Reality Check India

FAQ : Why I fully support the Jan Lokpal protests

Posted in Uncategorized by realitycheck on August 21, 2011

Protests are legitimate and welcome (Img : Yahoo)

Acorn has a blog post up “FAQ: Why Anna is wrong and Lok Pal is a bad idea”. It is very well written and convincing in his usual style but ignores what I think is the core of the issue.  The protests are neither intricately tied to nor are  the protestors mobilized on the merits of the Jan Lokpal bill.

This is my humble attempt to balance the debate.   I stole the Q&A format from Acorn, who probably stole it from Karunanidhi.

What is the significance of these protests ?

This is the first time since independence that people are protesting without seeking anything for themselves.  There have been thousands of protests over the years but they have always been about extracting some form of benefit  from the state or regional protests for a narrower political space.

Are you being clever by trying to delink these protests from the merits of the Jan Lokpal ?

Look at it this way. The main point of the other side is that the misguided protestors have no idea about the hazards lurking in the Jan Lokpal; some op-eds even claim that 99% of the protestors haven’t read either the UPA’s version or the Hazare version. Tell me, if none of them have read or bothered to read the Jan Lokpal bill – how can the protests be about the Jan Lokpal bill ?.  Discrediting the bill whether in a FAQ or in a press conference will have no effect on the protestors. Ask the trio of Mr Kapil Sibal, Mr P.Chidambaram, and Ms A. Soni, they tried.

What are the protests about ? What is bringing people on the streets ?

The protests are a generalized expression of rage against the corruption. The Jan Lokpal bill and the iconic figure of Anna Hazare provide the glue to bring people on to the streets.  I would also say that this is not about retail corruption that you and I counter in day to day life. Most of us have become comfortably numb to that and I see no trigger for such an outpouring on that account.   A casual visit to the protest sites in Chennai see a wave of anger against  big ticket corruption like 2G and CWG.  I see placards in all cities and Delhi that slam specific ministers involved in big loot.

Why then are media outlets like CNN-IBN and intellectuals like Mr Nilekani harping on retail (everyday) corruption ?

Because if the protests are about you not putting up with a personal inconvenience – then the protests lose their moral high ground. The media and intellectuals will go “Look selfish guy cant easily get passport or gas cylinder for himself so goes on street. “. The new “I am a shameless Indian I paid a bribe” campaign of the TV channel will fail. There are already new tricks which try to paint the protests with a casteist or religious brush (hailed by Acorn as “bandukwala rocks”). That too will fail. This is the first truly free agent protest we have seen.  Analysts who bemoaned the inability of Indians to mobilize big crowds without political support are now suddenly shy.

You wrote one of the first posts slamming the Jan Lokpal bill. You called it a lemon, now why are you playing a different tune ?

I haven’t changed by views on the Jan Lokpal bill.  I still think the bill suffers from the fatal flaw of selection.  If the proposed Jan Lokpal setup works exactly as expected, we would be level. But if it doesn’t, we would be utterly devastated. The chances of it being level are about 10%. So in my view it isnt a risk worth taking.

Is any kind of Lok Pal a good idea ?

Yes, I think the a civilian investigative authority is a great idea.  Designed properly, it can be made to work in such a way that even if compromised the downside is limited. I have blogged about it in this post “Report Generator Lokpal or Jail Sender Lokpal” in detail. A report generator Lok Pal with extensive investigative and subpoena powers can be very effective.  Is this a magic pill ? No. Nothing in the world except a magic pill is a magic pill. I find such characterization annoying and lowering the level of debate.  I think a good example is the recent report produced by Mr Santhosh Hegde. I have read the entire report and I congratulate him for that work. A Lok Pal would have allowed his team more teeth in the investigative process. Unlike Acorn, I dont think CBI/CVC can be strengthened independent of the political system being strengthened any more. Our train passed that station long ago.

Reforms 2.0 should do the trick, correct ? Acorn says the 2G scam is due to the UPA balking at reforms ?

