Thursday, December 29, 2011

Politicians conspire to scuttle the Lokpal Bill…..what now????

For millions of people waiting for Parliament to pass the Lokpal Bill – in whichever form possible – what transpired late last night was utter disappointment and anger. The entire political class conspired not in support of a “strong” Lokpal Bill like they claimed, but in the rejection of even a so called “weak” bill. Not one party – most of all the NDA – was keen on passing the Bill. And as I had predicted a few days back, all the major parties that go to the polls in February have now earned talking points.

The commonest thing to do would be to blame the government for the logjam. But the fact is that they simply didn’t have the numbers in the Rajya Sabha. One can argue that they didn’t bend enough to accommodate all views. That they could not “control” their own ally, the TMC. Etc etc. But that would be being a little unfair to them. Yes, towards the end, they didn’t want the vote in the Rajya Sabha, but even if they had had the vote and the Bill had been defeated, the country would have not had a Lokpal. In the end, everyone knew that pure politics was being played out….nothing else mattered. It’s alright for the BJP to blame the Congress and call it “murder of democracy” or “fraud on the Parliament” – but honestly, they have their own brinkmanship to blame as well. If the BJP was that serious about the Lokpal, they should have passed this so called weak bill, and insisted on its improvement later.

Weak bill for the BJP, but it surely made progress over the present system. For the first time (after 42 years or so), a formal anti-corruption ombudsman was being set up. For the first time, constitutional status was sought to be given to this institution. For the first time, all MPs and Ministers could be prosecuted without any permissions being required from the relevant authorities. For the first time, confiscation of property and assets of the accused even before he/she was convicted was being introduced. For the first time, all states were being mandated to have Lok Ayuktas. For the first time, all categories of government servants were being covered either directly or indirectly under the Lokpal. Sure, the bill was a progress. Maybe that’s why all politicians wanted it scuttled!

The BJP has many questions to answer to the public – and to Anna. What is the reason for their u-turn on the Lok Ayukta issue when they appeared to be aggressive votaries of the issue and supporters of the Sense of the House Resolution which specifically mentioned setting up Lok Ayuktas as part of the Central act? What about the controversy around Article 252 and 253 – they raised the issue that states could not be given an “option” under Article 253 – forgetting conveniently that the The Protection of Human Rights Act 1993 was also set up under 253 (it had simultaneous provisions of setting up State Human Rights Commissions along with the National Human Rights Commission) and till date, many states have still not set up their State HRCs (including Uttarakhand which is run by the BJP). Even on the Lokpal selection issue, the Congress pointed out that when the NDA government had made the Lokpal Bill during its tenure, the selection committee was even more heavily skewed towards the ruling dispensation. And that the selection panel in all such appointments gives the ruling government a “slight” advantage. Why, the selection of the CAG is done purely by the PM – and yet we have seen that the CAG has become a thorn in the flesh for this government. So while the BJP claimed high ground at the end of the session, it really has a lot to answer itself. Yes, it was ready for a vote in the Rajya Sabha but that willingness is more indicative of the numerical superiority of the opposition in the Upper House.

The TMC is the party that really needs to do soul searching. I can appreciate that they had concerns on the Lok Ayukta. But surely they could have raised the issue in the Cabinet? They could have raised the issue in the Lok Sabha so that the Bill that was passed by that House carried the amendment the way the TMC wanted? For them change their stance in the Rajya Sabha – where its ally the Congress is numerically weak – is opening them to being branded disloyal.

None of the other parties ever wanted the Lokpal Bill passed in any form or shape. It was only that they had no way to block it in the Lok Sabha where the UPA was in a majority. They had their chance in the Rajya Sabha and they did what it took to block it. They were happy to gang up together – all of course under the garb of demanding a “strong” Lokpal. Strong my foot – they were not even ready for the so called weak Lokpal that the Lok Sabha had passed.

What should the Congress have done? By agreeing to delink Lok Ayuktas partially first and fully later (not even mentioning it in the Bill) from the Lokpal, they were already on the wrong side of Anna. Should they have dropped the minority clause? That would have upset the SP, BSP, RJD, LJP, the Left and many other parties. The Bill would still not have gone through. Should they have put the CBI’s investigation wing under the Lokpal? Well no one wanted that without conditions. The BJP wanted it but also wanted removing the Prosecution wing from under the Lokpal. No other party wanted the CBI to report to the Lokpal. All of them wanted an “autonomous” CBI – whatever that means. I thought There was just nothing possible at all…..

The blame game will surely begin. The truth is that the opposition was jittery because the Congress had passed the bill in the Lok Sabha. What if the Bill was passed – in whatever shape – in the Rajya Sabha also? No one wanted that. They were willing to forget their ideologies and gang together to protect their back sides. There is no truth in Arun Jaitley saying “The government has lost the moral authority”. Well if he is saying this on the back of their minority strength in the Rajya Sabha, then they never had the moral authority. By that logic, the Democrats also don’t have the moral right to have their President in the US– they don’t have a majority in the House of Representatives. This is just histrionics and should be deleted in any analysis of the issue.

What happens next? What should Team Anna do? In my mind, they have two options. One is to join electoral politics, set up a party, get elected and then clean the system from the inside. Maybe they can park the Lokpal issue on the side for a moment and focus on changing the electoral system instead. Alternatively, if they still want to retain popular support, they must get fiercely apolitical. They must complain against all politicians, including the BJP, not just the Congress. This is the fatal mistake they have already made. A good leader knows when to pull back – and start afresh. It’s time Anna did that.

What should the Congress and the BJP do? I think the two parties need to both rise above petty politics. They just need to find some common ground. I wouldn’t allow the CBI to be under the Lokpal if prosecution also was under it. But I would be happy to remove quotas. I also feel minorities needn’t be brought in since we don’t allow for religion based reservations. The BJP shouldn’t insist on the selection and sacking procedure of the Lokpal. A compromise has already been reached on most other points. Without the pressure of a deadline – and with the UP elections out of the way by March – the two parties can show the way.

What about the timing? The best hope is for the Bill to be re-discussed in both houses in the monsoon session (if possible it could be discussed after the Budget is passed in the budget session). The budget session is in any case likely to be delayed on account of the UP and other state elections. The priority in the budget session is the budget. That should be dealt with first so that we do not have a financial emergency. Once that’s out of the way, the Lokpal Bill should be discussed. In the interim, everyone needs to work towards a new bill.

What is my worry? My worry is that since fundamentally the politicians don’t want the Lokpal to be passed, there will always be opposition. Since both the Congress and the BJP have allies who don’t want the Lokpal, progress could get sticky.

The real truth is that no politician ever wanted the Lokpal Bill passed. It’s nothing about how strong or weak the bill was. Even the weakest bill would be stronger than the present scenario. But this doesn’t mean that Team Anna was right. Their bill has been rejected by one and all (including their favority party – the BJP). Maybe they should join politics formally. We cannot live without democracy. We need change from inside…..not outside…..

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