Making up mind on lokpal bill
I hold no strong views on the respective merits of the competing lok pal bills. Perhaps Anna Hazare and gang are right and perhaps the government draft is useless. Perhaps Salman Khursheed, Kapil Sibal and company have the more reasonable position and their draft is more workable. I really don’t know enough to make an informed judgment.
My concern is with a sidelight to the debate: the call for a referendum on the issue.
As you probably know, a referendum is like an election except that voters are not asked to choose between competing candidates but competing ideas. Instead of being asked “Do you like candidate A or candidate B”, they are asked something like “Do you think homosexuals should be allowed to teach in schools or should they be denied such jobs?”
The traditional view of referendums is that they have no place in representative democracy. The classic position is that electors choose representatives on the basis of electoral platforms and then leave it to them to make decisions on their behalf. If the legislators consistently take the wrong decisions – or at any rate, decisions that electors strongly disagree with – then they are voted out at the next election.
This position, established through the centuries, has been the subject of much debate with some people arguing for a greater say for the electorate (through such methods as referendums) and others opposing it on the grounds that such methods lead to mob rule, populism and flip judgments.
In some countries however, referendums and elections take place side by side. In Switzerland, voters are often asked for their opinions on issues. In American states, contentious issues (such as the example I have given above about homosexual teachers in schools) are also often resolved through referendums.
The great hold-out, for many years, was Britain, which held fast to the classic principles of representative democracy. For instance, even though opinion polls showed that a vast majority of voters were in favour of hanging criminals and ensuring that homosexuality remained illegal, Parliament went ahead and abolished capital punishment and made consenting acts between same-sex adults legal. These were not popular decisions at the time but the basis of representative democracy is that legislators do what they regard as right rather than what is considered popular.
By and large, this position has been maintained though there have been exceptions. Britain held a referendum on membership of the European Economic Community in the Seventies and more recently, another one about reforming the voting system.
You could argue that the voting referendum was valid: if an electoral system itself is perceived to be unfair then its opponents can hardly entrust their fate to that system. (In the event, the referendum resulted in a victory for the existing system). But the Europe referendum went against all principles of representative government and remains an aberration.
Our own position in India has been analogous to the traditional British position. Whatever there has been pressure on us to hold a plebiscite (i.e. a referendum) in the Kashmir Valley we have argued that as the people of Kashmir vote at Assembly and Parliamentary elections, that is proof enough if their intentions. If they have problems with Delhi, their elected representatives will take them up in the legislature and in Parliament.
Faced with the demand for a referendum from the Hazare camp, the Indian government has fallen back on the classic defences: it is not part of our system; if we agree to referendum on the provisions of a bill to set up an ombudsman then how can we logically refuse a referendum to the Kashmiris; and there are many other more important issues that can be put to a vote other than drafts of bills if we are going to change our system to allow referendums.
Faced with these constitutional arguments from lawyers like Khursheed and Sibal, the Hazare camp has resorted to opinion polls.
Now, anybody in the newspaper business will tell you what journos think of opinion polls. We like them because they make for good stories. But we don’t trust them. In too many cases (internet polls, SMS polls, etc.) the samples are self-selecting. Even when the samples are scientifically chosen, the polls are often wrong. People don’t fully understand the issues (bill drafts, for instance) when they are polled and change their minds when more information is provided. Or they give careless answers. Or they lie.
Whenever we commission a poll survey, we lose sleep at nights because we know that despite the lakhs that we have spent on the poll, we may well be wrong. And sure enough, even exit polls frequently get it wrong in India.
So I am intrigued by the use of an opinion poll as an instrument of public policy. Nevertheless I am prepared to concede that if questions are asked in a certain way (“Is it right that the PM should get away even though all other ministers are covered by an anti-corruption mechanism” etc.), the Hazare gang will come out tops in opinion polls in most urban constituencies.
But there is an inherent tension in their approach. One reason offered by proponents of representative democracy (though, of course, it is phrased much more politely) for not letting the entire electorate decide on every issue is that ordinary voters frequently don’t understand complex issues and make the wrong choices.
This view has – till now, at least – been echoed by the Hazare camp. Anna Hazare even declared that if he stood for election, he would lose his deposit. And the general attitude of his people has been that the electorate makes the wrong choices anyway so we shouldn’t worry too much about what Parliament says. (If you don’t like a Parliamentary bill, then just make a bonfire of it.)
So why now is there this sudden faith in opinion polls and in the views of the electorate as a whole?
If Hazare believes that voters vote unwisely (and presumably he doesn’t think he deserves to lose his deposit), then why are his people demanding that complex legal documents should be submitted to this same unwise electorate for its opinion?
If these electors can’t even send us the right MPs and MLAs then how will they choose between draft bills?
I don’t think there is any simple answer to this question. Hazare must know that this issue will have less impact outside of urban constituencies and he must know that if a referendum is held he may well lose. (If he could win a nation-wide referendum for his platform, then he certainly could get elected to Parliament and not lose his deposit).
So why is the issue being raised?
I have no idea.
But here’s my guess. The Hazare camp doesn’t really want to alter the balance of the Constitution of India and insist on government-by-referendum. The demand for the referendum, like the opinion polls, is no more than a pressure tactic.
It is just one more way of piling on the pressure.