No amount of reform could have stopped the 2G scam.  This isnt an economic problem. The duly elected government displayed a wilful absence of good faith curating of a precious national resource.   It is clear there were no studies undertaken to justify the pricing or the methodology, even if the purported benefits of increasing rural coverage were true.  All institutions CVC/CBI/TRAI were managed. It is our enormous good fortune that the CAG happened to be free.   An independent Lok Pal too can be managed with some effort but if its charter is to produce a report, the quality of its output will determine the extent of its damage.  Here is an example : Lets say the CAG had been managed around the 2G scam timeframe. Its report would have produced arguments akin to what Sibal and Chidambaram are putting forth. The managed CAG report would tell us how this isnt a scam because no illegality took place and the winners issued new equity and did not sell the preferred stock. The public would have duly dumped the CAG too like it is dumping the duo of Kapil Sibal and P.Chidambaram.

What about calling your representative instead of coercive street protests ?

This theme is lifted straight from the United States.  We dont have a culture of phoning our representatives. They take their commands from the party leadership. This works in cleanrooms when there are so many free agents in an area that individual phone calls can make your representative stand up and listen.  I remember reading an angry voice in the comments section of a news site recently.  Pushed on the unconstitutional means of protest – he retorted.  “I am pissed about corruption and I want to go to the streets. You got a problem with that m**f***r ?”  Can you argue with him ?

About the hunger strike being blackmail. I dont think so at all. If the government cant handle this how is it going to handle a border crises ? If push comes to shove – and Anna’s health parameters drop – step in and evacuate him to AIIMS.  Also remember that our history syllabus has drilled into our heads how noble hunger strikes are. Culturally we are conditioned to accept this as a highest form of protest.  Too late now.

How about the middle class vote instead of these charades ?

This is one of my pet themes and I have hundreds of posts on this blog on the subject of what I call  “a free agent voter“.   What Acorn and his ex? colleague Offstumped say will only work in a cleanroom. A mostly sterile state where all voters vote solely on big ticket items that affect everyone like corruption, price rise, terrorism, foreign policy and such.  The problem is : It turns out it takes extreme hard work to get to that place.  Things go downhill dramatically when the stakes include adhoc benefits that exist purely at the pleasure of a protector – namely the person on the ballot. You have to pay a price for defecting, voting against your tailored benefit.

There is no such thing called the middle class in the electoral sense.  It is merely a consumption category.  Even if there was a middle class votebank there is no evidence to suggest they are the protestors. Even if all protestors are middle class, there is no evidence that they do not vote.

This brings me to the conclusion of this FAQ.

How did it come to this  ?

It came to this because a cornerstone for a constitutional democracy is being disrespected and the judiciary is doing little about it.   This cornerstone is the right to equality. It has come to such a level that just uttering these words will brand you a casteist or a right wing fanatic.  It goes without saying that in the Indian context, the right to social justice is also important. The trick is to balance equality and benefits based on a high bar of evidence and monitoring. This way the free agent voter population will continue to be high across all groups. Those really backward will be free to vote on corruption secure in the knowledge that their social justice is on autopilot and they are no longer beholden to their benefit protector.  Freedom.  Once a critical mass of free agents are in place (not necessarily middle class) – it is game over for blatant maladministration.  A new India will arise and the climb up the positive spiral will be rapid.

In the meantime, these protests represent to me :

  • the only way the government can be cornered
  • raises awareness and hopefully puts a lot of people over the free agent threshold
  • warns future government that corruption may not scald them at the hustings but such protests will

So people,  Say “Hi” to the Era of Free Agent Protests where Indians protest as Indians. On things larger than themselves. I am in.

Thanks for reading this post and props to all those who blog and read blogs.


17 Responses

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  1. Barbarian Indian said, on August 21, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Brilliant post.

    The Lok Pal movement has exposed the hypocrisy of the country’s leading opinion makers in an unprecedented way. In their arguments against Lok Pal, they have contradicted virtually every other stand they have ever taken (although, slimy that these creatures are, they have rarely taken any stand).

