Move towards direct democracy

The Cricket World Cup is over — the hangover from the defeat in the finals at Mumbai is still haunting us, but the winds blowing from across the Palk Strait on matters more serious cannot but demand the attention of this country.
The April 13 Tamil Nadu State Assembly elections are gripping the attention of our immediate northern neighbourhood, but more on that next week.


For now we refer to the sudden mass movement that sprang up in India, right across that vast sub-continent, immediately after their World Cup final, even before their politicians could jump on the bandwagon and steal the glory of that victory.
The spontaneous uprising through a satyagraha campaign led by an otherwise colourless Gandhian figure galvanized the whole nation fed-up with corruption in high places especially in Government, to demand real action to eradicate this spreading canker in Indian national life. They demanded a direct say in the running of Government, and had their say.

Clearly, the tumultuous middle class driven revolts in Northern Africa and the Arab world since February this year inspired this uproar in India. They were demanding ‘direct democracy’ or participatory democracy in drafting anti-graft legislation through a ‘Lokpal Bill’, on which the Congress Government has dragged its feet for more than seven years. They did not trust the Government or the elected representatives of the people anymore to bring about the required legislation because they had vested interests in protecting their clan. Lok pals will be established in each state and will be independent bodies that will hear public complaints of corruptions against political leaders.

The Government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, plagued with allegations of corruption, relented yesterday (Saturday) and issued a special Gazette notification appointing, in an unprecedented move, a member of civil society to be the co-chairman of the drafting committee of this anti-graft legislation along with a cabinet minister. (Please see Sunday Times -2 section cover story for more details.)

The PM himself has been above reproach but political analysts are already predicting his legacy to be that of one who shepherded the modernization of a sleepy giant of a nation first as its Finance Minister and then its Prime Minister, but was unable to combat the menace of corruption in high places including within his own government because he wanted to preserve his coalition at all cost.

The Indian Parliament has been brought to a standstill due to Opposition demands to investigate a huge telecom scam. The whole Indian body politic stinks with dubious characters who have wormed their way into Parliament or the Legislative Assemblies. Any parallel locally is not a co-incidence. The Indian PM has inherited these rascals and must work with them in the world’s largest democracy. He is a prisoner of the system which he cannot seem to break down in the same way he dismantled the country’s creaking socialist economic apparatus of yesteryear. The people of India have had enough of corruption, and they came out in their numbers this entire week making the Government in New Delhi succumb to this people’s movement.

These events across the seas must resonate in Sri Lanka, surely. It was this very week that a Cabinet Minister close to the President complained that the country’s construction industry was doomed to failure because of corruption. He cited examples of contractors bribing officials to get their shoddy plans and sites passed. What he did not say was how officials in government and municipal agencies need to be greased not only to break the law but act in order to protect others who break the law.

Soon after the Cabinet reshuffle following the Parliamentary elections of early last year, the new Health Minister referred to the reeking corruption in that sector, while the new Food Minister complained of the paddy mafia controlling the price of rice and so on until the President called a halt to the mud-slinging. That was a classic case of sweeping the dirt under the carpet and not spring cleaning the house.

In Parliament, in a rare instance, an Opposition MP brought up the valid issue of the high cost of building highways. He gave concrete examples but the Deputy Minister in reply could only offer evasive answers justifying the exorbitant expenditure of public funds on the repair of bridges and culverts. More dirt swept under the carpet.

The issue of extraordinarily high costs for the building of highways, a Government priority now, has been highlighted in Parliament by this solitary MP and the media, but the Government keeps ducking each time, in the belief that what the public doesn’t know about, does not happen.

Take the Chenkalady-Maha Oya road where nobody has taken the rap for what has happened. The admitted cost of making the four-kilometre road was Rs. 411 million. So much so that critics asked if it was paved with gold. It was reported just the other day that a part of this road simply got dislodged from a bridge, just like what happened to roads in Japan with the recent tsunami, except that there was no tsunami in Sri Lanka, just some suspicious hanky-panky.

The contractors began passing the buck on the reasons for bad workmanship while the politicians went into hiding and the Government maintained a deafening silence. The A-9 highway, the showpiece of the Government’s post-war reconstruction efforts in the Northern Province, is in shambles nearly a year after it was ‘repaired’ with millions pumped into it — or supposedly pumped into it. It remains a monument to bad governance and criminal wastage of public funds obtained through loans from international lending agencies and governments. Future generations will have to pay for this while the present generation digs still deeper into their wallets and purses to pay higher prices for gas, petrol and diesel.

The Government may well be complacent on the premise that such things don’t matter because it keeps winning elections. This argument could very easily extend to theory that the people are in fact, endorsing what is happening. One can only hope that the powers-that-be do not run away with such deceptive thoughts.

While openness is a concept in thriving democracies, there is tendency in sham democracies to prevent their citizens from knowing too much. That is why this week this Government turned down a request even for the media to cover the proceedings of parliamentary oversight committees that look into the spending of public funds. That is why the Government ignores the passing of the Right to Information Law that provides the ordinary citizen the right to find out how his or her money is being spent by those in the corridors of power. That is probably why bribery and corruption are on official leave with the Commission dealing with the subject without a mandate to operate.

With the Opposition still trying to put its house in order and the Emergency extended on the spurious grounds that rehabilitated LTTE cadres might return to battle, the Government will want to keep sweeping its dirt under the carpet as long as it can rather than clear it. But winds of change are blowing across the world and young people are increasingly dissatisfied with what they continue to see. They want ‘direct action’ in good governance; they are sick and tired of their representatives in Parliament and other elected bodies. They want participatory democracy now and no longer representative democracy. There are lessons to be learnt from what is happening around the world.