City City Bang Bang, Columns

Democracy without dissent?

If the RSS supports vegetarianism, will all vegetables become communal? Absurd as that might sound, it is pretty much the argument some critics of the Anna Hazare-led movement are making when they seek to tar it with the RSS brush. The notion that since the RSS is a communal organisation, anything it touches becomes communal is not an argument that rests on logic but superstition built on an idea of sympathetic magic. Nothing in the Jan Lokpal bill suggests an agenda with a communal element; there has admittedly been a visible presence of religious leaders around the movement but this has in no way influenced the draft of the bill itself. The argument is nothing but an exercise in name calling, and uses voodoo logic to make its case.

The lack of logical rigour is a running feature of the UPA’s effort to attack the Jan Lokpal movement. For instance, if one were to accept that the RSS was backing the cause, would it not imply that it was more serious about getting rid of corruption than the Government, which is doing everything in its power to discredit the protest? Or for that matter, if we were, for the sake of argument, to accept that all members of Team Anna are corrupt in one way or another, does their version of the bill become flawed as a result? Does it mean that we don’t need to do anything about corruption, given that even the anti-corruption activists are not completely clean themselves? It is striking that we are seeing little debate on the bill itself, but only a sustained campaign of superficial name calling that has virtually no implications on any core issue at stake. The issue is no longer the Jan Lokpal bill; Team Anna is being taught a lesson for having the temerity to rise against the political establishment

Troubling as this is, the real problem lies much deeper. The fact that the state is able to use its vast powers to single out each member of Team Anna and do so as deliberately and openly as it has tells us that any form of dissent is likely to attract fierce retribution. And the media, far from protecting us against such attacks might well become an instrument in the hands of the powerful, both deliberately in some cases and unwittingly in others.

This pattern is not restricted to this case alone. We saw it at work in as naked a form when the Vajpayee government went after Tehelka and everyone it could associate with it in the aftermath of the sting operation. We see it when a Narendra Modi repeatedly goes after dissenters who are inconvenient. We see it in the way the Congress turned the CBI loose on Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh when he became troublesome. Indeed, it has become standard practice to use the machinery of the government to attack dissenters in unrelated cases so as to undermine them personally instead of trying to rebut the argument they make. The brazenness of the actions taken by the state is what is deeply troubling for it suggests that tomorrow anyone in a position to challenge the state will face all-out attacks of similar ferocity.

This is where the role media plays needs to come under greater scrutiny. When it allows itself to be diverted every time a Digvijay Singh says something outrageously provocative or when an IT case against Arvind Kejriwal is dug up, it is following a baser instinct and sacrificing a larger principle. It can be nobody’s case that media should not have reported or commented on the Kiran Bedi episode, for instance. Of course, the fact that she was presenting bills of a higher amount than what she spent was newsworthy given that she is such an impassioned anti-corruption crusader, but it is equally important to acknowledge that in the overall context of corruption in India, this can only be a minor footnote, an interesting sidelight if you will. Padding travel bills is not the same as the CWG scam, and Kiran Bedi, however visible she might be as a person is not accountable to the public in the same way as an elected representative or a minster is; these are false equivalences that must be exposed. There is a difference between the interesting and the important, the distracting and the dangerous and a key role of media is to accord differential priorities to events rather than paint them all with a uniform brush. The revelation that a self-righteous crusader is less than transparent in her personal dealings is interesting, but not earth-shakingly important. But the manner in which she and others have been targeted is not only important but dangerous in a way that goes way beyond this specific case.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the price that is being extracted for dissent is the absence of an independent voice that rises above ideological considerations and works towards upholding the key principles that every democracy must cherish. In this case, for instance, those opposed to Team Anna’s methods tend to make light of the state’s deliberate and unprincipled targeting of key individuals just as in the case of Sanjiv Bhatt and other dissenters in Gujarat, the supporters of Narendra Modi justify the need for the state action. Increasingly, ideology tends to overwhelm principle; the desire to support any action, however unsavoury if it happens to be aligned to one’s own views, is visible on both sides. The result is that the political system feels free to take revenge for any act of dissent, secure in the knowledge that it will receive some support for its actions.

In a court of law in the US, illegally obtained evidence, what ever it might be, is generally not admissible on grounds of being the ‘fruit of a poisonous tree’; the idea being that the individual must be protected against acts of bad faith. When the state dredges up unrelated cases against a dissenting individual, it is acting in bad faith. By engaging in a discussion about what it finds as a result of its fishing expeditions, we end up legitimising its actions. And the consequences of that are far more severe than a mere bill, no matter where one stands on its merits.