What can one infer from the fact that out of the 31 members that make up the parliamentary standing committee on the draft of the Lokpal Bill, 16 have aired their dissent on various aspects of the draft? Only that more than half of the committee isn't happy with some aspect or another of the report adopted in its name. It isn't mandatory for such a committee to come to a complete consensus. Its job is to record the points of assent and dissent and pass it on to Parliament. But neither is it standard practice for parliamentary standing committees to disagree on key points. Usually there is a bipartisan agreement, perhaps with a note of dissent or two. Adding to the strangeness are three notes of dissent from the Congress on the issue of including the lower bureaucracy in the lokpal's ambit. This, above all, presents a picture of the Congress-led UPA being unsure about how to deal with the Lokpal Bill as the committee's report is tabled in Parliament on Friday, before proceeding for Cabinet approval and then back to Parliament to be moved as a Bill. The points of dissent include the issue of not including the prime minister and lower level bureaucrats in the lokpal's ambit; the formation of a citizens' charter; and the creation of state lokayuktas.
In Parliament, a 'sense of the House' resolution was moved on August 27, by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee in which he stated that the House agreed "in principle" on the inclusion of a citizens' charter, the lower bureaucracy under the lokpal, and the establishment of lokayuktas. Public memory is short, but it isn't that short. So along with the oddity of Manmohan Singh supporting the inclusion of the PM in the Lokpal Bill but maintaining that the differing opinion of his "esteemed colleagues" should be kept in mind, we had the rather supernatural event of every Congress member in the standing committee agreeing on November 30 to the inclusion of the lower bureaucracy in the Lokpal draft and the next day, agreeing to disagree. Now we have three Congress members of the same committee disagreeing with the earlier disagreement. If this seems utterly confusing, it is because it is.
The government's dealings with the Lokpal draft over the months underline, at best, its nervousness and, at worst, a belief that day-to-day firefighting is the same thing as policy-making. It does not have to agree to everything the Opposition or Mr Hazare is demanding with regard to the Lokpal Bill. But what we are witnessing is a stunning lack of clear-headedness within the UPA on the matter. The standing committee chairperson, Abhishek Singhvi, is absolutely right when he said the report was "not meant to please anyone or everyone". A strong law against corruption isn't about providing pleasure but about creating a first step to make it as hard as possible to be corrupt and be able to get away with it. Which is why the dissenting notes should be given greater importance when the committee's report comes to Parliament.