By B.G. Verghese
Team Anna’s farce ended, not with a bang but a whimper, with “80 crore Indians” or whatever never in sight whether in Mumbai or Delhi. They never were there in any such like numbers, despite bogus referenda and other gimmickry and media magnification. That bluff has been called and the underlying humbug and blackmail increasingly exposed. Yet Anna is girding for another round with an anti-Congress poll campaign to boot.
If he and his friends had followed the debate in both Houses of Parliament, they would have seen who opposed the Lok Pal Bill – the BJP, Trinamool, SP, the Left, BSP and some others. But they did not wait for Parliament. They had rallied around another of Anna’s pre-determined fasts and announced dates and timetables without caring to know what Parliament might do with the Bill. It was for them still the old war cry “Our Bill or No Bill”. Why? Because they had decided the official Bill was “useless”, “toothless”, “a joke”. They called on Parliament to defeat the Bill on the plea that for the suffering people of India, in whose name they claimed to speak, half a loaf is far worse than no bread.
Sadly, the Opposition in Parliament too has hugged the theorem that half a loaf is worse than no bread. The Government made out a cogent case in both Houses and did in fact accept some amendments on the floor of the House to meet critics half why, but to no avail. The major sticking point suddenly became the alleged assault on federalism by virtue of legislating for Lok Ayuktas in the States in a Central Lok Pal Bill. The argument is specious in view of the fact that the Government was duty bound to fulfil its “treaty” obligations under the UN Convention on Corruption which India has ratified. Further, it had accepted an amendment making application of the Lok Ayukta section subject to the consent each State. Where is there any violence to federalism here?
Three other issues were pressed by the critics. First, the CBI, which deals with more than just corruption cases, should be under the Lok Pal and totally independent of the Government. Secondly, that Category C and D Union appointees (including peons, drivers and such like) should be under the Lok Pal and not the Vigilance Commissioner though the latter would be bound to report to the former. Objection was also taken to the explanation that the prescribed 50 per cent representation in the eight member panel of the Lok Pal bench, excluding the chairperson, would mandatorily go to SC/ST/OBC, minority or women nominees in order to reflect the plurality and diversity of India without reserved quotas for each segment.
The official position in all these matters was not unreasonable. There are real dangers in creating a new and all powerful supra- bureaucratic-cum-police monolith virtually accountable to none. Those who doubt the efficacy of the structures and mechanisms proposed in the Bill had no reason to believe that all future options are closed. Surely if a year or two down the line, the actual working of the Lok Pal were to prove to be inadequate or hamstrung, nothing would preclude this or any successive Parliament from moving amendments to cure such defects. Nothing is foreclosed. After all, the Constitution itself has been substantively amended many times
Over and beyond these matters, some Members thought the Bill goes too far in encompassing certain categories of trusts and NGOs, even if only above a certain financial threshold, while others argued it did not go far enough insofar as it excludes the corporate sector. On both counts the Government has a point. Trusts and NGOs do get foreign funding and in some instances have been known to indulge in malpractices. Corporates too are prone to corruption and can and must be dealt with through other mechanisms without overloading the Lok Pal.
The Whistle-Blowers Act was adopted without controversy by the Lok Sabha and will give heart and muscle to men and women who stand up for principles. However, the Bill to vest the Lok Pal with constitutional authority was shot down on the ground that the Lok Pal Bill as conceived is full of infirmities. The Congress could not muster the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment and displayed poor floor management. Yet this by itself would not have mattered, and the Constitution Bill could have been re-introduced at a later time, without impeding the establishment of a Lok Pal.
However, this was not to be. Though in a minority in the Rajya Sabha, the Government could have got the Lok Pal Bill passed by a simple majority with some friendly support. However, it was rudely let down by its own UPA allies, the TMC being the most adamant. Seeing the way things were going, the Government perhaps wisely thought it fit to close the debate by midnight December 29, the last day of the extended session, and not seek a vote on the tactical plea that the 187 amendments moved would need careful consideration. The tearing up of the Bill by an RJD member was disgraceful and should not go unpunished. Gratuitously attributing motives to the Chairman for adjourning the House sine die on account of choreographed disorder is equally unacceptable. Rival conspiracy theories have been floated to divert blame by insinuating mala fides to others. This will not wash.
The Lok Pal Bill as passed by the Lok Sabha is still alive. This leaves the Government with the option to bring it up in the Budget session, after further consultation or amendment. In the latter case, the Bill will need to go back to the Lok Sabha for its approval, failing which a joint session of both Houses will have to be convened to settle the matter.
Though all is not lost, the current impasse is a national shame. The Government’s handling of matters has been slipshod and lacking in timely consultation. The BJP has adopted a petty partisan stand that puts embarrassing the Congress above the national interest. And the Trinamool has repeatedly betrayed every canon of collective responsibility and seems to be in the UPA only to extract what it can. Mamata