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The Lokpal Bill and beyond…

August 13, 2011

Anna Hazare has announced that he will go on an indefinite fast from the 16th of August at Delhi in order to demand a strong Lokpal bill at the center. What was presented in the Parliament recently was termed by Team Anna as the ‘Joke-pal Bill’. Jokes apart, one needs to objectively look into what the civil society demanded and what the Parliament is seeking to pass. The focus of civil society, Government, and the nation at large seems to be limited to the inclusion of the Prime Minister and the Judiciary. An objective look at the draft tabled in Parliament would be necessary to understand how much this bill can achieve if it becomes a law.

Comparing the present draft with the eight earlier ones of the Government shows that one has indeed traveled some distance. Civil society has been effective in not only forcing the Government to table the bill in Parliament but also in ensuring that many key issues are addressed. Whether it is the investigation wing or the prosecution process, or time-bound trials and forfeiture of property, these and a few other features demanded by civil society finds a place in the bill. While this is said, many other key features that would actually make this bill usable by the millions of ordinary citizens have been completely left out.

Let us begin with looking at the selection criteria. I would like to relate it to the recent selection of Justice Shivaraj Patil as the new Lok Ayukta of Karnataka. Justice Patil has had a very distinguished past and is a very experienced and well-known jurist. But despite this, one is skeptical on whether he will really act on the various Lok Ayukta reports prepared against the high and mighty, especially against the Former Chief Minister Sri Yeddyurappa. Suspicion arises not because one suspects the antecedence or the competence of this distinguished former judge of the Supreme Court, but because of the fact that Yeddyurappa as the Chief Minister appointed him to this post just a couple of days before he demitted office. The Lok Ayukta Act of Karnataka allows the Chief Minister to appoint the Lok Ayukta in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of the High Court of Karnataka. We need to note that it is only consultation and not concurrence. What it means is that the Chief Minister appoints whom he would like to see in this office. This is dangerous, as it permits the office to be reduced to one of ‘political appointment’ and may not be completely free of the various kinds of pressures that a corrupt political system is known to exert. What the civil society recommended was a multi-tiered process that insulated it from political expediency. The Government draft, despite having a multi-member selection committee, leaves the selection to a group of people who are mostly holding political or judicial office and headed by the Prime Minister.

The Government draft also talks about punishing the complainant if the complaint is seen to be frivolous. This decision can be taken by the Lok Pal, whereas a complaint against the corrupt will have to first have a preliminary enquiry where the accused will be heard and given an opportunity to explain his position. This does not apply for the complainant. This will result in fear in the minds of the complainants and virtually ensures that the corrupt are indirectly protected.

The Lokpal bill as drafted by the Government does not provide for anti-corruption laws at the state level and this will directly impact how the common man will perceive this law. Though it includes the nearly 3 million NGOs that exist in the country today, it only covers 16,000 senior officers of the total 40 lakh officials that work for the Government of India. One gets the feeling that there could be a hidden agenda of silencing any anti-establishment and activist NGO using this Act, while letting most of the public servants go scot-free. This virtually means that the common man will not be able to have either his grievance addressed or fight the everyday corruption that affects his life. How many of us will be interested in fighting large scams at the national level and affecting the office of the Prime Minister or a judge of the High Court? What matters to most of us would be the everyday problems of mis-governance that coerces us into a corrupt process, like the license that one does not get or the passport that is unduly delayed.

The Supreme Court has now censured the Delhi Police for not investigating the ‘money for votes’ scam that occurred in Parliament. While it is no secret that one-third of our parliamentarians have criminal charges against them, the Government hopes to keep the actions of our MPs in Parliament out of the purview of the Act. Isn’t it quite obvious that they are not willing to expose themselves to public scrutiny? Many of our MPs have also been caught on camera taking bribes to ask specific questions in Parliament. In such a scenario and recollecting the JMM bribery case, one does feel let down that the actions of MPs inside Parliament is not covered in this bill.

Whether we get the law that Government drafts and approves or the one the civil society is demanding, we need to understand that having a strong anti-corruption law is only the beginning of our battles. Most people in India today are not only victims of ‘coercive corruption’, but are also active participants in ‘collusive corruption’. The 2G-scam would not have been a scam if the private telecom players had not initiated it and made it lucrative enough for themselves and shared the loot with the political and bureaucratic powers that be. Many people in India mistakenly believe that an anti-corruption law will solve our problems and address all grievances of mal-administration. While in reality, an incomplete and inadequate law will only give us a veneer of good governance while the rot inside will continue.

And therein lies the danger. We will be left with a law that will not accomplish much and the citizenry will be left with nothing on its hands in fighting this menace. Even if we were to get a law that is strong and effective, much will depend on how the average citizen gets to use it. Having seen the inadequate use of the RTI Act, one feels that we need to have a massive education and awareness campaign to get people to engage with the system and use these laws. More than merely focusing on including the Prime Minister or the Judiciary, it is time for all civil society activists to bury any differences that may exist and unitedly demand a strong and effective anti-corruption law which the common man can effectively use. We also need to understand and internalize that mere laws will not automatically bring in good governance. An enlightened citizenry with the willingness to engage and participate in the governance process alone can ensure that. It is indeed as basic a right as the others that the constitution guarantees each one of us.

Balu

Categories: Jan Lokpal Bill, Musings