Editor's Note: Firstpost editors Sandip Roy and Lakshmi Chaudhry report on the ultimate celebrity conference. A five star line up of authors, intellectuals, biz tycoons, actors, politicians and more have gathered at the Grand Hyatt in Goa as part of Thinkfest. Co-organised by Tehelka and Newsweek, this haute version of TED brings together an eclectic and intriguing range of A-list names, from Nobel peace prize winning Leymah Gbowee to Omar Abdullah to author Siddharth Muherjee to Arvind Kejriwal. Here are their reports on some of the most interesting conversations.
Vaccines for democracy: Jan Lokpal Bill
Arvind Kejriwal is a mechanical engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology. He’s worked at the Indian Revenue Service. He has been the Additional Commissioner of Income Tax in Delhi. Nothing about Arvind Kejriwal, in short, indicated that he would turn into arguably the country’s most effective activist, the architect of Anna Hazare’s groundbreaking anti-corruption movement. It’s a subject that drove Arvind long before it exploded into public consciousness.
Shekhar Singh is a prominent RTI activist and the founder member of the National Campaign for people's Right to Information.
It was easily the rockstar of panels at Thinkfest. A whooping, hollering audience that cheered both sides as Arvind Kejriwal and his fellow RTI activist Shekhar Singh went back-and-forth on the virtues and follies of the Hazare movement. The exchange was honest, lively and, as a refreshing change, deeply respectful.
Kejriwal opened with a rare moment of endearing candour. "There's a huge amount of responsibility on the shoulders of the leadership of this movement," he said, "It's quite scary at times. People have too many hopes, too many expectations. They have a dream: Ab Bharat badlega." It may or may not happen, he said, but that's what people expect.
When asked to voice his reservations about the Jan Lokpal bill, Shekhar Singh was first careful to underline his immense respect for the two people he knows on the core committee, Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan. "Their credentials and credibility is impeccable. I'd rather say, 'I'm corrupt,'" he said.
But he then went on to raise two objections to the Jan Lokpal bill put forward by the Hazare team. One is that it concentrates vast amounts of power in one institution. "The real problem in our country is the concentration of power. Corruption is just a symptom of that," he said, What we need to do is not take power from one institution and transfer it to another, but to distribute it to many other institutions. "If we have an all-powerful Lokpal, then people would rather be a Lokpal than the Prime Minister."
He also challenged the "middle class fantasy" that we can change the system by creating an independent institution like the Lokpal. "Independent means a lack of accountability," he said, pointing to the Election Commissioner who is independent and doesn't do any work. As he summed it up later, "If we go on the way we're going, we're not changing democracy. We're undermining it."
But he also added, "Arvind and I totally agree on one thing: the government Lokpal is junk!"
Kejriwal rebutted the objections, claiming that Lokpal only will have power to investigate and gather evidence — and not pass judgement which will remain the bailiwick of the courts. And if the Income Tax department has power over the Prime Minister and Supreme Court judges, then why not the Lokpal?
The discussion ping-ponged back and forth with Singh pointing out that many Income Tax officers are corrupt. "It doesn't mean we should create another monster just because we have one already," he said.
Ah, responded Kejriwal, but is the solution to then take the powers away from the Income Tax office or make it more accountable? "The problem is the lack of accountability," he said, insisting that the Lokpal must have powers to investigate, conduct raids, of search and seizure. "All we're asking is to make the CBI independent and rename it Lokpal."
Pressed on whether Hisar was a bad decision, he said the accusations of Team Anna getting "too political" are part of a self-serving message from politicians: "Politics badi gandi cheez hai. Yeh hame karne do. Aap samaj seva karo."
The big moment came when Shekhar Singh challenged Kejriwal on Team Anna leaders who claim the Jan Lokpal is perfect, and must be passed as is, and any changes have to be approved by Anna Hazare.
Kejriwal responded with an unexpected concession: "That I agree with. I completely concede this. Some people on the stage have said that and it is not correct."
And then he added to uproarious effect: "There's a team member whose name I will not mention who said, 'Anna is India. And India is Anna.' I do not support this statement. The movement does not support this statement. Anna is not India. India is not Anna. India is much bigger than that."
He also clarified his statement on Anna being higher than Parliament. "What I said was, 'The people are higher than the Parliament.' Annaji as a citizen is higher than the Parliament."
When the moderator pointed out that MPs are elected by the people, he said the problem is that we define democracy entirely in terms of representation. The idea is that people vote for a politician who will represent them, but the politician instead executes the wishes of his party president: "This democracy by the party high command, for the party high command, and of the party high command."
In the end, everyone on-stage agreed at least on this: "We're all on the same side."
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Updated Date: Nov 08, 2011 09:01:44 IST