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Miss the lokpal?

With an institutional body to look into public impropriety in the cold storage, did we really expect everyone to keep quiet, asks Indrajit Hazra.

columns Updated: Oct 21, 2012 21:40 IST
Indrajit Hazra

If memory serves me right, the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011, was tabled in the Rajya Sabha on December 29, 2011. Parliamentarians sounded serious about tackling corruption outside the ambit of speeches and those who reposed their faith in Parliament were keen to have a strong statutory anti-corruption institution established instead of allowing a runaway parallel justice system running amok. There has been no vote to turn the bill into law since then and the bill was referred to a select committee of the Rajya Sabha for consideration on May 21, 2012.

Like last fortnight's leftover pizza, the Bill is tucked away somewhere in the back of the refrigerator behind the other edibles that have been flying in and out of the kitchen of public discourse. If anyone wanted to test the efficacy of the lokpal and lokayuktas, this would have been a good time to do it.

And yet, here we all are now, preferring a split-screen saga starring a businessman, a Union minister and the president of the national opposition party, not to mention a no-holds-barred crusader, two state governments, a real estate company, a bunch of extras who are either disabled or farmers, and a whole can of television talking heads.

The Arvind Kejriwal-led India Against Corruption (IAC) drone attacks against Robert Vadra, Salman Khurshid and Nitin Gadkari have, however, not made everyone reach for the popcorn. They don't like the crudeness, rudeness and terrible lack of manners that have been unleashed ever since one individual and his team turned the spotlights on parts of the backstage that were, till recently, left in the shadows. Questions of propriety, motive and table manners are bound to be hurled as countering actions. Kejriwal's guerrilla tactics have already been described as 'urban Maoism', 'cheap publicity' and 'pie-in-the-sky notions of "real" democracy'. And in a sense, they are all these.

But without getting sucked into the issue of whether Kejriwal is a marauding Robespierre with a moustache and an IIT degree bent on social destruction, or an unexpected avatar of Kalki ready to bring our Kaliyug to a grinding halt through search-and-destroy operations, there is that niggling question that remains in the back of the head if not the refrigerator. Couldn't these charges of impropriety against individuals holding public office have been brought to notice and investigated by an institution rather than by a high-pitched individual? It is, after all, for strategic as well as functional reasons that institutions are preferred over individuals, however well-meaning and noble the latter may be.

Which returns us to the back of the refrigerator where the lokpal languishes with the pickles. Take the latest frisbee of alleged impropriety that's been thrown in the park. Nitin Gadkari, as the president of the BJP, holds a public office. The charge levelled against him and the then Maharashtra irrigation minister and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar is that Gadkari took undue favours from the Congress-NCP government in the allotment of land acquired from the farmers of Vidarbha for a "public purpose". This seems to have flouted government rules and suggests a 'quid pro quo' deal - which, in its silence until the can was opened, is more like a 'Don't scratch out my eyes, and I won't scratch out yours' deal - between the BJP president and the former Maharashtra minister, if not between the BJP, the NCP and the Congress.

According to the Lokpal Bill parked in Parliament, the lokpal would have had to conduct a preliminary inquiry within 30 days. If there was no prima facie case against Gadkari, the matter would be closed. If there was a case, then the lokpal would have investigated after providing the accused "a suitable forum". The investigation, according to the bill, must be completed within six months with an optional six-month extension after giving reasons in writing.

Now Kejriwal and his band of merry crusaders are convinced that Gadkari and his benefactors are guilty as charged. Their confidence in being right is understandable as they would be silly to make a half-hearted pitch. But being played out in the gambolling grounds of the media, especially in the 'the-truth-will-return-after-a-short-commercial-break' television media, the invitation to take a leap of faith with IAC is as touching as it is pointless. As a political force, they are well within their rights to milk the issue before taking it to court - as has been the case with the Robert Vadra-DLF-Haryana government allegation of improper business being conducted.

But what led to this dial-a-scam spree that some folks are getting a little tired of already - the same folks who have been always so bored with the possibility of so many scams existing in the first place that they have believed them to be conspiracy theories anyway? Like nature, allegations also abhor a vacuum. And it is this space that the lokpal - rather than the Platonic ideal of an anti-corruption law that those railing against the lokpal want - made way for Kejriwal's IAC team to occupy. Ironically, with the lokpal in place, not only would the guilt of those accused be established with far less pie-fights we're witnessing now, but their innocence too.

Kejriwal and his crusaders may irritate and confound the logically-minded among us. But one thing they have done in the absence of a lokpal is to make public corruption appear to be a brick-and-mortar phenomenon rather than a Sunday debating subject. Unless, of course, you believe that impropriety among people holding public office in this country is a rarity. Or, even more touchingly, a lesser evil than the crime committed by those making these accusations.