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Let’s agree to agree

The Lokpal Bill will not end corruption. We need to reform the system too. Shashi Tharoor writes.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2011 02:25 IST

As one who has long urged an end to public apathy about politics, I’m inspired by seeing the passion of Anna Hazare’s followers. I share their passion against corruption, and I have no doubt that he has touched a chord among millions.

But we must remember that the supporters of the Jan Lokpal Bill are not the only Indians who are disgusted by corruption. So are many who are not part of the movement. It is important for both sides to accept that there are patriotic and principled Indians amongst their critics, and that we must reach out to each other in good faith.

One may have legitimate disagreement with some aspects of the authorities’ handling of the issue, and in particular of the temporary arrest of Anna and his associates. Anna’s brief detention was unwise, which is why he was swiftly released. Our government does realise that ideas can’t be arrested.

A strong Lokpal is part of the answer. A suitable Lokpal Bill must be passed as a matter of urgent priority. It should create a strong anti-corruption ombudsman, with genuine autonomy and authority and substantial powers of action. That said, there is room for honest disagreement with the details of Anna’s proposals. In particular, some of the provisions insisted upon by Anna risk creating a large, omnipotent and unaccountable supra-institution that could not be challenged, reformed or removed. If the current governmental bodies tasked with investigation, vigilance, and audit are deemed to be insufficiently impervious to corruption, it is worth asking what guarantee there is that the new institution of Jan Lokpal could not be infected by the same virus — and if so, what could be done about it, since it would literally be a law unto itself.

These are matters that merit serious debate in Parliament when the proposed legislation reaches the floor. I am sure the government’s bill can be improved, and that elements favoured by Anna could be considered. Everyone claims to be against corruption; the debate is on the means to be used to tackle it. For it would be dangerous to reduce the entire issue to a simplistic solution which won’t end corruption by itself. Inspectors and prosecutors can only catch some criminals; we need to change the system so that fewer crimes are committed.

The problem of corruption runs far broader and deeper than the headlines suggest. Every time a poor pregnant woman has to bribe to get a hospital bed to which she is entitled, or a widow the pension that should be hers by right and not by the favour of a clerk, or a son his own father's death certificate, we know our system has failed us. Corruption isn’t only high-level governmental malfeasance as typified by the 2G and Commonwealth Games scandals. Overcoming it requires nothing short of a change in our society’s mindset.

A number of related steps need to be taken to tackle corruption at its source. Campaign finance reform, simplification of laws and regulations, administrative transparency, and the reduction of discretionary powers enjoyed by officials and ministers, are all of the highest priority too. The Right to Information Act (RTI) enacted by the first UPA government was in fact the first step in this direction. A credible Lokpal will be another.

We must build in safeguards to ensure that a new institution of lokpal doesn’t itself fall prey to corruption. One way might well be to create a lokpal quickly, in response to the current public demand, but to limit its existence to, say, seven years, so that any flaws in its functioning can be examined in the cold light of experience before it is renewed by a fresh Act of Parliament.

As an elected politician, I am conscious that Anna’s campaign has ignited the imaginations and sparked the enthusiasm of many young people in our country, and in my constituency. That does not mean, however, that MPs should accept an all-or-nothing approach to the Lokpal Bill. There is room for discussion and some possibility of compromise, and I shall seek to work towards this on the floor of the House.

I look forward to Parliament debating all the options available. It is important that we must not betray public expectations, but nor must we act irresponsibly. We must do the right thing but we must do the thing right. With good faith and compromise, I am confident we can reach consensus.
Shashi Tharoor is a Lok Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal