Sunday, August 7, 2011

An unbiased analysis of the two Lokpal Bill drafts....

There is only one purpose in writing this post. And that is to bring a certain degree of evenness to the discussion on the Lokpal Bill. Given the emotions involved, an honest discussion of the issues covered under the government’s Lokpal Bill has hardly happened. There are mistakes in both versions of the Bill – the government’s and Anna’s and the right solution may well be somewhere in-between.

Controversial points in government’s version:

There are some very key controversial points in the government’s Lokpal Bill. (1) The most important of these is the exclusion of the PM while he is serving. Well, I have always maintained that the PM should be included…..but with caveats. The most important caveat for me is that charges against the PM must first be whetted and then given to the Lokpal to be investigated. The whetting must NOT be done by the Speaker or the Chairman as they are likely to play a partisan role. The whetting may be done by a body of the judicial set-up – maybe a three or five member bench of the SC that includes the CJI himself/herself. Once frivolous complaints are removed, there is no harm in including the PM under the Lokpal. Incidentally, I personally feel that most civil society activists have misunderstood this issue totally. A Bofors can be investigated under the Lokpal because that subject matter is under the Defence Minister, who can be investigated by the Lokpal. It does not even matter if the PM is handling the defence portfolio (which virtually never happens) as that portfolio can still be investigated. Only the PM’s own work is excluded. If this is not clear, then it should be clarified in the Bill. (2) The other controversial point is about the selection committee to choose the Lokpal. It presently includes three ruling party politicians – the PM, the Speaker and one more minister and two opposition leaders – leaders of both houses of Parliament. That makes five. The remaining are members of civil socity (two I think) and judiciary. Because an impression has been created that the judiciary is corrupt and “their” civil socity members are not as good as “our” civil society members, this proposal has become controversial. Anna’s team may want to reconsider this position. The politicians have lost the faith of the people….but I for one believe that they should be given another chance to prove their credentials. We cannot sterilize the powers of the government to run the country….even if we doubt their credibility right now. The cure for that is the process of elections…..and our voters have shown that they will reward good governments (Bihar, Delhi, Gujarat (administration only)) and penalize bad ones (WB). (3) The other thing that has been controversial is the issue of conduct of MPs within Parliament. Civil society seems to have misunderstood this subject. The cash for vote scam would still be within Lokpal, since the plot was hatched outside Parliament. Basically, the right of the MPs to express themselves as they please, to vote as they please, to ask questions as they please is what is protected by the Constitution. And please…..MPs being paid to ask certain type of questions is gross, but it’s a rarity even in our debauched Parliament….lets not make a mountain out of a molehill here.

Definite problems with government’s Bill:

There are some major problems with the government’s bill. (1) The first one is the one about penalizing the complainant if the complaint is found frivolous. A 2-years punishment is too stiff. It sounds oppressive. I do appreciate that we should be worried about the nuicance of motivated complaints…..just like the Supreme Court is with the nuicance of bogus PILs. There has to be another way to handle this matter, but punishing the complainant is too severe. Maybe to start with, there should be no penalties at all…..and if this is abused, a provision to control the menace could be brought in later. Let the government show some trust and confidence in the people on this subject. (2) The other problem is the provision to limit the period of investigation to 7 years after the event has happened. Now I am in support of limitation as a concept…..but in India where there is so much perception of political corruption, and where PMs rule for more than 10 years all the time, there is a genuine worry that a 7 year period is too self-serving. The period of limitation could remain 7 years after the PM has given up office, but it should cover the entire period of his/her tenure….not be limited to a smaller portion. For eg, if Manmohan Singh demits office in 2014, then a complaint could be brought against him until 2021 (7 years) but it could cover the entire 10 years of his rule. The politicians must remember that they have lost credibility – no matter which party they belong to – and this change is thus warranted.

