If you try and make sense out of what has degenerated into a war between five activists on one side and the entire might of the government on the other you will fail. Not because both sides have turned stubborn in how they see the lokpal bill to fight corruption in high places emerge. But because the basic issue has been hijacked.
Anna Hazare-led activists say the government’s intent is suspect and it wants a weak bill so that corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and judges remain untouched, as they have been since Independence. Since then, the degeneration of the power incumbents has crossed barriers of imagination. It is no longer hundreds or thousands or lakhs; the scale is now hundreds of crores (Adarsh Housing Scam); thousands of crores (Commonwealth Games scam); lakhs of crores (2G Scam).
Negotiators of the bill from the government’s side say Hazare’s men want to change the Constitution itself. They don’t understand the nuances of law, even though two of them, the father-son duo of Shanti and Prashant Bhushan, are among India’s top lawyers. They also say these activists don’t understand administration and in their zeal want to create a parallel government.
What we see in public is no longer the finer points of the bill, but a more entertaining mutual destruction of credibility. We will never know why the government doesn’t want the Prime Minister to be brought under the ambit of the lokpal; instead, we’re being told the activists are a bunch of immature idealists. On the other side, every point the government doesn’t agree to, the activists make it seem as if it doesn’t want a strong lokpal, only a “Jokepal”.
Predictably, public sympathy is with the activists. And it’s not only because they’re the underdogs. It’s because we are fed up with day-to-day corruption — PDS, birth certificate, petty municipal officials, police — and believe that unless the rich and mighty at the top are brought to book, our lives will remain unchanged. In the pre-1991 India of no options, we accepted what was thrown at us.
Today’s India is the world’s second-fastest growing economy, a country that commands a presence in global forums like G20, even though it’s a long way to reach where China is. In this India, big businesses have opportunities to buy companies and set up Greenfield projects abroad. When they do that, India exports its jobs to workers in the UK, China, Vietnam.
“We cannot take our high growth for granted,” finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had told me in September 2010. But from all accounts, this is precisely what the government is doing. So, we now live with a policy freeze on development and reforms, politicised land acquisition, spectrum, gas. All through the pipelines of corruption.
With the government on one side and activists on the other, it was a great opportunity for a top-down-bottoms-up approach to fix corruption through the lokpal. Where is the debate? All we see is a degeneration of intellectual discussion into a pathetic name calling. Desperately needed: Amartya Sen’s ‘argumentative Indians’ to salvage this crucial bill.
If the lokpal bill is to be tabled in the Monsoon session of Parliament, the one thing the government and the activists have in short supply is time. They need to invest it better — it is a political economy issue that concerns our dignity. Give us a little more respect, please.