Before the World Cup victory came as a happy digression last week, there was only one issue sticking to people’s minds: corruption. From the 2010 Commonwealth Games to the 2G telecom scam to the ‘mini’ ones involving municipal bodies and lower-level babus, the scam-o-metre under the UPA government has been abuzz. Unsurprisingly, public faith in government institutions is now at an all-time low. Responding to that, veteran social activist Anna Hazare launched his fast-unto-death campaign earlier this week and has demanded the government constitute a joint committee comprising government officials and civilians to frame a fresh Lokpal Bill to tackle corruption realistically. When protests against the draft of the Lokpal Bill started, the UPA played the waiting game — waiting also for an opportunity to wriggle out of any promise. Then, when it became evident that public pressure was mounting and there was no way out, it quickly changed tact and played the ‘victim’ card (“the timing of the protests is questionable” etc). When neither of the two strategies worked, the government went into a confrontationist mode, calling Mr Hazare’s indefinite fast “not appropriate, probably unnecessary”.
The main reason behind this confrontation between the government and civil society is the updated but toothless draft of the Lokpal Bill prepared by the law ministry with ‘inputs’ from the department of personnel and training. The two key differences between the government and the public are, one, whether the Lokpal can receive complaints from the public and, two, whether it has any jurisdiction over all politicians, bureaucrats and judges. According to the government’s proposal, the Lokpal can receive complaints only from Parliament. The activists are rightly demanding the Lokpal be allowed to receive complaints from the public directly and be able initiate investigations. In a country, where public officers are not known to be exactly responsive to genuine complaints, keeping them outside the ambit of law is counterproductive. The government also wants to keep bureaucrats, the original backroom boys of the political class, outside the purview of the Bill. Both these provisions show the intent of the government clearly: pass the law but make it toothless.
The government feels Mr Hazare is only indulging in ‘blackmail’. It would, by the same logic, deem public demand for tangibles (food, water etc) and intangibles (good and clean governance) as diversionary tactics. For its own benefit, it will be best for the political class to engage with the public now. Would it be ready to pay the price later at the hustings? Or will the lot deem the voters’ demand for the basics of clean democracy also as blackmail?