The government's notification of setting up a 10-member joint panel of ministers and civil society activists to draft an effective Lokpal Bill is being hailed as an unprecedented event in the history of India. But while it is the first time that there has been a spontaneous outpouring on streets across India in support of Anna Hazare, it is not the first time that the civil society has achieved legislative milestones through sustained campaigns and agitations.
Civil society — a term generally understood to include organised as well as unorganised non-state entities — have been instrumental in pushing through several recent laws, bills or draft bills, with the government appreciated their contribution. Right to Information Act, Right to Education Act, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), Right to Food Bill and Communal Violence Bill are the best examples.
Questions have been raised in some quarters over activists exerting pressure on a democratically elected government to frame a specific law with particular provisions, which they think to be right. The critics' main argument has been that law making is a specialised field and the prerogative of the legislature and, therefore, there has to be a limit to such demands.Former law minister Shanti Bhushan, who is co-chairperson of the joint committee announced on Saturday, rejected the criticism terming it misplaced. "You have to draw a distinction between drafting of a law and its enactment. While the latter is the prerogative of the legislature comprising elected representatives, the former is not. Law making will be done by both Houses of Parliament…but drafting can be done by anybody. This is a very important Bill... that is why the government has involved those people who have been fighting corruption," Bhushan said.
The National Advisory Council (NAC) led by Sonia Gandhi has been consulting civil society leaders on drafting of various laws to convey their concerns to the UPA government. Some NAC members did meet civil society leaders on this issue but nothing could be achieved. Why was the government reluctant to listen to anti-corruption activists on the Lokpal Bill issue? Is it because the proposed law affects the country's political elite the most?
Senior counsel Rajeev Dhavan says, "Yes, under the official draft Lokpal Bill every vested interest of government was protected. You have to get the go ahead from the Lok Sabha Speaker or Rajya Sabha chairperson to act against a corrupt politician. Bureaucrats were left out of its purview. But corruption is so crucial to governance that after 42 years of dilly-dally by the government, civil society had to come out on the streets."
He adds, "Civil society has created a new path for its participation in governance in India. It can never be silenced."
After the formation of the joint panel, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that his government intended to introduce the "historic legislation" in the monsoon session of Parliament. What if the ministers and society representatives on the panel don't reach a consensus? Let's keep our fingers crossed. But if it happens, it would be yet another milestone for Indian democracy.