    You can not claim the country is in trouble, “Deep state”, “injustice” 24/7 and then suddenly turn around and say everything is nice and cozy, Lok Pal not needed.

    Basically, they want to eat their cake and have it too. Maybe they will get away with it too, only this time it is sure to give them a gigantic indigestion.

    • rc said, on August 22, 2011 at 2:58 pm

      He he, well said ! Now they are saying we are not THAT corrupt for you to have to take to the streets.

  2. Offstumped (@offstumped) said, on August 21, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    Hi @RealityCheck

    Interesting post. Some brief comments.

    – This is not the first protest, many protests before including movement against Emergency which were not for entitlements or identity issues.

    – Flawed argument on point #2. Most protests are largely sentimental. This one has its roots in anger against corruption and inspiration in the persona of Hazare. You pretty much say this in #3.

    – On Nilekani you are being inaccurate. He mentioned both types of corruption – that in service delivery and big ticket in allocation of scarce resources.

    – On what kind of lokpal can work, premature to hail hegde report sans convictions that stand up in courts and reforms that stop largescale “irregularities” alleged in the report even by PSUs like NMDC. Whether CBI/CVC can be reformed to be effective – needs constitutional checks and balances U.S. style (directly elected executive and independent legislative oversight).

    – On reforms 2.0 – same as above, need to first fix the constitutional structure so oversight, regulatory and law enforcement functions are separated.

    On your overall construct of a “free agent”

    – Nomenclature is a problem. You are not exactly “free” if you are “attached to a cause”.
    – The label “agent” is a problem as well in the Indian context giving the meaning attached to the word “agent” in a colloquial sense.
    – The only “free agents” are voters who remain unattached to causes and dont make up their mind till they get to the polling booth.
    – In general most voters vote based on interests. Its a different matter whether those interests are linked to “identity based victimhood” or Hindutva or “entitlements” or economic (inflation, corruption etc…)
    – The idea of Indians voting as Indians is a good idea just are those routine calls asking “why cant we have a national government” 🙂


    • rc said, on August 22, 2011 at 3:18 pm

      Thanks for stopping ;

      The emergency tried to carve a political space, much of the protestors were mobilized by politicians. I tried hard to think of a parallel to this one. Telengana protests are about demanding a narrower regional space. Farmers want some subsidies. I hope this trend continues.

      My point is the protests isnt driven by Janlokpal at all. When I say that I mean, people are not agitated on specific clauses such as the PM left out or no Lokayukta etc. How can that be if 99% havent read the bill at all ? Contrast that with – say a union protest on specifics of labour bill.

      >> – On Nilekani you are being inaccurate. He mentioned both types of corruption – that in service delivery and big ticket in allocation of scarce resources.

      He mentioned it in passing. I simply dont see the trigger for a retail corruption protest at this scale. I was at the venues and the most was mostly against big loot. Of course, there is a mix of retail thrown in – but you cant apply the UID balm on this one. You can apply the 2G cancellation balm perhaps.

      Hegde threw up a report. Looks like it has enough specifics in it to be useful in a trial court. Unfortunately for us there is little interest in the report now because it is light on Yeddy and heavy on civil servants and corporates. Maybe another protest can push that case forward. That is where a Lokpal should stop. Many Ombudsmen have limits somewhere around there.

      >> Nomenclature is a problem. You are not exactly “free” if you are “attached to a cause”.

      I agree about the ‘agent’ part in the Indian context. Hopefully the IPL craze can straighten that out.

      BTW: Being a free agent is not about being attached to a cause. It is being attached to an exclusive benefit.

      I think my disagreement with you and Acorn is the degree of attachment due to exclusive benefit vs big picture. Rational humans wont leave tailored benefits on table – this why it is hard to get minorities and other communities on a big platform. We dont have to give up anything – but they need to leave their stuff on the table.

      Dont mean to drop names of books around but I am strongly inspired by Mancur Olsen’s work.

