Elephants in the Room

August 30, 2011 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)


In the great torrent of words inspired by Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement what is not being discussed has proved to be almost as significant as what is being said. As a writer I have always been fascinated by the silences that suddenly congeal within the ceaseless argumentation of our collective life. In this instance some of these silences are so striking as to make one wonder why nobody ever mentions the herd of elephants in the room.

Here is one relatively minor instance: on innumerable occasions over the last couple of weeks commentators have excoriated the Congress Party for it ‘lack of leadership’. Yet not once have I heard anyone remarking on the fact that this is not just a figure of speech – it is literally true. Sonia Gandhi, the actual leader of the party and the fount of its power, is indeed absent, and is known to be incommunicado because she is recuperating from an operation. It is as if some kind of taboo had arisen around this subject.

But here is a much more significant example: several members of the Congress Party have spoken with great eloquence about the importance of respecting the sovereignty of Parliament and about the dangers of creating an extra-Parliamentary source of legislation. Thus for example Mr. Chidambaram: ‘Do not diminish the sovereign right of Parliament to make laws. The day this right is diminished even by one millimetre, that will be the saddest day for our democracy.’

Reading this, anyone would imagine that the functioning of Mr. Chidambaram’s own party conformed to some ideal model of a Westminster-style democracy. Yet, a basic premise of a parliamentary democracy is that the office of Prime Minister is held by the leader of the dominant party: in other words executive and political power are vested in the same person. Could we imagine for example, a situation in which David Cameron, having led his party to victory in an election, would pick a member of the House of Lords to be the Prime Minister?

The truth is that members of the Congress Party are singularly ill-placed to wax indignant about the dangers of bowing to an extra-Parliamentary power. They looked to Sonia Gandhi for leadership even when she was not in Parliament; nor is the legislature the real source of her authority. This is indeed the root of the problem for the Congress party today: it is itself structured in such a way as to divorce power from the legislature. The Prime Minister has never won an election; the country knows that his authority is limited and that he is not the government’s guiding force. This has created an opacity at the very core of the political system: the situation would generate mistrust even if the protagonists were blameless.

The differences between the Westminster model and our own political system are obvious. Why then are they so rarely mentioned, even while the model is constantly invoked? Is it because we have become so accustomed to being lauded as the ‘world’s largest democracy’ that we can no longer see what stares us in the face? Or is it because this rhetoric has made us unwilling – or unable – to distinguish between form and substance in politics?

When we look at the form of our political life it is indeed a parliamentary democracy – and considering the available alternatives this is undoubtedly a good thing. But there is another equally important aspect to Indian politics, a dynastic aspect, and it has nothing to do with Westminster: it springs from the same soil that has bred the political dynasties of  Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Phillipines.

In Pakistan the pre-eminent dynasty has played no small part in plunging the country into crisis. But a crisis sometimes brings certain truths to the fore. It is not an accident that the term ‘deep state’ was coined in Pakistan, to describe a situation in which the actual mechanisms of power are hidden behind a public performance of electoral politics.

But the ‘deep state’ is now no longer exclusive to Pakistan; its workings are discernible also in some of the world’s leading democracies, including the United Kingdom and the United States: they were evident for example, in the ways in which these countries were led into the Iraq war in the teeth of widespread popular opposition; no less were they apparent in the way that the interests of banks were privileged over the interests of ordinary people after the financial crisis of 2008.

To millions of people around the world it has become evident that the forms of democracy are not in themselves a safeguard against the manipulation of government by unseen powers. The most moving articulation of this came perhaps from the indignados – the protesters who filled the streets of Spain earlier this year: ‘Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic and social outlook that we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice… Instead of placing money above human beings, we shall put it back to our service. We are people, not products. I am not a product of what I buy, why I buy and who I buy from.’

In India the events of the last couple of years have unmasked, as never before, our own ‘deep state’. As scandal after scandal has unfolded, it has become evident that the collusion between politicians, corporations and the media, is of a staggering magnitude, and that it operates on a scale that far exceeds anything that most people could even imagine. Indeed it has become apparent that the locus of power in the country has largely moved away from New Delhi to the corporate towers of Mumbai; it is apparent also that the political class is unable to rectify this.

Something clearly had to be done; it was clear also that the formal institutions of Indian democracy were incapable of doing it. The movement that has filled the gap offers cause for both hope and misgiving. In its insistence on bringing political processes into the open it is trying to restore some of the content that has leached out of governance in India. In failing to address the role of the private sector in corruption it is itself ignoring the elephants in the room. What is undeniable is that its emergence is a development of enormous significance. The movement has already tasted power and in the months to come it could turn in many directions: the political class is right to be apprehensive about this. Yet it was this very class that allowed the substance of politics to leak from its grasp even as it clung to the forms. Inasmuch as the country, as a whole, has allowed this to happen, we are all to blame.


Amitav Ghosh

[A version of this article was published in the Hindustan Times, New Delhi, on August 29, 2011, under the title ‘The Grand Illusion’.]

