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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 32 New Delhi July 30, 2016

Fighting Corruption, Communal Fascism: Swaraj Abhiyan’s Perspective

interview of Prashant Bhushan

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Swaraj Abhiyan, launched by anti-corruption activists on April 14, 2015 as a platform for participatory democracy through alternative politics, is organising its Second National Convention at New Delhi on July 30-31, 2016. In the last 15 months, it has taken five major initiatives towards its goal— (a) Jai Kisan Andolan for kisan and rural India; (b) Shiksha Swaraj about issues of education and youth employment; (c) Anti-Corruption Team to support RTI activists and PIL to fight corruption; (d) Aman Committee and Umbrella of Peace to promote inter-faith harmony and prevent social violence against weaker sections; and (e) Swaraj Kendra for social service, leadership building and community level work. It has established membership-based elected committees in more than 120 districts and seven States. On the occasion of the Second National Convention of Swaraj Abhiyan, we are publishing the following interview and articles for the benefit of our readers.

The following is the interview of eminent Supreme Court lawyer, human rights activist and anti-corruption 

crusader Prashant Bhushan by Dr Sant Prakash Singh.

Q. You are one of the anti-corruption crusaders of India and also involved in a political formation with a view to promoting alternative politics. Why have you taken this step?

See, during the anti-corruption campaign, we realised that despite a lot of public pressure, the entrenched political parties who control Parlia-ment and State legislatures, from where laws and policies are made, are reluctant to annul even a very popular demand made by the anti-corruption movement like the demand for a stronger Jan Lokpal Bill etc. One of the reasons for that was that they felt that in the game of electoral politics, no honest alternative could defeat them; therefore we felt the time had come for us to set up an honest political alternative and show them that an honest political alternative can defeat entrenched corrupt political parties. So we had at that stage decided to set up the Aam Aadmi Party. Of course, unfortunately the party itself has now become like any other normal political party with all the same trappings of power, corruption, even gundagardi etc.....

Q. Why are you dissatisfied with the Indian party system?

You see, if you ask the question, can people freely vote in India?—the answer would be: yes, most people can freely vote. If you ask the second question, are people satisfied with the government that they elect, the answer would be: most people are dissatisfied and that is why wherever we go, people tell us that there is no alternative before them and all the mainstream political parties are casteist, communal, corrupt etc. Therefore, from everywhere, there is a demand to form an alternative political party. Now the reason why this happens is in my view, one of the main reasons is that we in our representative democracy, we have the first- past-the-post system at two levels when we cast our vote for our MP and MLA. When you vote for your representative, the person who gets the highest number of votes, gets elected, even if he has got only 25 per cent votes, and the other person has got less than 25 per cent. So this person who may have got only 25 per cent votes become the representative of the whole constituency.

When you are voting for a representative you are not merely voting for the candidate, you are also voting for a government, and that is why you see, when people cast their vote, they don’t always vote for the best candidate or the best party that they consider to be the best because if they feel that the best candidates or the best party have no chance of winning, then they don’t want to waste their vote and they will then vote for the party or candidate that they consider to be relatively less bad amongst those parties or candidates who seem to have some chance of winning. So that is how they assess who has some chance of winning and who has some chance of losing; that assessment is made largely on the basis of the visibility of that candidate and his party. So if there is a very honest candidate and honest party who is not visible, meaning there is no advertising, it does not have many paid workers on the ground or does not have to many workers on the ground to give the candidate visibility, then they feel that while this person may be a good candidate or his party may be a very good party but they have no chance of winning, what’s the point of wasting our vote, let us vote for the least bad among those parties which appear to have some chance of winning.

Visibility brings viability and that is usually a function of advertising with feet on the ground and workers and volunteers on the ground. Advertising is largely a function of money. Workers and volunteers now are also usually paid workers bought by money. In India, on very rare occasions like the AAP in 2014 and 2015 during the Delhi elections when a large number of unpaid volunteers worked, as the AAP had only reasonable amount of donation money which had come from all over the world. This kind of thing hardly ever happens and the result is that it is only those parties with a lot of money—and usually that money acquired by corrupt means—which have the kind of visibility which gives them viability in the eyes of the people that these parties have some chance of winning. That is why, we have this business of while we have free and fair voting, we are forced to vote for the lesser evil, so to say, every time they seem to go from one party to choose the other party and we are not satisfied with the government that they form. This is the problem.

