Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Talks over talks

Sopan Correspondent / New Delhi

The civil society has been alleging that the government is trying to establish a weak system as the latter is not serious about fighting corruption. To a great extent the civil society is correct. The government has been trying sabotage all efforts put in place an effective institution to fight corruption. Sopan Step spoke to Kiran Bedi, a prominent member of the civil society. Excerpts:

Why there is so much rancour between the civil society and the government? What is your problem with the government? Are you asking for too much?

We have become a nation of insecure and timid people and we don’t trust others. The administration has become transactional in delivering services rather than transformative. There is a huge disconnect between the elected representatives and the electorate. The country is yearning for a comprehensive and effective system to prevent and punish corruption at all levels. There is a disconnect between the elected representatives and the electorate. But as soon as election time approaches, the same ‘seekers’ return to beg for fresh mandate, with folded hands before the mass of civil society, who they think ought not question them after having voted them in.

The allegation is that the civil society is spreading hatred against the political class. They say it is dangerous for democracy. Aren’t you undermining democracy by your ‘arm-twisting’ tactics?

The voters are changing today. They are better informed thanks to technology and media. People now want resolution to their long-piling issues that deny them their aspirations. They want to be engaged and heard. There prevails a huge trust deficit. People are helplessly witnessing their representatives ‘bulge’ in corruption, and yet get re-elected at their cost. There being no right to reject, the voter is compelled to choose between the devil and the deep sea.

The government has walked along with you on Lokpal Bill? There are a few areas differences. It’s legitimate to have differences of opinion in a democracy.

When the people agitated for an independent anti-corruption authority, under the leadership of Anna Hazare, it was due to shameless exposure of national plunder with disproportionate official response to arrest it. It laid bare the huge inadequacy of the existing enforcement machinery from all counts. But the key issue is that even after a score of meetings between Anna Hazare along with his legal eagles and five government ministers, two strongly divergent views have emerged. The government version is a hoax on the people of this country. It confuses and muddles the issues even further.

What are your differences with the new draft?

One of the main differences is regarding selection panel of the lokpal. On selection panel: the people’s bill comprised of two elected politicians, four serving judges and two independent constitutional authorities. The group of ministers’ proposal: six elected politicians — five from the ruling establishment — two serving judges and two officials. This is the first major difference. Hence, it is the ‘government in power’- dominated panel, against the balanced one proposed in people’s bill.

Another is on the search committee. This is a body to ensure countrywide search and co-option in a transparent manner of the best talent in the country. The civil society proposed a committee of 10 members, five from former senior judiciary, retired CAG and CEC, and five members to be co-opted from the civil society. This would have enabled an important role for eminent citizens of the country in dealing with corruption. The official version has no such provision. It is open for patronage.

The third serious major difference in the official bill is the provision of ‘may’ and ‘personal hearing’ after inquiry or investigation, at all stages for the accused. This will be open to litigations and delays.

The third major difference between the two drafts is that the official bill does not include bureaucracy below the joint secretary. This means the common man who deals with officers at the cutting edge for all his services is left to fend for himself. The provision for citizen’s charter in the official bill does not make a penal provision for delay in deliver of the service, which the civil society bill does. By this omission, the message being sent is that corruption is only corporate and bribes are ‘small change’ that the common man must learn to live with.

The other matter of serious concern is that the Lokpal is one more stand-alone body. It has neither been given the Central Vigilance Commission, nor has been transferred the anti-corruption wing of the CBI when it is doing the same work. Lokpal is specifically barred from any jurisdiction of any matter pending enquiry or investigation. Hence, all past acts of corruption, if under examination, are beyond the preview of Lokpal.

Is there a way forward?

If this kind of lokpal comes about, it will be one more wasted spoke in the creaking wheel of law enforcement, which will only add to the prevailing weaknesses. Instead of strengthening the anti-corruption machinery, it will further slow it down.

No doubt corruption is an issue, which has caught the public imagination at large and the undercurrent against the menace got expression through non-governmental and non-political agitations. The two prominent among them are one led by noted Gandhian Anna Hazare, who talked about enacting a robust anti-corruption law in the form of “Lokpal” and the other by Yoga Guru Ramdev, who talked about bringing back ill-gotten money of Indians stashed aboard.

Given the general apathy towards the political class in the country, both the agitations in the first place received popular support that rendered the government of the day to go on back foot with a perceptible unease. The UPA Government agreed to form a joint panel (representatives of Anna Hazare and the government) to work on a strong Lokpal draft Bill and set a deadline of June 30 to complete the task. All these followed a six days fast undertaken by Anna Hazare, which began on April 4 this year.

Several meetings of the Joint Drafting Committee, which was chaired by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and co-chaired by noted lawyer Shanti Bhushan took place and the last meeting was held on June 22, where the two sides agreed to disagree on the provisions of the proposed anti-graft legislation.

