What is it about the Lok Pal Bill that despite first being presented in 1968, it has still not been passed on any of the eight attempts on which it has been introduced in parliament? Why is it that despite consistent recommendations of various commissions, to statutorily establish the office of a Lok Pal, we are still without legislation on the subject? Do we lack political will to tackle the growing menace of corruption in our country or do the various political parties, across whose regime Lok Pal legislation has been introduced, have vested interests in this legislation not getting enacted? Does the exclusion of the prime minister, judiciary (also recommended by previously appointed commissions) and lower bureaucracy from the ambit of the Lok Pal really make the government proposed Bill a “deceit on the nation?” Will their inclusion, actually help tackle corruption for the vast majority of Indians living outside big cities and for whose benefit this legislation is really being enacted? Has Indian democracy really matured for government-by-representation to be replaced by government-by-discussion? If so, what is the level of discussion beyond which it would appear that the parliament is being deprived of its constitutional function of law making? But should we not deprive our elected representatives this right if it’s apparent that they have a direct conflict of interest? Have we lost faith in the legislative process of Indian parliamentary democracy that we are not willing to give parliamentary debates even a chance to examine the Bill before wanting to tear through it? In the end, is it better to not even debate what the elected have put forward, if we can’t have what the unelected believe to be the “right” legislation?
Now, perhaps more than ever, corruption has become an issue to which everyone wants a solution. The electorate is angry and based on a poll recently conducted by a leading newspaper the youth rate corruption as one of the biggest threats facingIndia. Going by the support civil society activists are receiving and the popularity of Anna Hazare, citizens are happy to be led in the collective fight against corruption. Thus, it’s quite evident that there is an urgent need to create a strong, independent and accountable anti-corruption institution. The government has seen this writing on the wall and realised that it can no longer vacillate on Lok Pal legislation and needs to take immediate and concrete action.
The office of the Lok Pal, designed to mirror that of an Ombudsman, as it exists in western democracies, would have the powers to inquire into citizen complaints against public officials. Differing views exist on whether all public officials should be held accountable under a Lok Pal legislation or whether it is a privilege of the parliament that the Prime Minister, other ministers and member of parliament be accountable only to the parliament. With a view to perhaps achieve consensus and in a deviation from standard practice, the government constituted a joint committee to draft the Lok Pal legislation. And although it would have been better if the Bill introduced in parliament was a work product of the joint committee, in all fairness, had it not been for the relentless efforts of team Hazare we would not even have a Bill being introduced in the monsoon session of parliament, despite the heavy downpour of corruption scams.
Having introduced its Bill, and given the government’s control and majority in the Lok Sabha, practically, the government now determines what is discussed in parliament, how long the discussion lasts, and perhaps even what the outcome should be. Anyone involved with protracted negotiations can attest to the fact that one always has to evaluate the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). Storming out of negotiations resulting in eventual breakdown of talks is an outcome that should be avoided at all cost. Therefore, is the real missed opportunity not that of working with the government to prepare a collaborative draft rather than having two parallel pieces of proposed legislation? All may still not be lost since the government has invited team Hazare to participate in the discussions of the Standing Committee on Law and Justice. Regardless of what powers this Committee has, participation in it needs to be with an open mind and with the larger objective of getting to a zone of potential agreement (ZOPA) rather than to mock the exercise or question its bona-fide. If the government is expected to act with earnest, should the same not be expected from members of civil society? By terming the government proposed Bill as “anti-dalit” or “anti-poor” is the otherwise legitimate fight against corruption not taking political colour? Will not a vast majority of independent thinking adults, who are currently supporting the fight against corruption, lose faith in such movements if they eventually realise they were pawns of some political battle?
Just to set the record straight, one respects team Hazare’s fight and commitment to tackle corruption. It is also quite evident that team Anna are in this for the cause and not the show. Then why all this drama? The much publicised and almost threatened encore is certainly raising questions even in the minds of Anna’s supporters. Equally, is it not the heavy handedness of the government and the restrictions its imposing on team Hazare’s right to protest what is giving them so much publicity? Is it for this reason that some people hold the Hazare struggle a creation of media? Let us note that, while civil society activists may well have the right to hold demonstrations and hunger strikes to draw attention to the public cause, one needs to be reminded that every right has a corresponding obligation and duty. As citizens, they have the duty to let parliament perform the task of law making and not resort to measures that questions the fundamentals of Indian democracy and our constitution. Undoubtedly, the government, and given its control over the house, the parliament, must undertake its law making responsibility with earnest. But at this stage it isn’t justified to term the government proposal as ‘impotent’ since the eventual legislation will only get enacted post consideration of the suggestions of the parliamentary standing committee and the comments from the opposition parties. Now if only the monsoon session wasn’t washed away by parliamentary adjournments with the opposition wanting to take any political opportunity to attack the ruling coalition and its conduct of business in parliament!
Eventually, while civil society activists seem determined to fight to the end and are adamant on taking their cause to the streets, let’s not lose sight that more perhaps is likely to be achieved by remaining focussed on the real issue of corruption and by engaging in a dialogue with the government away from the streets. Further, while poverty and illiteracy also require urgent attention, let’s not make what started as a fight against corruption as a fight of the rich against the poor. On the 64th anniversary of Indian independence not much is likely to get achieved either by questioning our parliamentary process or by questioning our democratic system and government functioning. Our energies should instead be focussed on how best to achieve a solution to corruption within the constitutionally prescribed limits.
Admittedly, our parliamentarians and the political class have on multiple occasions lets us down. But one of the beauties of democracy is that our leaders are elected periodically and are thus compelled to seek electoral support. Although the parliamentary elections are still some time, let us not assume that everything will get lost in citizens memories being short. Lets us therefore, on this Independence Day, recall the famous speech made by our first prime minister on the eve ofIndia’s independence, that “this is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will or blaming others.” We, the people ofIndia, want to end corruption, so let us move forward putting our past behind us and by focussing on the real task at hand. Time has finally arrived when we all need to collectively resolve not to elect the corrupt (morally or otherwise) back to power. We should no longer be mute spectators, so let us resolve to participate in the democratic process by exercising our right to vote for any, every or even for no reason. Let us not give up on the political process and take comfort from what public pressure can and has achieved in this country. Let us not give up hope and we certainly cannot give up on democracy. Truly, the time has come for us to awaken – JagoIndia, Jago!
First published in GOVERNANCE NOW on 16 August 2011
Author previously wrote a piece on the Anna Hazare movement titled “The Fight Has Begun” also carried by Governance Now – http://governancenow.com/views/columns/fight-has-just-begun