Tuesday, December 27, 2011

BJP holds the key as History waits to be made…..

Last night was historic in its own way. The Lok Sabha – for the second time in the last 42 years – passed the Lokpal Bill as proposed by the government with amendments introduced in a spirit of give and take. The BJP played spoilsport as expected, but was unable to block a bill whose time has come. The BJP’s poor numbers in the Lok Sabha prevented it from going the whole hog in denying the country the Lokpal. Given its relatively stronger position in the Rajya Sabha however, all eyes will be on it and other members of the NDA. Is it serious about the Bill or has it merely been mouthing pleasantries all along?

Another stunning conspiracy of the BJP came to the fore yesterday. Apparently, the BJP (through its President in his letter to the Government in April) had advised the Government not to engage with Team Anna so as to protect Parliamentary privilege in making laws. Wow. Immediately after writing that letter, and throughout much of the last nine months since then, the party has preferred to pretend to be a shadow of Anna – speaking every word that it did – and taking every position as it did – as if it were Anna’s spokesperson.

The other double-speak of the BJP was of course something that has been known for the last few days – over the subject of setting up Lok Ayuktas as part of the Central Act. Yesterday, the BJP managed to have its way – to delink the setting up of Lok Ayuktas from the Lokpal Bill. To think that this party had all along supported this strong demand of Anna’s – and had agreed to even include it in the Sense of the House Resolution in August – looked unbelievable. So now, the state assembly’s consensus would have to be taken before the Central Act becomes applicable to it. I am pointing out only the BJP here though some of UPA’s own allies also opposed this provision is because it was only the BJP that had claimed a high ground on this point.

Yet another shocker was when the party – along with others – rallied to drop important sections of Clause 24 – which would have compelled the Speaker of the House and the Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha to initiate action against those chargesheeted by the Lokpal. How strange – on the one hand the BJP has been asking for more powers for the Lokpal and when it came to it, they backed out. Frankly I agree with BJP’s view on this point – I believe that the Lokpal should have absolutely zero judicial or quasi judicial powers.

But credit must be given to Parliamentarians for the quality of the debate yesterday. I thought Sushma Swaraj spoke really well as always, focusing on specific objections that her party had with the Bill. Her objections to the Lok Ayuktas being set up under the Lokpal Act (the debate on Sec 253 v/s 252), her objection to the minority quota (in fact, any quota at all), and her objection to the penal provisions of Section 24 were spirited and logical. I thought Kapil Sibal’s rebuttal of Sushma point by point raised the standard several notches and was in line with what we expect in Parliament. Sibal appeared convincing when he cited specifics from the “Concurrent” List which allowed the Central government to enact a law on behalf of the states. After all, we were dealing with corruption, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Criminal Justice system – all of which allow the Central government to enact a common law across the country. He also clarified why Section 253 applied and not 252 since India was duty bound to pass a nation-wide legislation as part of it signing the UN Convention against Corruption (Remember it took India several years to ratify this convention after it signed it in the UN. At that time, the BJP had criticized the UPA for taking so much time to do so). Sibal took the issue of quotas and of minority sub-quotas head-on too. His defence of the CBI remaining under the government was compelling to say the lease; arguing that the Lokpal cannot be totally independent and not reporting to anyone. I have always agreed that in a democratic set-up, all police and army set-ups should report to the Executive – as happens all around the world. There was a lot of politics in Sushma’s and Sibal’s speeches – but that’s alright really.

I thought most other speakers indulged more in diplomacy than actual point-by-point defence of their views. One thing was clear – almost no political party really wanted the Lokpal to come. Had it not been for the Congress’s determination – and Anna’s pressure tactics – to have the bill go through, it would have been dropped in no time. The mood of the house yesterday indicated why the Bill had not seen the light of the day for four decades. Even today, one cannot be sure what happens in the Rajya Sabha.

So what happens now? Will the opposition – led by the BJP – show its collective relative strength v/s the government in the Rajya Sabha? Will the opposition prevent the Bill from seeing the light of the day? The BJP wasn’t able to press several of its amendments in the Lok Sabha given its weaker numbers there; will it now insist that those changes be made in the Rajya Sabha? And if that happens, how will the Congress respond? The Congress appears determined not to part with control over the CBI or with the quotas. But honeslty, apart from these two points, what other pointsof disagreement are left between the two major parties? None that I can think of. Whether the Rajya Sabha passes the Bill or not will depend on whether the BJP is serious about the Lokpal issue – or whether it prefers to play short-gain politics.

