India's future does not depend on the Lokpal Bill. The fact that the enactment of the draft seems to have gone into a coma does not mean the country has slipped into unconsciousness. Yet, that Bill is an important and crucial framework for our moral self-confidence and for our self-pride as a people.
When the Lok Sabha passed the Bill, I was delighted; in fact, elated for three reasons: first, a national surge, an upsurge of sentiment against the abominable phenomenon of corruption had at last reached the law-making body of the country and crystallised into a legislative text, howsoever imperfect. Here was a people's movement coalescing with the Constitution's rubric to rid India's body politic of its most poisonous toxin.
Second, Team Anna's campaign had put the institution of Parliament to the test. It had placed the onus for change onto the shoulders of elected MPs. Parliament was now passing that test, and passing it most creditably. Here was the highest edifice of our democracy, the repository of a whole people's political trust, doing itself and the nation proud.
Third, we could now look forward to a brand new institution ranking high, with Parliament and the judiciary, comprising some nine individuals of credit selected by a panel of the elected and the 'selected' dignitaries, who would put corruption among public servants on notice. Here was a new vision, a new energy, being gifted by the departing year to the new one just dawning.
These were notable achievements; in fact, they were huge fulfilments. Although compromised by disappointment over the defeat of the proposal for a constitutional amendment that would have put the lokpal beyond any facile tinkering, they were something of which one could say 'Nothing less is deserved by the people of India; and nothing else can be expected by representatives of the world's largest democracy'.
But the spectacle of the Bill collapsing in the Rajya Sabha under the weight of polemics and worse, is a huge disappointment; in fact, it is a disillusionment.
Here was a golden opportunity for Parliament to rise to the occasion, to equal the people's expectations of it - squandered.
There was a great deal of posturing in the House on Thursday. There was a great deal of offending and defending. The past was raked up, intentions were questioned, old wounds opened, new ones inflicted.
But the whole thing - the debating of the Bill's clauses, the disputing of its motives, the rubbishing of the Anna Hazare campaign, the valourising of Parliament's legislative supremacy, all of that seemed to flux into a common crucible - an acknowledgment of the need for a lokpal. No one, except Ram Vilas Paswan asked, in all honesty, if we really need a lokpal. Barring that, the need for a lokpal was as much of 'a given' as the need for checking corruption.
So, what happened?
There will never be a satisfactory or convincing answer to that question.
The puzzlement and utter dejection writ on the earnest face of its chairman, and our Vice-President, the good and high- minded Hamid Ansari, was, at that moment, the face of India.
What is important now and vital, in fact, as much to the future of parliamentary credibility as to that of civil society-powered popular campaigns is that:
- The Rajya Sabha's failure to pass the Bill be taken as a reverse, but not an irreversible defeat.
- The momentum for giving the nation a lokpal not be allowed to slow down.
- The campaign be given, by the campaign leaders, not 'more of the same', but a gear-shift into a fresh powering that takes the campaign into (a) a heightened awareness generation and (b) negotiation with MPs from all parties, without mixing up its high-minded objective with electoral misadventures. Trying to telescope the lokpal campaign with UP's electoral fortunes will be like forcing a rainbow into a dust-storm.
- The campaign be taken by the ruling political combination into a working session with other parliamentary parties in a manner that ensures its passage in the next session of Parliament.
No one has doubted or disputed Parliament's prerogative to legislate transformationally. No one should have to doubt its desire to do so with sincerity. No one has doubted or disputed Team Anna's prerogative to campaign inspirationally.
No one should have to doubt its wisdom to do so with patience.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.)