Friday, December 9, 2011

Diversity of opinions and a compromising attitude are the essence of democracy….

Team Anna is going to be back in action soon. With the Parliamentary Standing Committee set up to look into the Lokpal Bill submitting its report – and with it not meeting the expectations of Team Anna – it looks imminent that Anna will go on a fast again. But just how justified is Anna in going on a fast again? Let’s look at what all has happened since the tumultuous days of August when Anna brought Parliament down to its knees.

Since then, the Parliamentary Standing Committee has met many times – at breakneck speed by their standards (!) – and has produced a “report”. A report that has made recommendations on various provisions of the Lokpal Bill. It has looked at the Government’s version of the bill, the NCPRI’s version of the same as well as Anna’s JLP. Based on the discussions amongst the all-party grouping of MPs, it has come to some conclusions on what the Lokpal Act needs to look like. Team Anna has rejected the report taking recourse to the many dissenters. Is Team Anna justified in rejecting the report? If so, on what grounds?

But before that, let’s look at what progress has been made in terms of the bill itself.

In my mind, the most important progress is that all ministers and senior bureaucrats can be investigated into by the Lokpal – without any permission from any governmental authority. Hitherto, the Speaker’s permission was needed to investigate MPs of the Lok Sabha and the Minister’s permission to investigate a senior bureaucrat. Since one of the major problems in probing the corruption of these people was that permissions were often denied, that major hurdle has been removed. This is a huge step forward from the present situation and should be seen as a sincere effort of the Committee to move forward.

Secondly, all seniors in the corruption business – Ministers, MPs and senior bureaucrats are covered under the ambit of the Lokpal. Since there is a feeling that the biggest bucks are made by these people, it’s great that they will now be squarely under the watch of the Lokpal. The debate is only about inclusion of Group C and D officials – not the seniors.

Thirdly, one single act will now also create the Lok Ayuktas in the state – one of the big demands of Team Anna. Without this provision, we would have had different acts in different states and it would have been impossible to ensure a uniform standard in fighting corruption across the country. This was a compromise that the Committee appears to have made since it was initially not in favor of it.

Fourthly, the Lokpal is being proposed to be made into a Constitutional body – which means that no subsequent government can tamper with its basic structure and independence. It won’t work under any government ministry and will report directly to Parliament. This is a huge step forward since it make the Lokpal truly independent and outside the control of the government of the day. Just like the CEC has done the country proud, this provision will also give the same pedestal to the Lokpal.

Even the inclusion of the PM under the ambit of the Lokpal appears to have been virtually conceded by the Parliamentary committee. In all likelihood, the PM will either be included while in office (but with conditions attached) or will be covered once he/she demits office (with no conditions attached). Since the objective of any law is to act as a detterent, there is no doubt in my mind that any incumbent PM who is thinking of hanky panky will think a thousand times before doing so.

By including NGOs under its ambit, the Parliamentary committee has recognized how much corruption happens as a result of the free flow of funds into these bodies – very largely unaccounted for. It’s a good step forward.

By rejecting to include the judiciary under the Lokpal – but by committing to cover it under another act (The Judicial Accountability Bill), the Committee has done the right thing. No one, accept Team Anna, was in favor of this provision.

By rejecting to include Group C and D class officials of the Central government under the Lokpal, I think the Committee has made the right recommendation – and shows that it is sincere is stemming corruption at the top. If it had included Group C and D officials, the political establishment would have actually been better off – since it would have been relatively easy to divert the attention of the Lokpal to the “thousands” of cases of corruption that would emerge from the lower levels – rather than the relatively few at the top. Rather than thinking of this as a means to protect corruption, I think it’s an indication of a desire to weed out corruption at the top.

Much is being made of the dissent expressed by some members of the Committee. Since media is often not well versed with the details of these issues – and since opposition politicians are able to manueuvre the discussion around the way they want to – the truth often gets obfuscated. For instance, the 3 Congress MPs who are called “dissenters” have dissented on only one point – that of repealing Article 311 which gives protection to civil servants. But the newspaper reports fail to highlight this – and instead give the impression that they have rejected the whole report. Likewise, other dissenters (including those from the BJP) have dissented on specific points of the report – while agreeing with a majority of the other points. The report is a legitimate report of the Committee – and since consensus is impossible in a democratic set-up – it has its share of dissenters.

Of course, there are issues where Team Anna appears to be aggrieved. They would have preferred to have one mammoth bill covering everything under it – the judiciary, the lower rungs of bureaucracy, the public grievance redressal etc. Most legal luminaries have indicated that it is better not such a good idea to create such a gargantuan body having powers over one and all. Likewise, Team Anna would have liked to have both the investigative and prosecution arms under it – again most intellectuals have said that this would not be a good idea.

That the committee has made bold progress is clear from the number of existing structures it has shaken from their foundations. The CVC and the CBI have both complained with the final structure proposed, fearing that their autonomy was being compromised. Some senior bureaucrats have even cautioned that by placing all of them under the Lokpal, corruption cases will actually take longer to be concluded.

A true test of a compromise is that while there is significant movement from the original position, no party feels that it has got all that it asked for. Just like Team Anna feels upset about some of its “losses”, so also does the bureaucracy, the politicians, the CBI and the Executive. But then this is the essence of democracy. Divergent viewpoints are a hallmark of democracy and no one group can claim to have a monopoly on what is good for the country. Only time will tell if the Lokpal Act that comes out is strong or not. If it is not, it can be amended. But if it’s draconian, it will do a lot of damage before it is corrected. We’re now seeing how draconian a certain act related to dowry has been made and even the courts are saying so. We don’t want that to happen. The pendulum cannot swing the other extreme – as we course correct for past ills.

The real truth is that the country doesn’t want another fast from Anna. It certainly doesn’t want more politics on this matter. All political parties are guilty of not having enacted the law in the last 42 years. The BJP had its chance for six years and it did nothing. So it has no reason to hoist a flag on a territory that is not its. What we need now is a moratorium on protest….and a determination to focus on the issues facing the country…..

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