2 Responses to “Elephants in the Room”

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  1. Comment by Dibyajyoti Ghosh — August 30, 2011 at 9:52 pm   Reply

    This is the first time I am commenting on your excellent blog which I follow regularly.

    I would like to draw your attention to two articles. One by Abhijit Gupta of Jadavpur University. I am copy pasting an article he had posted on the social networking site Facebook. The other is by Andre Beteille and came out in yesterday’s edition of The Telegraph. The second article can be read over here — http://www.telegraphindia.com/1110830/jsp/opinion/story_14435648.jsp

    Meanwhile, here is the first one I was talking about.

    On Again Looking into the draft Jan Lokpal bill
    by Abhijit Gupta on Tuesday, 23 August 2011 at 23:19

    This is an edited and amplified version of my note on the subject: the earlier reflections were a kind of running commentary as I read the draft. This one arranges them more systematically, and also incorporates comments made by some of those who responded.

    Also the first note was based on version 1.8 of the draft, this one is on the latest version 2.3 which can be found at http://www.hyderabaddailynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Jan_Lokpal_Bill_ver_2.3-hyderabaddailynews.com_.pdf, among others (this seems to be the fastest download) It is to be noted that there are some significant differences between the two versions. Some of the modifications are significant enough to warrant a comparison between the two versions. Let it also be noted that 2.3 only refers to central public servants, and not the state officials, who are apparently to be later incorporated into the bill. As such, version 2.3 is incomplete.


    Many commentators on the current movement have expressed varying degrees of reservations about the means of protest (fasting), the use of symbols etc., but most have agreed that the cause, i.e. fighting corruption, is a worthy one. I have no doubt that the crowds who have gathered at the Ramlila grounds have done so because they think that the cause is a worthy one.

    But reading the draft document persuades me that this is about corruption only nominally. What the draft is in reality is a blueprint for assuming an extraordinary range of powers, unprecedented in the history of representative politics. If the draft bill is passed the way it is, it will make the Lokpal one of the most powerful persons in the country. In fact, the office has the potential to become a parallel centre of power with the capacity of making and unmaking prime ministers and ministers at will.

    In addition, the office of Lokpal is predicated upon the availability of x number of persons of ‘impeccable integrity’ and ‘unimpeachable dignity’, who ‘should have demonstrated their resolve and efforts to fight against corruption in the past’. How is dignity and integrity is measured, and by who? Who is deemed to have ‘fought against corruption’? And in any case, how can a system premised on the ‘goodness’ of a few people ever become workable?

    Given that the Lokpal will be immensely powerful as well as a person of ‘impeccable integrity’, may I be permitted a shudder at the resultant mix of power and sanctimony? Historically, this has been a deadly combination—it is not without reason that I invoked Robespierre earlier, a man significantly called ‘the incorruptible’ by his supporters.

    How many people are there in the country who can fit the Lokpal’s demanding job requirements (Extensive knowledge of the law, ‘record of public service particularly in the field of fighting corruption’, and ‘impeccable dignity’. Those under 45 need not apply!) ? Not many. Not many at all. In fact, one suspects that much of the shortlist may be on the stage at Ramlila grounds. Is that why there is such a mad rush to pass the Bill, by short-circuiting all parliamentary procedures? To anoint a messiah who will wield the divine rod of punishment?

    If all this sounds fanciful, let us look at the powers and functions proposed for the Lokpal. [Chapter III]. In addition to exercising superintendence of any probe into corruption, it also awards to itself the right of deciding the terms of penalty. Alright, if it must. But what do we make of 6 (q) which reads as follows: ‘to initiate suo moto appropriate action under the Act on receipt of any information from any source about any corruption’. [emphases mine]?

    Does this mean the Lokpal is competent to take action against charges of corruption against any member of the public? Am I missing something here?

    There are further nuggest, such as 6 (v) which reads: ‘to require any public authority to render any specific help required by the Lokpal’. Then, according to 6(j) it is competent to receive any complaints against its own staff. This is a right the Lokpal would deny to all other government institutions on the gorunds that they could not adjudicate on their own cases.

    What happens if you wish to appeal the order of the Lokpal? You can go to the High Court, but the draft tells us darkly that ‘ordinarily, High Courts shall not stay the order’!

    Do these not vest arbitrary, abnormal and seemingly limitless powers in the Lokpal? If I am reading this draft wrong, I would earnestly request some supporter of the draft to dispel my misgivings.

    Whistleblower: In the section titled ‘Matters not subject to investigation (17)’, the last clause recites: ‘(4) Nothing in this section shall bar Lokpal from entertaining a complaint making an allegation of misconduct or corruption or a complaint from a whistleblower seeking protection’. In other words, any and every thing is liable to be investigated, as long as you can show that you are a whistleblower.

    [The above section was included in version 1.8. In version 2.3, there is no section titled ‘Matters not subject to investigation’! In other words, there are no definitions or standards which spell out what cannot fall under the Act, other than the term ‘Acts of Corruption’, which in turn refers to Chapter IX of the Indian Penal Code]

    And who is a whistleblower? According to Section 2 (Definitions), a whistleblower is ‘any person who faces threat of (1) professional harm, including but not limited to illegitimate transfers, denial of promotions, denial of appropriate perks, departmental proceedings, discrimination or (2) physical harm or (3) is actually subjected to such harm; because of either making a complaint to Lokpal under this Act or for filing an application under Right to Information Act’.