The major bone of contention between the two sides in the JDC was inclusion of Prime Minister, higher judiciary and conduct of Parliamentarians on the floor of the Houses of the Parliament. Even differences cropped up over the basic structure, composition and powers of the proposed Lokpal. This led the government representatives to announcing that from here “we are taking the two versions of the Bill and now it would be up to the Union cabinet to decide on”.

Meanwhile contradictory comments from different quarters came with one set supporting the propositions of the Team-Anna Hazare, but another spoke in the language, which proved to be music to the ears of the government representatives and so once HRD minister, who also happened to be a member of the JDC, claimed: “There is no unanimity even in the civil society over various provisions, which non-official members are pushing”.
Moreover, the argument to exclude designated functionaries from the purview of the Lokpal needs to be examined against the fundamental tenet of equality and good governance. Can a head of State/judiciary/Parliament dispense justice, and be seen to be just, if he or she is actually pegged above justice? Should they not have to experience the same governance issues that their foot-soldiers are subjected to? Conversely, can they perform their exalted role with pending corruption allegations?
When there is an orchestrated call for the person to resign or to render him incompetent for high office, a corruption complaint becomes a political weapon. It fulfils the objective of the complainant. Not at least until the charges are framed, and formal criminal/departmental prosecution is launched, should a person be considered unfit for the office that he is competent to hold. Then, a Prime Minister/Chief Justice of India/Speaker would not become a lame duck. Unfortunately, in our country, political expediency and double standards have prevented healthy conventions from being established.
Many believe that ideally, civil society should have sought for the Lokpal to be an oversight body, to oversee the State's instruments for tackling corruption. An overarching citizen's watchdog, comprising eminent citizens, distinct from the investigative mechanism of the State, would better safeguard society's interests. It could call for records of investigations done by the vigilance agencies, hold discussions with citizenry and then ensure that no wrongdoer was let off lightly.

However, since the Lokpal, as now proposed, replaces the existing vigilance mechanism, it merits analysing the current shortcomings.
However, the other view is that he entire state apparatus be put under the Lokpal from Prime Minister to peon in the government and a multi-member ombudsman should be given powers of receiving complaints, enquiry and prosecution. This the government representatives in the JDC claimed would turn into creating a parallel government out side government, which affects very functioning of the state.

Countering the argument Anna Hazare said, “If we have independent Judiciary and Election Commission then it does not mean that they run a parallel government.” He charged that the government is not serious about fighting corruption and vowed to re-launch his agitation from August 16, the deadline which had fixed at the time of breaking his fast at Jantar mantar. “If the Parliament does not pass the Lokpal Bill before August 15, the Independence Day, I will once again come and fast for the legislation,” he had said.

In the meantime government has decided to expand the process of consultation and has convened a meeting the political parties to discuss the two drafts of the Bill with them to arrive at a consensus. The government has however announced that it will bring a robust Lokpal Bill in the coming monsoon session of the Parliament.

Almost about a month after Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev organized a massive campaign to force the government to bring back ill-gotten money of Indians stashed abroad. His fast-unto-death was scheduled to begin on June 5. He arrived in the national Capital on June 1. It was a rare spectacle to see four senior ministers arriving at the Delhi airport to receive the yoga guru. The government engaged Ramdev from the day one at the airport itself. It followed several rounds of talks between Ramdev and the government, but failing which the yoga guru began his fast at Ramlila ground.

Even during the fast for the day back-channel negotiations continued and at one point of time it appeared that a truce was arrived at and the yoga guru was ready to break his fast. But there appeared lack of trust between the government negotiators and the yoga guru, which resulted in firstly a u-turn taken by Ramdev and the police crackdown on the peaceful protestors at the Ramlila Ground in the midnight on June 5 itself, making things very unsavoury.

The government was criticized by the all and sundry for police action, but in the process it appeared that Baba Ramdev lost his anti-corruption bite. Politics then followed, which has still been continuing, rendering the main issue of black money to take the backseat.

Now the big question still remains unanswered as to whether the country could get rid of the corrupt, corruptible and corruption? Questions still remain answered as to how black money stashed abroad be brought back to the country? Is it possible? Is government interested in bringing them back? Let us see if people of this country get answer of any of these questions.

Similarly, on Lokpal Bill too nothing is resolved. Same set of questions continue to haunt the public imagination, despite a month long exercise to draft a bill to fight corruption. Don’s we have law to deal with corruption? Are not we trying to create another monster to fight the existing monster of corruption? All these need to be answered as quickly as possible by the leaders of the country – both ruling and opposition -, otherwise a possible drift could set in to hurt the country more than the corruption.

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