  3. Offstumped (@offstumped) said, on August 21, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    Minor typo on “agent” sentence should read “… given the meaning …”

    Also on Middle Class or Middle India – its a broad definition atleast in my mind. Includes everyone who is not a direct beneficiary of both Crony capitalism (elites with access to corridors of power) and crony socialism (invested in the State for entitlements).

  4. […] FAQ : Why I fully support the Jan Lokpal protests « Reality Check … […]

  5. shiv (blunt type) (@GyroGL) said, on August 21, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    1. Looking at arguments for and against Lok-Pal, its undeniable that there is a very thick fog of democracy in the Delhi air with lots of scope for interesting predictions.

    2. The ideal situation for India is for the UP gov to dissolve itself. Let each party decide on its Lok-pal and anti-corruption strategy and their choice of criminals they want to put up in the contest in today’s charged atmosphere. It may turn out to be one of the best-timed election cycles that may see a huge turnout. The expense of an election is likely to made up by savings due to the stoppage of the UPA.

    3. This analysis is brilliant, as is Acorn’s, but i would much rather see the actualization of the people’s vote decide what kind of a lok-pal India wants or doesn’t want in tandem with the new government.

    4. Adding a lok-pal to the paralyzed UPA gov is akin to adding an artificial leg to a dead centipede and expecting it stand and walk.

    5. Consequently, the first milestone for the current protest should be to bring down the UPA first (which is only fair i think), and then let corruption be debated as a serious grassroots level campaign issue in general elections.

    • rc said, on August 22, 2011 at 3:20 pm

      Ultimately the proof is in the pudding.

      Will the 2G licenses be cancelled and the precious national resource be recovered ?

  6. Nikhil_K2011 (@nikhil_k2011) said, on August 21, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    RealityCheck – Superb post, Just a few observations.

    In a competitive and meritocratic society, it is an unprofitable and an unviable strategy for “anyone” (private and public sector, govt, NGOs) to discriminate on the basis of religion, region, caste, creed, sex etc. For instance, Business House A recruits best from the overall population, while Business House B recruits from a subset. In the long run, Business House A will drive Business House B out of competition. In other words, in a competitive and meritocratic society it is in everyone’s interests to not to discriminate.

    A competitive and meritocratic society (combined with data based helpful tools like reservations which you argue) also gives incentives to marginalized groups to integrate with the mainstream. When everyone in the society knows that everyone has equal an opportunity, most people will vote on issues which affect everyone – price rise, corruption, better governance etc. This leads to an alignment of interests of the system (govt) and drivers of the system (people). When this happens, people following identity based politics will be driven out. A prime example is Gujarat (probably the most competitive and meritocratic state), where in last municipal elections, a large number of Muslim candidates won on BJP tickets. People following KHAM strategy lost badly.

    Problem is how do you get to the state of competitive and meritocratic society, where the state and people promote such a system. This is where I disagree with Constitutionalists and agree with Anna type agitation. In India the system is structured in such a way that no amount of phone calls/meeting to your local MP/MLA will help if they find the issue doesn’t benefit them. One of my uncle is a mid-level politician in SP in Western UP. He told me that the idea is to look for a group which is numerically powerful. A politician who gets the caste combination right is very very difficult to be dislodged from power (like Muslim-Yadav combo of Lalu in Bihar). Unless politicians see “numbers”, they won’t take up the issue and Anna type agitation is one way of building “numbers” on a secular issue like corruption.

  7. Nikhil_K2011 (@nikhil_k2011) said, on August 21, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    I forgot to add that I only want the protests to incentivize the politicians to take up the issue and then let it be debated in the Parliament and Standing Committees. I am not favor in referendum on Janlokpal bill.

  8. divakar s natarajan (@divakarssathya) said, on August 22, 2011 at 4:21 am

    “People are protesting without seeking anything for themselves” People are protesting for their legitimate rights under the constitution. A “generalized expression of rage against the corruption”.

    That the venting may be generalized and pan national, does not imbue it with the dubious virtue of selflessness or altruism that u seem to imply.

    It is this inchoateness of a rare Indian uprising that is troublesome.

    The leaders of the movement are super specific and I dare say, simplistic.

