While social activist Anna Hazare’s Team Anna has captured popular imagination and prime-time news with the campaign for its version of the Lok Pal Bill, the popularity of its cause and the large following it has been able to attract – especially in New Delhi and Mumbai – should not detract from the fact that it has but one voice in an ocean of many voices. By definition, any representative of civil society reflects one viewpoint and there are many other contending viewpoints on any given issue. There is no measure, including the size of a rally or a gathering or the ability to bring large parts of a city to a halt, that can be used to assert that this alone is the “voice of the people” or the voice of the majority. Nothing less than parliamentary majority matters when it comes to making laws. Currently, only the Manmohan Singh government enjoys that privilege.
Though Mr Hazare should be heard with respect and all thinking citizens and the government of the day must reflect upon his views, the fact remains that there are other voices that should also be heard — indeed, some very respectable voices from civil society. Against Team Anna’s view is the view of Team Aruna! A civil society activist and member of the National Advisory Council of the United Progressive Alliance, Aruna Roy has taken a very different view on the composition of the contemplated Lok Pal institution. Indeed, there would be several other views and each of them deserves as much attention from the government and the media as do the views of Team Anna. Team Anna’s insistence that only its version of the Lok Pal Bill be accepted by the government is an extremist position that no liberal democracy can accept. Long before Team Anna appeared on the stage of governance reform, several distinguished social activists like Jayaprakash Narayan of the Lok Satta and Ms Roy had been engaged in the process of advising governments on policy. To the Manmohan Singh government’s credit, it was not only willing to listen to all these civil society voices, but it also involved many of them, including Team Anna, in drafting laws.
Against this background, it is no longer the government that appears “arrogant” and unbending, but Team Anna, which has adopted an unacceptably rigid stance, buoyed by the numbers that have come to express solidarity with the larger cause of fighting corruption. Team Anna is right to say that democracy is not just about an election every five years and that people have the right to have their voice heard at all times. However, in a modern democracy there are legitimate forums for the expression of popular opinion, including parliamentary forums. No mob can arrogate to itself the right to speak on behalf of people. That way lies anarchy. Given the kind of mobilisation that Mr Hazare has been able to carry out, it is now incumbent upon him to channel the peoples’ energy into constructive activity rather than destroy the great institutions of democracy. Team Anna has made its point and the government has walked more than half the distance to seek a compromise. Even if Team Anna is not willing to hear the voice of the government, it must have the humility to at least hear the voice of other civil society activists.