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In India, protests spark debate on democracy

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NEW DELHI — The anti-corruption protesters who have transfixed India in recent days call their campaign a celebration of democracy. But others say their tactics run a real risk of damaging the country’s democratic institutions.

Using 74-year-old Anna Hazare’s 10-day-long fast as leverage, the activists have set Aug. 30 as a deadline for the government to bypass parliamentary procedures and begin debate on strong legislation setting up an anti-graft watchdog. On Thursday, in a bid to assuage the protesters’ growing anger, the government offered for the first time to have Parliament debate all versions of the proposed new law. But activists said Hazare will not end his hunger strike until lawmakers actually reach consensus on the issues in dispute.

Government officials and lawmakers from several political parties say that laws must not be made under unreasonable deadlines dictated by activists and that the brinkmanship of a hunger strike is a form of blackmail that undermines democracy.

“People have the right to express opposition and give suggestions. They cannot twist the arm of the Parliament and snatch its right to make laws,” said Sanjay Nirupam, a lawmaker with the ruling Congress party.

Nirupam noted that Hazare had rejected lawmakers’ requests that he end his fast. “He stood on the stage and said, ‘I don’t have faith in the political class.’ That will weaken our parliamentary form of democracy, which is our proud legacy,” Nirupam said.

India’s robust record of democracy in a diverse and fractious nation of 1.2 billion people commands global respect. But of late, rising corruption, lack of jobs, poverty and poor delivery of services has led many Indians to ask whether their country’s political system does enough to empower its poorest citizens.

The protesters’ apparent intransigence and the government’s latest attempts to end the impasse have fueled a debate on TV news channels, blogs and Twitter about the public’s power — and right — to dictate Parliament’s actions.

Some analysts have argued that while the institutions of democracy may have failed many citizens, they should be strengthened, rather than bypassed. But dozens of protesters interviewed in recent days said they want to create a new form of participatory democracy that goes beyond merely casting votes in elections.

“It is the duty of the Parliament to do what people want,” said Arvind Kejriwal, a prominent democracy campaigner. “We want day-to-day engagement with our elected representatives. If the people are unhappy with their leaders and policies, should they wait for the five-year term to end or are there other options?”

The campaign against corruption turned into a nationwide movement over the past 10 months as a string of scandals came to light and several businessmen and politicians were jailed without bail on charges of malfeasance. Earlier this month, the government introduced a bill for the establishment of an ombudsman who would investigate allegations of corruption. But Hazare called the legislation weak because it denies the ombudsman the power to act against the prime minister, the judiciary and much of the bureaucracy.

The activists have won a few concessions by dint of hard bargaining and the emotional appeal of Hazare’s public starvation ritual.

On Tuesday, the government had agreed to most of the activists’ demands, including bringing the prime minister’s office under the ombudsman’s ambit. But talks appeared to stall over proposals to make the large number of lower-ranking government bureaucrats accountable, appoint anti-graft ombudsmen in every state and set a guaranteed time-frame for public services to be delivered to citizens.

Activists and officials also disagreed on sending the bill to a parliamentary panel for review. Kejriwal said that the panel’s hearings would only further delay passage of the ombudsman law. He also said that some members of the panel have themselves been accused of corruption. But officials say that recent landmark legislation, including the Right to Information and Prevention of Torture acts, has been strengthened by the review process.

Meanwhile, the debate continues. Even as some insist that the protesters’ tactics are setting a destructive precedent, others say that the country’s 64-year-old political system is an evolving concept, with room for improvement.

Democracy in India cannot remain a pious ideal and an abstract noun but “needs to become a busier verb, rolling up its sleeves and delivering visible outcomes,” social commentator Santosh Desai wrote in an essay in the Times of India this week. “The idea that the representatives of the people have the sole responsibility of figuring out what is good for us is beginning to seem unacceptable today.”

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