Q. What are the major challenges for making India a participatory democracy?

In my view, this kind of problem is the first-part-the-post system in a representative democracy which is making us choose a lesser evil all the time and it is not allowing us to choose a really good government. This problem can reduce to some extent if we make our democracy more participatory. Now one way of making democracy participatory is to decentralise power. So that the maximum power resides at the lowest level which means all the matters which concern village or which concern a local area and local Mohalla etc., should be dealt with and decided by the people of that village or Mohalla. It is the only thing which concerns several villages that needs to be taken to the next level, which could be the block level or the ward level so to say and all the things which involve only that block or ward should be decided at that level and so on; only the things which involve several wards or several blocks should be taken to the next higher level. It should be at the district level, and only the things which concern several districts should be taken to the State level and those covering several States should be taken to the Central level. We allow more participation because the smaller the unit the higher is the use of the participation that we can have in a democracy. So the level of village and Mohalla people can actually get together and they discuss in the community and they decide themselves. At the larger level, this kind of physical gathering or community gathering is not possible but still something can be devised so that there can be several gatherings where they can come together.

So this is one way of making democracy more participatory so that it is to decentralise power and which has direct democracy at least at the lowest levels system of initiative on referendums by which even at larger level where a physical meeting is not possible on important issues people can sign or take initiative such as, for example, people want Jan Lokpal, that is a national issue. At present, if let’s say 20 per cent electorate sign and petition for Jan Lokpal, then there should be a referendum on that issue, in which people can vote; if they decide by majority to have Jan Lokpal then it should become law without having to go to Parliament. This is the system which has been adopted in many countries, especially in Switzerland. Switzerland has the most advanced system of this initiative on referendums which take major decisions. That will also make our democracy more parti-cipatory because, I think, it is possible to organise referendum and lobbies which seek attention. Noam Chomsky calls it “manufactured consent”. But that is not as easy as we find some influential class of persons who bribe a few representatives in Parliament and get their Bill passed.

Q. What will you say about the Gandhian model of decentralisation which we have already got through 73rd and 74th Amendments?

Yes, though the attempt was made to decentralise power through the 73rd and 74th Amendments, unfortunately that was not really implemented in its true spirit. Unfortu-nately, most of the power continues to remain with the Central Government and lesser power with State governments and very little power existe at the lowest level. By and large, Panchayats are not functioning. Here I am showing my concern over a body like gram sabha and not just Panchayat. Panchayat is a relative body. But a truly direct democracy is about assembling the entire citizens in order to take decisions.

Q. Is referendum an appropriate tool, as in India most of the people don’t have the proper understanding of the issues?

If we can trust the people with electing representatives who can decide anything, so we should also have some safeguards because you can’t have referendum over something which would be totally unconstitutional, for example, suppose you have a referendum on whether all Muslims should be thrown out of India, that would be an unconstitutional referendum as it is against the basic structure of the Constitution. You will have to have some authority or body which can decide what kind of referendum is possible, and which kind is not. This power should be given to the authority.

Q. You have initiated the formation of an anti-corruption platform for RTI activists.What is its agenda?

It is not for just RTI activists, Swaraj Abhiyan has decided to take up four major campaigns, which has become a major problem in the country. One is the issue of corruption which is a serious problem in India. Lokpal has not been formed, the integrity of the CVC is under question, and whistleblower notification has been virtually made useless, while the whistle-blower law has not been notified. RTI activists are being disabled and so on. Corruption continues to be a serious problem which needs to be addressed; therefore one of the major campaigns that we want to run is on corruption and act on it as part of the Swaraj Abhiyan which will focus on the anti-corruption campaign. There is also the anti-communalism campaign, education and employment campaign and lastly the farmers and agricultural campaign.

Q. Recently there was the Swaraj Abhiyan Aman Committee conference in Varanasi under your convenorship. What is the need for such an initiative in India today? 

Especially after the BJP Government came to power at the Centre, they are being seen as very aggressive. Coming to the BJP Government at the Centre, a new problem which has emerged is of the communal-fascist BJP, and the RSS has always made it clear, it is time for the Hindu Rashtra, for a Hindu India where they would like to make the minorities second class citizens. Towards this end, they are using every method possible to communally polarise people. And they are using that not merely to win elections in the various States by communal polarisation, but also for the purpose of curbing of freedom of speech or cracking down on dissent, cracking down on minorities and cracking down on Dalits etc. So it is a full-fledged communal fascist assault that we are seeing in this country under the leadership of Modi. So the object of this convention is to discuss and decide what citizens can do, by way of citizens activism, and how they can defuse this communal attack.

Q. You have talked about ‘Citizens’ Activism’. What is the role of civil society, in your opinion, in contemporary politics?

Unfortunately, our established political parties have failed us; therefore the onus of fighting
all those evils, as we are seeing around us including this communal fascism, rests with the civil society. And this includes fighting corruption as well.

The civil society is playing a very important role today. There are large numbers of activists or organisations which have been campaigning against all kinds of bad things; so such civil society activism needs to be encouraged and organised. This Aman convention was to organise such civil society activism around the issue of communal fascism.

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