The good points in the government’s bill:

There are some good things in the government’s Lokpal bill. (1) The first good thing about the Lokpal Bill is that it sets up an independent Lokpal. A Lokpal that needs no one’s permission in pursuing cases of corruption against politicians and bureaucrats. The one big bottleneck that existed – in seeking the permission of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha – has been removed. Ministers who took refuge under the benevolent kindness of the Speaker and the Chairman should now be a nervous lot. By including all the ministers under the Lokpal, the government has agreed to put most of itself under the scrutiny of the independent watchdog. (2) The second good thing about the government’s Lokpal Bill is that it covers the seniormost – not the juniormost – sections of bureaucracy. If it had been the reverse, we could have shouted that this was an attempt by the seniors to protect themselves. In this case, the attempt appears to be an honest one in including the seniormost. This should make a lot of bureaucrats careful about their intentions. (3) The third good thing is that the Lokpal institution itself has been constructed reasonably well. The Lokpal Chairman has to be a serving or retired judge of the SC (and I guess from the HC as well). Of the other eight members, four are from the judiciary. So a majority are people from the judiciary. No matter what we feel about the judiciary, the senior judiciary (SC in particular) has conducted itself quite well in the country. There is enormous corruption in the judiciary, but that’s mostly ato the lower levels. Having senior judges as part of the Lokpal has to be called an honest attempt by the government. (4) The other good point is that the judiciary has been left out. In the frenzy of the moment, we cannot make this cardinal mistake. I am totally uncomfortable with making the Lokpal an all-powerful body. The Lokpal needs supervision on itself….and the judiciary is the one to do that. This is what Anna’s team does not want. They want to abrogate all powers to themselves. And this is the one point on they have zero support. Neither the BJP nor the Left nor most members of civil society, media and intellectuals support this proposal of Anna’s team.

Problems with Anna’s Bill:

There are many problems with Anna’s bill as well. (1) The inclusion of the judiciary is a definite no-no as already covered above. (2) The complaint that the law does not set up Lok Ayukta’s in the state is also misplaced because in a federal set-up, the autonomy of the states should be protected. Each state may want to have a different set-up. The truth is that the civil society activists find it easier to handle the Congress and the BJP at the center…..but they are very unsure of handling the RJDs and the SPs and the BSPs and the DMKs and the AIADMKs at the center. Again, while I understand this, my point is that civil society must have faith in the democratic process. The pressure on state governments will mount the moment the central Lokpal Bill is passed. One step at a time is a good approach…..rather than “all or nothing” kind of approach that Anna is taking. (3) Another problem with Anna’s proposal is to include every single member of the government. This is misplaced enthusiasm. Let’s focus on removing corruption at the top….the bottom will be eradicated on its own. Cops take monies because they have protection from the politicians at the top to whom they pass on a part of the loot. Same with small babus who curry favor with their seniors and the political class. Remove the protection at the top and the lower levels will correct themselves. The reason I am opposed to including every single government employee is that it will make the Lokpal unwieldy and bulky. It will need to be a mammoth organization itself…..perhaps having lacs of employees. I am convinced that if this were to happen, it would become as corrupt as any other government department. The Lokpal is a body that should focus on removing corruption at higher levels.

One other point. There is a need for several other reforms to go hand in hand with the Lokpal Bill. Lets not lose sight of those. (1) Firstly, the CBI must be made independent of the government. It must be under overall scrutiny of Parliament…..but not report into the government. It should be structured akin to the Election Commission. (2) The big issue of election funding. First, spend limits imposed on candidates should be made realistic, so that they can declare more spends legally. Funding by corporate houses should be made tax-exempt. An election cess should be introduced (like the education cess of the past) which will build a corpus for election funding purposes….how the funds are disbursed can be decided in an appropriate manner. (3) Salaries of ministers and bureaucrats should be increased significantly…..not so that the greed of corrupt people may be doused…..but because better people would be attracted to work for the government. (4) And lastly, special courts to try corruption cases must be set-up, so that things don’t take years but months. All of Anna’s proposals with respect to the timelines they have set for trial will go for a toss if they just consider the state of our judicial set-up right now.

The real truth is that the politicians (all politicians, no matter what party they belong to) have lost credibility in this debate on the Lokpal. That’s what they need to regain. And the way to do that is to have a good debate in the standing committee….and correct most of the kinks present right now. Once they have done that, let them go out and engage with the people. Hold rallies. Talk to the people. That is the only way they will gain the momentum back from the civil society…..

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