One sign that the Bill was the “best possible” one at this stage was the fact that no one felt entirely happy about it. Most politicians didn’t even want the bill to go through in the first place. This indicates that it does have a lot of strength. The BJP still retains a few grouses – enough to give it talking points in the political sphere. The Congress appears to have been forced to yield too much – and may have to go further in the Rajya Sabha. Besides, the Constitutional Amendment that Rahul Gandhi wanted has been defeated. Most other MPs are looking grumpy. Anna must be feeling really bad given the poor support his movement has drawn yesterday in Mumbai. But honestly, I have said this many times – the support for Anna has waned very seriously in the last few months. Anna has also been shown his place in the sun – with Parliament clearly stealing his thunder. At the end of the day, he is merely an activist. Nothing more, nothing less. If he wants to play a stronger role, he has to join electoral politics.

What happened in Parliament was a good debate – what happened on Anna’s stage at Jantar Mantar the other day was a farce. While everyone was upset in parts with the final Bill, everyone agreed that this was a step forward. This is the classic sign of an acceptable bill in a democracy. No one wins the day; and yet everyone yields ground. This is the compromise that I have been talking of for long….and my biggest complaint against Anna. If Anna appears to be the loser today, it’s because of his inflexible and undemocratic attitude.

In spite of the BJP’s several flip-flops, Team Anna refused to criticize the party, furthering the impression that they are hand in gloves with it. One of Anna’s key demands was the setting up of the Lok Ayuktas mandatorily under the Central Act wasn’t it? Why did Anna not complain against the BJP then? Now if this Bill goes through with an option being provided to the states, there will be no pressure on any state government to accept this Bill. Or even set up a Lok Ayukta. Like Justice Verma said: “Even Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, under which National Human Rights Commission was set up came through the Article 253 route. But, because option was given in there, so many states have not set up state human rights commissions till date,” How come Anna didn’t complain about the BJP moving an amendment on Section 24 – a provision that put pressure on Parliamentarians once they had been chargesheeted? Even in the past, as soon as the BJP said that the judiciary should be kept out of the Lokpal, Team Anna dropped the demand. Till then, it kept demanding the judiciary be covered. They stopped talking of phone tapping the day the BJP stopped supporting it. Anna’s looks like a well orchestrated front with the BJP – and that’s why Anna’s movement has lost credibility. Too many people now see it as a Team B of the BJP.

Too much was being made of the defeat suffered by the Congress on the Constitutional amendment that Rahul Gandhi wanted. I personally think all right-thinking parties should have supported the amendment. Giving the Lokpal constitutional status would have made it stronger. It would have made it directly accountable to the Parliament, rather than to the Government. No future government would have been able to play with the Lokpal. However, politics won the day. The BJP doesn’t want any pressure on the states to be forced to enact Lok Ayukta and this was clearly one other sticking point in the amendment. The floor management of the Congress has been criticized as well. In a way, it’s only fair that the Congress suffered a defeat yesterday. In a democracy, the spoils must be shared.

I thought Mani Shankar Aiyer made a good point when he said that all laws go through several changes after they are enacted. Even the Constitution has been amended some 115 times (the proposed Lokpal amendment was the 116th). So also, this Bill will see many changes in the years to come. It’s important this bill gets passed in the Rajya Sabha. It’s a step forward and there is no point in blocking it just because it doesn’t meet everyone’s expectations. In the deeply fragmented political set-up that exists these days, getting consensus is pretty much impossible.

The real truth is that the BJP holds the key to the Lokpal now. If it decides it wants to, it can ensure the creation of the Lokpal bill. If it decides it doesn’t want to, it can simply block the bill under some pretext or another. There is another possibility though. If the SP and the BSP abstain like they did in the Lok Sabha, and if all independents and nominated members vote with the government, the Bill could still be cleared. But if the Rajya Sabha rejects the bill, the country would have missed yet another opportunity of having a Lokpal. If the Bill fails in the Rajya Sabha, I doubt if the government will call for a joint session of both houses – it probably won’t have a majority even in a combined session. I will keep my fingers crossed – and pray that my earlier prediction that the Bill won’t be passed in the Rajya Sabha – is proven wrong…..

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