Consistency hasn’t been the hallmark of the Congress government’s dealings with the anti-corruption brigade. We saw the government sending four ministers as pleading emissaries to Ramdev outside Delhi Airport one day and then hounding him out of town a few days later. Nothing had changed since the two events took place except for a change of heart in the government. And a change of heart of this proportion looks suspiciously like utter confusion.
But while the loony yoga instructor and his band of followers have scattered, the original challenge posed by Anna Hazare and his associates, like it or not, remains. Here, too, the government has shown wild moodswings that haven’t been pretty to look at. And you really start worrying about the Congress when you find a veteran political negotiator like Pranab Mukherjee losing his cool.
What made Pranab-babu suddenly lash out against the Hazare Gang and call it a bunch of dictators challenging an elected group of ministers? After all, once again, nothing in terms of the differences between the two sides had ‘changed’ since they first sat down to hammer out a mutually acceptable lokpal bill.
For a Bill of this nature where one side — the political class — isn’t really interested in it and the other side gets its stubbornness fuelled by the former’s disinterest, the usual way out is haggling. A face-saving compromise usually comes up and then it’s left to marinate in Parliament. In the face of the UPA’s strong legacy of being a lightning rod for big ticket corruption cases, however, the luxury of giving something and taking something in return remains extremely limited. In the process, everyone is seeing a government that wants to stonewall a strong anti-corruption law while the other lot push on valiantly.
While ‘blackmail’ and ‘unaccountability’ are words being bandied about by the Congress desperate to not look bullied and beaten, the world outside those closed-door meetings of the lokpal bill draft committee increasingly sees the government as opposing a genuinely strong anti-corruption law. And in politics, such a perception matters more than what the Manmohan Singh government really intends to do to fight systemic corruption.
Frankly, the issue of whether to keep the prime minister in or out of the purview of the lokpal isn’t the point; it’s a distraction. Never mind Manmohan Singh, but can you really see any prime minister having his hand in the till? From a cold, objective position, it’s too morally and politically risky to be a crooked PM. The case of the higher judiciary coming into the lokpal’s ambit is another matter. But again, I don’t see it as a deal-breaker.
The deal-breaker is over the lokpal’s accountability and powers. Two weeks ago, former dean IIM Ahmedabad Jagdeep Chhokar had calmy listed and demolished the myths and fears surrounding the Anna Gang’s draft of the Bill on the Comment page of this paper (Who’s afraid of the Lokpal Bill?, June 2).
He addressed the point about accountability head on: “Some of the proposals to check corruption within the lokpal include the annual financial and performance audit of the lokpal by the comptroller and auditor general of India, the annual appraisal of the lokpal by the relevant parliamentary committee, the setting up of complaints authorities in each state that also involve people from civil society, open hearings by the complaints authority, internal transparency in the functioning of the lokpal, regular social audits of various levels of the lokpal, complaints against members of the lokpal to be made directly to the Supreme Court.” He added that “more checks and balances can and need to be thought of”. Instead of thinking up of “more checks and balances” for the lokpal, the government has been desperate to sidetrack the matter and junk it. We all know what happens to Bills that sound ‘good’ but don’t quite catch the fancy of parliamentarians. A case in point — the Women’s Reservation Bill.
The real bone of contention between the Elected Ones and the Hazare Gang is about who will be seen as the architect of a strong anti-corruption law. Quite understandably, the government wants to be seen as the hero of any anti-corruption crusade. So how does it take the credit for setting up a national lokpal instead of gifting it away to the Anna Gang? It’s very simple: by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh quickly speaking out and saying that he is in favour of the prime minister being under the purview of the Lokpal Bill. That’s all.