In democracy we recognise four pillars — legislature, judiciary, executive and free press. Citizens represent the sovereignty which delegates power to the four pillars to discharge defined mandate. The concept of a fifth estate is still fluid, but its fountain of strength is the public. In the West, the fifth estate is strongly associated with journalists and media outlets which are outside or in opposition to the mainstream media. In their work culture, they are intensive networked units whose speed and spread makes the other four estates accountable. In India, the fifth estate is still evolving and deserves a careful crafting to ensure that it strengthens democracy.
The argument in favour of the fifth pillar is that it represents the voice of the nation as the public is the ultimate master. There is a lurking aspiration to become the third umpire over the four pillars of the estate.
The development to some extent reflects the failure in institutional framework. Recent debates on corruption, cavalier passage of bills of national importance and undemocratic behaviour within the legislative premises are well known. The executive has performed no better and the politician has the lion’s share in corrupt produce. The citizens still have some faith in top level judiciary. Recent judgments by the Supreme Court have contributed to citizens’ confidence. Media has a mixed record to display. One recalls the poetic creation of Javed Akhtar where he complains that high-rise buildings have stolen his share of sun rays. It is conveying that the capitalism and disproportionate materialism in media is blocking the real news. The arrogance of media in promoting views rather than news only reminds one of the Guru of Sikandar the Great when he asked the latter to move away as his arrogance was blocking the sun rays. Instead of conveying news and impartial analysis, there is a breakneck attempt to give interpretation bordering on sensationalism. The space for truth is getting narrower and restricted.
The agitations by Baba Ramdev, Anna Hazare and outburst after the Nirbhaya gang rape and murder have noble and nationally acknowledged goals. It is a format to achieve the goal which is likely to weaken the established democratic institutions. However, there is a great force in the argument that these movements become inflammable because of insensitive government response. The citizens are left with no option but to agitate on the streets.
The first exercise to establish sovereignty of the people is reflected through ballot. During the 2009 general elections, the average poll was approximately 58 per cent. The Congress and BJP had 28.55 per cent and 18.85 per cent share respectively, clearly establishing that the candidates did not get majority votes of the votes polled. Recently, the Supreme Court has directed a new provision in the electronic voting machine, None of the Above, as a conscious choice. Before commenting on its efficacy, I would like to quote David Foster Wallace, an American novelist: “If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and to give you every possible reason to stay at home. By all means stay home if you want, but there is no such thing as not voting: You either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home.”
It is, therefore, evident that the voters’ indifference has significantly contributed to the insensitive and lacklustre governance.
The recent decision of the government to amend the Representation of People Act to neutralise Supreme Court judgment invalidating Section 8 of the Act to enable continuance of the criminally tainted politicians in the legislature only reflected the arrogance of the government to ignore the popular and legitimate demand. The Chief Information Commissioner gave a judgment that the parties who draw benefits/privileges from the government will be classified as public authorities under the Right to Information (RTI). Once again, the political parties unanimously agreed to exclude themselves from RTI. Millions have sent petitions opposing the government move. The amended RTI Bill has been tabled in Rajya Sabha. There are many other instances like treatment of black money, confiscating of illegally acquired wealth by public authorities and corruption in public procurement which are recognised as main causes of corruption, but inaction of the government is intriguing.
In such a situation the fifth pillar gets a welcome turf to agitate the issue beyond the precincts of Parliament and government offices. It generates mass participation to protest. The deficit in the assigned mandated performance beyond the tolerance capacity gives birth to the fifth pillar. The issue to be answered is whether the fifth pillar should have a recognition like the four pillars of the estate or it should only be accepted as stated in the Ramayana and Geeta — Jab Jab Hoye Dharma Ki Hani….
However, there is a danger to the fabric of governance as the activities of the fifth pillar could be disruptive, extra-constitutional and there is no umpire to determine if the movement pushed by the fifth pillar represents the sovereign will. Even a success of any movement need not establish the legitimacy of the fifth pillar responsible for the delivery of the product. The real answer lies in the effective functioning of the four pillars, as there could be misuse in granting validity to the sporadic noises which may get louder over time.
The agitation against the nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu is a case in point. There is a controversy if the agitation was externally induced. In developing countries, one cannot rule out the possibility of externally induced agitations, self-serving branding to help global business interests and factors leading to mass disturbances like the role of terrorism and communal frenzy. Hence the answer lies in self-corrective actions. The disguised role of master should be converted into the real role of service to the nation.
(N Misra is ex-chairman,TRAI and director, Public Interest Foundation; Email: director@public interestfoundation.com)