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Corruption of the canons of justice

Anna Hazare ended his hunger strike by lauding the victory of the people and stated that the real fight begins now. One can say with reasonable certainty that the fight Hazare was referring to had perhaps nothing to do either with the controversy that has emerged regarding the constitution of the joint committee or with the crossfire being exchanged between the opposition party, the ruling government and members of civil society, all of whom claim to be the messiah in the campaign against corruption. Then again, unprecedented actions are most likely to yield unusual results. The Gazette notification issued reads: “The Joint Drafting Committee shall consist of five nominee ministers of the Government of India and five nominees of Mr Anna Hazare (including himself).” Not obvious at first, but the notification makes reference to nominees of Hazare and not any five nominees from the civil society.

Is the distinction really a big deal? Should not the leader of this movement decide who he nominates to the joint committee constituted on account of his demands? Was it not the image of Hazare that struck a chord with innumerable people who supported his movement? These questions compel one to think if this is really a fight of one man against a long prevailing system? Certainly not! And, therefore, can Hazare, although unelected through any democratic process, not be regarded as representative of the Indian middle class searching for a voice? What is so unreasonable if a group of unelected members of civil society wish to draft a law, a right otherwise reserved for elected representatives? Regardless of whether such elected representatives are “public servants”, the fact is that a democratic process elected them. Are we, therefore, questioning the fundamental basis of democratic functioning or the process that has governed us for the last 64 years, however ineffective it may be? Is this really a fight about politics being addressed by coercive processes not common to political functioning? Or did the Anna Hazare campaign just provide the much needed jolt to parliamentary democracy?

For those not fully conversant with Hazare’s movement, the demand is to promulgate legislation, the Lokpal Act, through which an institution called the Lokpal would be established at the Centre and a Lokayukta will be set up in each state. The desire is that they function with complete autonomy, similar to the independence granted to the Supreme Court. The proposed legislation seeks to provide the electorate the right to approach the Lokpal to draw attention to any of their grievances. All cases brought to the Lokpal would be investigated, charged and prosecuted by them and the demand is for the Anti-Corruption Branch of the Central Bureau of Investigation to be merged with the Lokpal. The Lokpal is proposed to be selected by common people, and there is also a demand for the Lokpal to have suo moto powers to initiate action and to have police powers to register first information reports. Assuming all these proposals are accepted, will the resultant legislation not vest in the Lokpal all functions of the legislature, executive and judiciary? What happened to the separation of powers and the checks and balances it provides? Will not vesting so much power in the hands of a select few make them the lord and mighty? Is power not a primary cause of corruption?

Given the numerous scams that came to light in the last few months, the issue of corruption is a matter of huge concern and needs immediate attention. And if Hazare did, in fact, time his campaign to take advantage of low public sentiment, what’s wrong with that? And if this movement used all resources at its disposal, including the new media, to garner support for a just cause, why are so many fingers being raised?

Is the larger issue not whether the means justify the end? Does not calling for a fast-unto-death amount to a form of blackmail? Could not Anna be charged with attempt to suicide, a crime under the Indian Penal Code. Would the government then be guilty of abetment to suicide! Did the government therefore ‘give in’ a tad too early or was its decision being responsive to public demand and in some ways with the intention to divert attention from the numerous scams and as a means to demonstrate its commitment to also fight corruption?

The even bigger issue is the precedent that the government has ended up setting by giving one unelected member of civil society the right to nominate members to a legislative committee. It is now not far when every interest group will demand that they be part of every legislative process that affects them. Also, most anti-corruption statutes come into play post facto, meaning after the act of graft has been committed. Should we rather not focus on addressing the root cause of corruption which in some ways lies in our antiquated laws and regulatory systems?

Notably, some of the questions highlighted above may be rhetorical and will never get answered. But others deserve to be addressed. In any event, why should we fault the optimism of the torch bearers of this anti-corruption movement, since somewhere even they must be aware that the Jan Lokpal Bill is not going to resolve all the ills of corruption. Nevertheless, it’s a start. And in multiple ways appears to resonate with our electorate who are disillusioned by government functioning. Let’s just agree with Anna that a fight has begun!

First Published in the Financial Express on April 16, 2011

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