Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Making of Lok Pal Bill

Sangita Jha / New Delhi

The joint drafting committee has so far held several rounds of deliberations and the two sides have shared their respective drafts.

Mahatma Gandhi's lethal weapon of non-violence has been part of history. Though the Mahatma brought the mighty British to their toes with his regular recourse to fast-unto-death, there have been a number of people of late who never tired from questioning the efficacy of Gandhi's non-violence as the means to struggle against the establishment of the day.

Anna Hazare successfully proved the critics of non-violence wrong. His five days of fast-unto-death infused fresh lease of life to demands of Lok Pal in the country. On the fourth day of his fast at Jantar Mantarin New Delhi, Hazare very assertively had asked his restive followers to keep faith in non-violence. He did not have to wait long, as the

Central government acceded to his demand for the joint drafting committee on the Lo Pal Bill, that too with a deadline.

It's not that the Lok Pal is an altogether a new concept. The government has been trying to pass a Lok Pal in the Parliament without success for over four decades.

The Gazette notification of the Central government on the constitution of the joint drafting bill came out as a major victory for the civic society members who had been spearheading the campaign for Lokpal through their own Jan Lok Pal BIll under the aegis of the India Against Corruption (IAC). Now the Government of India has given a sovereign commitment to the people that there would be a Lok Pal Bill.

Hazare may not be a Mahatma Gandhi but he has conveyed a very powerful message that a sustained credible campaign can be head at the highest level and may even be acted upon. It was very fitting when an exuberant Swami Agniwesh while announcing the first victory of the civic society called upon the naxals to think of the non-violent ways to demand redressal to their grievances. Agniwesh had been acting as an interlocutor during a number of crisis involving the naxals.

The spontaneous support that Hazare got across the country during his five days of fast has far reaching consequences. He in fact sounded more warning to the government by claiming that it's just a beginning.

He made it clear from his dais at Jantar Mantar that to weed out corruption in the system he would take the movement to its logical conclusion and the electoral reform would be next in his agenda.

The political class has reasons to be unnerved, as Hazare has given a call for Right to Reject candidates in the elections with the option of "None of the above" in the electronic voting machine.

Hazare's campaign is now having a spillover effect as well. The Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev too does not want to be left behind. Therefore, he has announced that he would be sitting on an indefinite hunger strike in Delhi from June 4 demanding a strong Lokpal Bill and bringing back black money stashed in tax havens abroad. He has even claimed that his fast would be "the biggest satyagraha in the history of this country".

Meanwhile, the joint drafting committee which consists of five members each from the government and the civic society has been going ahead with the exercise to draft a strong Lok Pal Bill. From the government, the Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, also the chairman, the Union home minister P Chidambaram, Union law minister Veerappa Moily, Union human resources minister Kapil Sibbal, Union minister for water resources Salman Khurshid are members. The civic society is represented by eminent lawyer and former Union minister Shanti Bhushan, also the co-chairman, Anna Hazare, RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal, the Karnatka Lokayukta Santosh Hegde and Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan.

The joint drafting committee in its meetings so far has held deliberations on the nitty-gritty of the exercise and the two sides have submitted their respective drafts. In the days ahead till they finally draft the bill by June 30 there gas to be convergence of views on what the Lok Pal should be and its jurisdiction.

The debate is, however, taking outside the confines of the joint drafting committee, with people being taken on board by the civic society members. The team of India Against Corruption is visiting various parts of the country to sensitise them about their version of the Lok Pal Bill. Beginning from Varanasi in UP, the team of India Against Corruption has so far criss-crossed cities like Guwahati, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and they would visit more places. Not only sensitising people, they are also seeking feedback and suggestions from the people which could also be put on the table of the joint drafting committee.

The civic society members have openly claimed that the government's version of the Lok Pal Bill is "too weak". Former IPS officer and activist Kiran Bedi alleged that the government's draft Bill was rushed ahead of the G20 summit to project a "clean image" on the global platform. "The government's first draft was shocking. It was clearly ineffective. Bureaucrats who are among the most corrupt were excluded. Inquiry couldn't be initiated till chairpersons in both houses gave clearance," Ms Bedi has claimed.

There is further no unanimity as of now whether the judiciary would come in the ambit of the Lok Pal or not. The joint drafting committee member Prashant Bhushan has said that the proposed anti-graft legislation should cover judiciary too. However, former chief justice of India J S Verma in around table discussion had spoken against bringing the judiciary in the ambit of the Lok Pal.

However, Prashant Bhushan, who has been fighting against corruption in judiciary, has different opinion. "Judiciary should come under the Lokpal legislation's ambit. Some people in the judiciary are averse to this and want that Lokpal should have no role in probing corruption charges against judges," maintained Mr Bhushan.

Giving details of the demand of the civic society, Mr Bhushan maintained during an interaction with media: "The proposed bill had a provision of petitioning the Supreme Court against Lokpal. We are going to propose that the corruption complaints against the machinery below the Lokpal be probed by independent authorities, which would be in no way connected to the Lokpal or the government."

So far the joint drafting committee has agreed on basic principles of the proposed legislation on anti-corruption ombudsman like transparency in selection process and autonomy. They have to find ways to have convergence on the issue of bringing the office of the Prime Minister and judiciary in the scrutiny of Lok Pal, which remains a stumbling block so far.

Another tricky issue to be tackled by the joint drafting committee is that of the financial independence of the Lok Pal. The committee has so far discussed various models, including from other countries and of institutions like the Supreme Court, Comptroller and Auditor General and the Central Vigilance Commission.

However, there has been agreement among the two sides on having a broadbased selection panel for appointing the Lokpal. They have also held discussions on having such an institution at state levels, given that a number of states have not constituted Lokayukta for various reasons. This would require discussions with state governments which may be taken at a later stage.

In an indication of the business minded approach of the two sides in the joint drafting committee it augured well when Mr Sibal told the media that they have decided to go ahead with the drafting of the bill in areas where there was an agreement between the representatives of the civil society and the government.

Given the monumental task on the hand, senior lawyer Shanti BHushan had written a letter to Mr Mukherjee, stressing the need to have more frequent meetings of the committee so that it could meet the June 30 deadline, which had also been affirmed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier.

In fact Hazare had not shied away from saying that if the Lok Pal Bill was not passed by August 15 by the Parliament, he would again sit on a fast-unto-death. He is not apologetic when asked if it was not a "blackmailing", as he said that he would keep doing it if needed. He has reasons to say so, as he has demonstrated the power of his fast-unto-death, which caught the imagination of the millions of the people. The government too appears to be serious enough to stick to the deadline but it would definitely require the two sides to have convergence of views on the principle of give and take and sticking to what could be done without disturbing the basic character of Indian democracy.

The good thing which has unfolded is that the people at large are being taken on board by the civic society activists, as mere institution no matter how much powerful it is could succeed without the involvement of the awakened mass in the process. One could only wish that Anna Hazare really take the people's fight against corruption to the logical end by explicit involvement of the people.

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