    The people are immensely more demanding.

    “I would also say that this is not about retail corruption that you and I counter in day to day life. Most of us have become comfortably numb to that and I see no trigger for such an outpouring on that account. ”

    “Numb” ? The middle class flatters itself ! Can’t admit it has been,generation after generation, a happy, purring engine of corruption. Rama or Ravana, most people will find a way to “adjust”.

    Trying 2 locate “triggers” within this class is typically narcissistic. Not “Indian”. Not “larger themselves”. This is unconscious “India is middle class, middle class is India” kind of exclusivity.

    A more objective and non conforming mind might find “triggers” in at least one place the Indian media has chosen to trivialize, ignore and ostracize.

    I agree that “the cornerstone is equality”. It is my thesis that the bartering of this cornerstone is what manifest itself in big & mosquito bite ways as corruption.

    That is why, even though I am no selfless, altruistic, “free agenting” angel pining to put myself in the service of a legislative avatar, I took my stand against corruption and for the idea of the rule of law in India.

    And I kinda see why it does not have the originality or sheer rapture of a vision of “a critical mass of free agents” coming forth to serve Mother India.

  9. R113 said, on August 22, 2011 at 7:58 am

    Sums up the mood on the street to a T. The protestors are there to protest against run away corruption, and to a sense, inflation.

  10. x said, on August 22, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Once upon a time, a large no of people came out to the streets, to protest, having as their leader, an old man, bespectacled, dhoti clad……

    History repeats for those who dont learn from it.
    Some of them imagine, fondly, that this time it is free agents out there. Some imagine it is a new messiah out there. These people, who fondly imagine, a new dawn on the horizon, wake up late to reality, and resign to their fate.

    Realitycheck necessary!

  11. kpp1991 said, on August 22, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    RC, a brilliant post.

    Yes, the momentum has gone way beyond any imagination Congress could possibly stretch…not that they have the capability or intellect to stretch too far. They have mastered the art of repeatedly misreading the sentiments of the masses, perhaps out of ignorance or perhaps out of arrogance. Ignorance because several of the eminent ministers are better lawyers than lawyers. Arrogance because they are well assured that the Opposition lies toothless to challenge them and with elections a distant mile away, nothing can unseat them. But this movement has caught on fire and has begun to tickle their conscience with alarm. The most obvious thing about this movement is that it has captured the very youth Congress so very proudly hoped to have pocketed by way of their rather imbecile Youth Leader and Crown Prince, Rahul Gandhi.

    Though I don’t agree with the movement in its entirety, fearing a precedent that could set in as an habit of protest, nor agree with some of the points proposed in their draft of the JLPB, nor do agree with their obstinacy not to compromise, I concur fully with the movement backed by ‘THE PEOPLE”. This has paramount significance that the parliament has now begun to take notice of and are coming to terms with. Yes, people power indeed.

  12. Nirmalya said, on August 22, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    In all the debate about whether the Lokpal will work or become a force for evil no one ever mentions the case of other countries where they do have such anti-corruption agencies. Many other Asian countries have an institution similar in intent to the Lokpal, though varying in power. A look at them show that stronger institutions are more effective, but none of the institutions have had the kind of negative impact that is being feared here by many.

    It turns out that the strongest and also the most effective Anti-Corruption Agency is the KPK of Indonesia. It has been tremendously successful and is highly regarded by the people. A study of the KPK and its history also reveals that the Lokpal does not have to become an unwieldy bureaucracy and that there are reasons why it is unlikely to turn into a power abusing monster.

    More on this on my blog:

  13. Sanjeev Sabhlok said, on August 23, 2011 at 2:35 am

    Nice take.

    By all means have a lokpal, but it won’t start making a difference till more fundamental reforms are implemented.

    It is time for this movement to shift gears. I suggest taking over the parliament. Let there be GENUINE FREEDOM:

    Once you and your readers are ready, I invite you to join FTI and start the ball rolling towards durable reform (

  14. sreeram said, on November 5, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    Brilliant post

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