately described as a conflict between Parliament and those outside the electoral system who would like to influence policy.

Such conflicts are not new, with the relationship between elected representatives and policy-influencing elite having a long history since Independence. Seen in this context, the recent battle on the Lokpal Bill may well be an indication of the strength of parliamentarians rather than a weakness.

Soon after Independence, India faced the challenge of handing over power to parliamentarians elected by a largely illiterate population. While their ability to reflect conditions on the ground was quite well developed, their intellectual abilities were not always so. Nehru met this challenge by setting up a Planning Commission filled with those who he believed had the intellectual ability to take the country forward.

This Nehruvian version of the policy-making elite took policy away from some of the intellectual trends of the national movement. It effectively converted the ideas of the man who led the largest mass movement of the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi, into the impractical ranting of an idealist. In the process, it defined the goal-posts of all policy-making as the existing ideological categories of Right and Left, allowing Nehru to speak of a ‘Mixed Economy'.

This Planning Commission-led policy-making elite had its successes, notably the Second Plan. But by the time of the famine in the mid-1960s and the Plan holiday that followed, it had lost some of its sheen.

Policy-influencing

As Indira Gandhi moved from large Plan models to the specific doles of Garibi Hatao, the policy-influencing elite took a form closer to that of a kitchen Cabinet. The prime minister's office grew in importance, gaining precedence over ministries populated by elected representatives. The policy influencing elite found a role away from that of elected representatives, based upon the political strength that Indira Gandhi wielded.

Rajiv Gandhi's great insight was that, despite a huge electoral victory, he was extremely wary of relying on his charisma to retain the support of parliamentarians. His anti-defection law virtually guaranteed the support of the elected representatives of his party.

The nature of the law also helped it gain the support of the high commands of other parties keen to keep their flock in control. The policy-influencing elite also provided the discourse that was needed to ensure the complete rejection of the process of changing parties.

With elected representatives no longer in a position to vote against a policy for which the High Command had issued a whip, there was no question of the parliamentarians questioning the policy-influencing elite. A parliamentarian representing, say, a garment exporting area such as Tirupur could not vote against the WTO policy decided by the government, even if it went against the interests of her constituency. The voting records of members of the Congress in the US can be used by the electorate to judge what their elected representative stands for. But in India the forced voting brought about by the anti-defection law makes that impossible.

Reforms by stealth

Narasimha Rao took the process of separating the parliamentarian from policy-making a step further. By creating a separate constituency-specific MPs Local Area Development Fund, he virtually told parliamentarians that their role was to take care of constituency-specific projects, and not to intervene in policy.

He was able to carry out what has been termed ‘reforms by stealth' without having to convince individual parliamentarians about specific policies. The unique situation of a Sonia Gandhi-led Congress and a Manmohan Singh-led government allowed for an attempt to institutionalise the role of the policy-making elite, by creating the National Advisory Council.

Members of this Council had, in the past, been able to effectively influence policy, particularly in the case of the Right to Information Bill.

For whatever reason, the NAC was not able to absorb Anna Hazare and his supporters. They moved on to the streets to feed on the contempt the middle-class has for their elected representatives. By doing so, they have fundamentally altered the means through which the policy-influencing elite operates.

It is no longer possible, at least in the case of the Lokpal Bill, to change policy by stealth. Policy-making has been taken from the backrooms and placed in the public domain.

The use of pressure built on the streets to influence policy, as was done by Anna Hazare, is also a domain that few know better than our politicians. A Jayalalithaa or a Mayawati can mobilise crowds far in excess of what Mr Hazare managed. The political class has also demonstrated that it too can play the game of policy by stealth.

The idea of a ‘strong' Lokpal Bill that now has universal acceptance could well be used to include provisions that non-government organisations may not like.

The mobilisation of Anna Hazare has broken the quiet bonhomie that existed between the policy-influencing elite and the powers that be. As policy-making enters the public domain, it is quite possible that it will throw up new demands such as reservations in the appointment of Lokpals.

And if that happens, it is possible that those with Anna Hazare will regret letting the genie out of the bottle.

Published on September 08, 2011
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