Over to Parliament

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By B.G. Verghese
Speculation has ended with the tabling of the Lok Pal and related Bills. Now it is for Parliament to take over and whatever it adopts with or without amendments,will go forward. Even thereafter, shortcomings in the light of the Lok Pal’s actual working can be made good through subsequent amendments. So nothing is written in stone. The pontifications and histrionics we have had these past weeks have provided more entertainment than enlightenment, with the focus on party politics rather than on real substance.

If the Opposition wants its pound of flesh it may block the related Constitution Amendment Bill. But that can come later.

Many arguments made have been based on absolute and total suspicion of government, any government, as a genre, as it has been painted as a necessarily dishonest and self-serving institution. The prime minister, leader of the opposition and chief justice cannot be trusted says the BJP as the first two aspire to office and the third is part of the establishment, and none wishes charges of corruption to be probed too deeply. Why cannot the CBI be administratively under the government’s control if the Comptroller and Auditor General, Central Vigilance Commission, Chief Election Commission, Chief Information Commissioner, National HRC and the UPSC are appointed by it and function independently? The absurdity is palpable. These institutions have by and large served the country well and have refused to be suborned. What is important is the autonomy granted to and exercised by these institutions, their transparency and public support for them.

The BJP has again argued that the direction for constituting Lok Ayuktas in the States contained in the Lok Pal Bill undermines federalism. This is specious. The Centre has sufficient powers under the Concurrent List to do so while leaving detailed superintendence and control over this tier to the States. This has been true of the Right to Information Act and NREGA. The contrary argument by Team Anna that all functions, powers and jurisdictions be completely centralised under a gargantuan Lol Pal would be authoritarian and a danger to democracy and liable to crumble under its own enormous bureaucratic weight.

Hence it makes sense to place Category C and D government staff, all of them below the decision-making level, under the Vigilance Commissioner and to hive off the Citizen’s Charter as a separate body to deal with the grievances of the common man. Since manufacturing grievances by denial, short-charging and delay is a means of generating corruption, the Grievance Commissioner is in some ways likely to play a  more important role in ensuring good governance and public satisfaction than even the Lok Pal.

One can nit-pick at many aspects of the Lok Pal Bill but it is overall a good measure and can reflect a wider consensus and perhaps be improved through amendments debated and adopted by Parliament. The duration of the session has been extended for three days post-Christmas and can and should be further extended into the New Year if necessary. The charge of “undue haste” goes ill with the counter-charge of “waiting for 44 years from 1967”. Few pieces of legislation have been debated so intensively and so long, with resort to unusual consultative processes, as in the case of the Lok Pal Bill. Democracy cannot mean endless debate in the streets and in the media but no legislative decision. 

Anna and his Team remain obstreperous but have become increasingly irrelevant demanding that nothing but their own view shall prevail. They did capture a mood of public anger but became vituperative and now seem to have lost the plot, getting back to blackmail. Anna will fast, Anna will call for jail bharo and Anna will campaign against the Congress and all other parties that do not support a truly “strong and effective” Lok Pal, whatever that means. Finally, Anna is prepared to die, he repeats time and again. This is low farce. Attempted suicide is a criminal offence and Anna must know that the IPC too can be “a strong and effective Act”.  The man should now be ignored, and if he and his followers seek to trigger violent protest – and that is the unspoken threat – then the law must take its course to prevent anarchy.    

The media too must eschew embedded journalism and bogus polls which have magnified the Anna phenomenon beyond its true worth. Similarly, the term “strong” Lok Pal needs to be divorced from a particular form of words to something that works well. The proof will be in the pudding and not in competitive rhetoric.

One issue on which the Government has again succumbed to coalition pressure is that pertaining to four of nine members of the Lok Pal panel being drawn from among SCs, STs, OBCs, women and minorities so that the weak and oppressed are represented. His is a fallacious principle that skirts merit in favour of a populist division of any cake even when forms of affirmative action such as in relation to education and employment opportunities are not at stake. If this principle is accepted then why not mandate quotas in the cabinet, the courts, among ambassadors and PSU heads? Sensible politics in a plural society always emphasises inclusiveness but not at the cost of merit and integrity. So this matter of composition is best left to the prescribed selection committee. The issue is not one of constitutionalism but of common sense. The BJP has again got it wrong.

This leads to the conduct of the BJP in the entire Lok Pal debate. It is trying to play all sides, running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. It held up matters by preventing Parliament from functioning for many days, initially demanding that its business priorities be changed and then barracking the Home Minister for not tendering his resignation on its bidding. For the BJP, any charge made by anybody stands proven without investigation or trial except when the charge lies against its own henchmen when more than due process is demanded with masterly doublespeak. It has repeatedly stated that the onus of letting the House function rests on the Government. This is a strange plea, though it is true that the Congress too has on occasion been guilty of unruly behaviour, poor floor management and mishandling critical issues. 

The UPA alliance partners are likewise all demanding their pound of flesh. Mamata Bannerjee has again forced postponement of introduction of the Pension Bill on the plea that government employees must get a minimum fixed percentage return on their pension earnings. The Food Security Bill, just introduced, underpins the wellbeing of those most prone to hunger. This will cost the exchequer about one lakh crore rupees.  Nevertheless this may be construed worthwhile as malnutrition is a scourge. Reform of PDS delivery is promised but there is some risk in carrying welfarism to the point where is becomes a crutch and diverts funds from stimulating agricultural growth and employment as, by and large, food is even now available but cannot be accessed. The same notions of status quoist “protectionism” led to the FDI multi-brand retail, which would give a fillip to farming and the rural economy, being put on hold.            
www. bgverghese .com

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