Sunday, December 11, 2011

A farce of a debate….

It turned out to be what it was always expected to be – Politician after politician coming up and saying what the crowds wanted to hear, truth and honest opinions hardly mattering. The photo-op with Anna was crucial – and Jaitley and Brinda Karat must be particularly pleased, sit as they did next to Anna. To a discerning observer however, there was much to notice about the stand of each party on the specific points of the Lokpal Bill.

The BJP’s Arun Jaitley gave a powerful speech, repeating points that are well known in the public domain. The BJP supports the inclusion of the PM and the lower bureaucracy under the Lokpal; wants the CBI to be independent; and of course wants the Lokpal to be “strong”. Smartly – as many who are smart enough to understand noticed – Jaitley totally avoided touching on subjects that the BJP doesn’t agree with. He preferred to avoid talking about whether the judiciary should be under the Lokpal or not; whether the conduct of the MPs inside Parliament should be covered or not (outside Parliament was never under question); whether the Lokpal should have phone tapping powers or not and of course what conditions should be attached before putting the PM under the Lokpal. Jaitley also played with words when he said that the CBI should be made “autonomous” without saying clearly that he didn’t believe it should come under the Lokpal. Jaitley’s was a political speech – catering to the sentiments of the assembled people. He was populist to the last word, choosing to give contentious issues a go-by. So much for the “debate” that he was supposed to engage in!

The Left parties presented an interesting picture. On the one hand, the CPM stood by its long standing ideology on corruption in the corporate sector; and their general dislike for anyting corporate. And on the other hand, they were honest enough to express points of disagreement with Team Anna. Brinda Karat went on and on about how the real problem in India was the corporates – how corruption had increased manifold in the last 2 decades since the process of economic liberalization began. This is a common Left rant; choosing as they do to ignore the higher growth rates and the elevation of hundreds of millions of poor above the poverty line that liberalization has achieved. The Left must be uncomfortable answering tangible data on how much liberalization has done in freeing up the entrepreneurial spirits of us Indians; making us competitive worldwide and getting us a reputation that even Obama fears. But at least the Left was being true to its form, springing no surprises and holding back no punches either.

For soon after the platitudes were over, Left leaders cautioned Team Anna not to hope that “every word, every comma of your bill be accepted”. Bardhan of the CPI went so far as to say what many of us feel – that those who oppose certain points of the JLP are not corrupt themselves nor are they siding with the corrupt. Some of us – in fact, most of the intelligentsia – have genuine disagreements with the JLP. Bardhan also spoke about keeping the judiciary out. And while he did mention that the Left favored including Group C under the Lokpal, he was conspicuously silent on the inclusion of Group D officials. That’s pretty much taking head on one of Anna’s present pet peeves – that the lowest levels of bureaucracy cause the maximum harm to ordinary folks and must be brought under the Lokpal.

Brinda Karat went further in bring out her party’s stand that the Citizen’s Grievances Bill should be a separate Act – and not be under the Lokpal. Combined with the feeling that the Left doesn’t want Group D officials under the Lokpal, it appears that the Left’s views are similar to those of the Congress on this subject.

The other speeches were purely political – all rhetoric with no substance. For instance, Sharad Yadav of the JD (U) made no reference to his caustic remarks inside Parliament in August against Team Anna for its methods. Intellectual honesty demanded that he bridged the gap between his position of that day and today’s, when he said that the sense of the House should be adhered to fully. He could have apologized saying he had made a mistake that day. Or he could have said that while he continued to have disagreements, he preferred to focus on the larger picture etc. But no explanation was offered; and none was sought. Sharad Yadav also refused to bring up the subject of his government in Bihar bringing out a bill that Anna hates….but then this was a common theme in the entire so called “debate”. Real issues were never brought out – obvious ones used for political gain.

And what kind of a “moderator” was Kejriwal? When he brought up specific points for eliciting views of the different parties, he first set the tone by “selling” his own views – eliciting cheers from the frenzied crowd. Now, we already know Team Anna’s views. If Kejriwal wanted to get the parties to speak their mind, they were not going to do so after he had queered the pitch. Politician after politician ducked specific questions with the excuse that “this will be covered in Parliament”. As a result, all contentious issues remained buried.

The one thing that everyone was commonly interested in was in making CBI independent. Honestly, I share this view. It should be independent of the Executive. In fact, I feel it should also be made into a Constitutional Body – so that it is answerable to the whole of Parliament, and not to the ruling government. But hardly anyone said unequivocally that they wanted the CBI to be under the Lokpal. Common sense – once the paranoia is removed – dictates that the investigation, prosecution and judicial wings should all be kept different so that no biases creep into the process. What Team Anna wants is for the Lokpal to usurp all these powers. Imagine if the local cop who investigates a crime, also prosecuted the accused, and pronounced the verdict. Sounds similar to Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein or Hitler??? And even on this point – the Left was quick to take jabs at the BJP – saying that it also had misused the CBI when it was in power.

If intellectual honesty be the way to evaluate the quality of the debaters, the poorest performer was the BJP – the best would be Bardhan of CPI. The remaining politicians were happy making political speeches as they do at their rallies. D Raja and Yerran Naidu were more emotional than coherent. Poor Nikhil De of NCPRI was booed out for many of his points. But then that was what was happening all through the so called debate anyways. Those who had a different point of view had to avoid speaking about them; or they were booed out. Is this what you call a “debate”???

Nonetheless, the one-day event was successful in lifting the issue right up the priority list. Like I said, Parliament should debate nothing but this one bill. Like I have said earlier – and like one of the Left leaders said yesterday – maybe Parliament could be extended till the bill was passed. Or maybe a special session could be called shortly to specifically discuss and pass the Lokpal Bill.

The Congress made a mistake by not participating in the event yesterday. No matter what they say about Parliament being sacrosanct and that debates must happen inside (and I agree), the fact remains that the rules of the game have changed (atleast as far as the subject of Lokpal is concerned). The Congress should have taken the stage and said what it felt on the subject – while still keeping Parliamentary propriety in mind. Instead of giving media statements that the final report is not out yet, it could have said so directly to the assembled people. Chances are that the party would have got booed – but so what? If it’s in politics, surely it knows how to handle boos?

The real truth is that the debate was a farce. Team Anna is extremely effective at rallying crowds. But whether it is democratic enough to appreciate alternate viewpoints, or whether it is intellectually honest in its methods is debatable (the crowd in Calcutta was divided – refer Arnab’s debate on whether the means that Team Anna had adopted were justified in achieving the goal). Two things are clear: the Congress will want the Lokpal Act passed quickly – in whatever shape required. And the BJP and other opposition parties will want it to be as delayed as possible – ideally because of the Congress’s own goof-ups – something that is probabilistically very likely to happen!

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