    [This was version 1.8. In 2.3, it is modified to mean a person who is harmed or threatened by harm in the action of either complaining to the Lokpal or filing an RTI. Potentially, any Indian citizen who makes a complaint against any government official thereby becomes a whistleblower. In addition, they will enjoy protection from the Lokpal against harassment or threats if they ask for it.]

    Budget: Has anyone worked out how much the staff of the Lokpal is going to cost the exchequer? The first draft states that the ‘number and categories of officers and employees shall be decided by the Lokpal in consultation with the government’. The latest draft does state that its budget shall not be more than
    0.25 % of the total revenue of the GOI but in the same breath states that ‘the Lokpal shall not need any administrative or financial sanction from any government agency to incur expenditure’! In other words, carte blanche. Is there any other public office which can make such a demand?

    [In the first draft, there was an ever more outrageous demand: ‘There shall be a separate fund by the name of “Lokpal fund” in which penalties/fines imposed by the Lokpal shall be deposited and in which 10% of the loss of Public Money detected/prevented on account of investigations by Lokpal shall also be deposited by the Government. Disposal of such fund shall be completely at the discretion of the Lokpal’}

    The following comments are by Samantak Das and reveal an even more frightening darkness at the heart of the draft bill:

    …may I humbly draw your attention to the “Powers of Officers under Lokpal”, in Chapter III, which states under section 8, “For the purposes of investigation of offences related to acts of corruption, the appropriate Bench of the Lokpal shall be deemed to be designated authority under Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act empowered to approve interception and monitoring of messages of data or voice transmitted through telephones, internet or any other medium as covered under the Indian Telegraph Act read with Information and Technology Act 2000 and as per rules and regulations made under the Indian Telegraph Act 1885”? Chapter XVII, 29 (12) repeats this: “The appropriate Bench of the Lokpal shall be deemed to be the designated authority under Section 5 of the Indian Telegraph Act empowered to approve interseption [sic] and monitoring of messages or data or voice transmitted through telephones, internet or any other medium as covered under the Indian Telegraph Act read with Information and Technology Act 2000 and as per rules and regulations made under the Indian Telegraph Act 1885.” This is reiterated in the document “Jan Lokpal vs. Govt. Lokpal”, which states that seeking permission from the Home Secretary to tap phones will interfere with a “basic right” and “compromise investigations”. So, in addition to being judge, jury and executioner, the Lokpal wishes to arrogate to itself the rights of Big Brother too!

    A small historical note. In his Arthasastra (c. 4th century BCE), Kautilya has a section, Book 4, Chapter IX (Section 84) – I borrow from RP Kangle’s excellent English rendering – “Keeping a Watch Over (Officers of) All Departments”, which might be profitably read for the sentiments expressed in the Jan Lokpal Bill. Here, for example, we find “For an officer stealing an article of high value or a gem from mines or factories for articles of high value, simple death without torture, shall be the punishment.” As also, for lesser offences “smearing with cow dung and ashes” or for a judge who wrongly imposes corporal punishment, “he shall himself suffer corporal punishment or pay double the normal redemption amount”. In an earlier section, Book I, Chapter X (Section 6), Kautilya speaks of the need to ascertain “the Integrity or the Absence of Integrity of Ministers by Means of Secret Tests”. These tests are of (a) piety, (b) material gain, (c) lust and (c) fear. Those who pass all the tests – by means of making the right responses to inducements – can be appointed the king’s councillors while those who fail the tests should be sent to mines, forests, elephant-forests and factories. And as in Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, spies are essential for the maintenance of artha, or, as Kautilya glosses it “the earth inhabited by men”. My point in invoking these hoary texts is to point out the, perhaps banal, difference between the times when they were composed and the timing of the Jan Lokpal Bill. We live in a democracy, and yet in the opening chapter of the Jan Lokpal Bill, “Chapter I, Preliminary” we find the astounding statement, in Section 3, “Notwithstanding anything in any other Act or Law the provisions of this Act shall prevail and to the extent that the provisions of this Act are repugnant to any other provision in any other Act or law, the provisions in other Acts or laws shall stand amended to the extent of such repugnancy.” In other words, the Bill calls for the Lokpal Act to be a kind of Uber-Act to which ALL OTHER ACTS OR LAWS of our country must submit, if deemed necessary by the Lokpal. If this is not dictatorial, what is?

    • Comment by Amitav Ghosh — September 4, 2011 at 9:14 am   Reply

      Hi Dibyajyoti. Thanks very much for your thoughtful post. I read it with great interest and I have some thoughts on it. I have also received another interesting letter related to my piece on the anti-corruption movement. I am traveling now so it is hard to find time, but I hope to write another post soon about the questions that you and my other correspondent have raised. Amitav

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