The Indian Spring
At long last Indian civil society appears to have risen to stem the tide of corruption.
India is going through a mass upheaval today. But, fortunately, it is a tame affair in comparison with its Arab counterpart. The reason is that the Arab Spring is about installing democracy in place of absolute rule, whereas the Indian Spring is about purifying democracy.
There dictatorial and autocratic rule suffocated the people till they rose in protest. Here, in spite of democracy, corruption reached epic proportions till it seemed nothing would move unless greased with lucre. And, just as Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring, it was Anna Hazare’s “fast unto death” that ignited the Indian Spring.
As Bouazizi suddenly became the symbol of resentment against oppression, so, “overnight Anna Hazare became the voice of the unspoken anger against corruption.” In both cases it was as if they had “opened a hidden wound and the loud roar of pain was heard from across the land.”
But if the parallel between Hazare and Bouazizi is stark, the difference between how the states respectively responded to the protest, is equally glaring. In Arab countries, even where the rulers gave in to public agitation, they first used force to put it down. By contrast, the Indian government bowed to Hazare’s demand to pass the Lokpal Bill.
After barely 98 hours of his “fast unto death,” a gazette notification was issued constituting a 10-member
Joint Committee of ministers and civil society activists, including Hazare, himself, to draft an effective Jan Lokpal Bill. And Anna Hazare broke his fast on 9 April 2011.
The purpose of the Lokpal Bill is unquestionably noble. It seeks to create an independent and empowered anti-corruption agency - ombudsman, with whom complaints of corruption against all public servants including the prime minister, other ministers, and MPs can be filed.
Introduced in 1968, however, the bill has been pending for 42 years. On the first occasion it was cleared by the lower house in 1969 but got stuck in the Rajya Sabha. Since then it has been repeatedly tabled in “1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2005 and 2008, but never passed.
Meanwhile, corruption spiraled to unprecedented heights. During the past several months it has been a recurring theme in the UPA Government, from the Commonwealth Games through Adarsh building society, Central Vigilance Commissioner’s (CVC) appointment, to the mother of all scams, 2G. The prolonged inaction of the executive on all these issues further compounded the issue and tainted the Government.
The salient feature of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption jihad, however, is the difference between the Government’s version of the Lokpal bill and the one drafted by the civil society, called “Jan Lokpal” Bill, which he supports.
The key features, of the government’s version of the Bill that Hazare has rejected, are: • The Lokpal “will not have any policing (including investigative) powers and will still depend on the Government’s enforcement agencies to do its job. It will have no authority to receive complaints against MPs, ministers and the prime minister directly. Those would have to be routed
• through the presiding officers of both houses of Parliament. It will not take up complaints against the prime minister that involve foreign affairs, defense and security. • The selection committee for Lokpal will comprise of prime minister, vice-president, leaders of both Houses, leaders of Opposition, law and home ministers.” In contrast according to the Jan Lokpal Bill: • “Lokpal is not an advisory body. It can investigate and launch prosecution. • The anti-corruption wing of the CBI will report only to the Lokpal and act as its investigative arm. It will be allowed to initiate a probe suo motu, and can receive direct complaints from the public. It can take up complaints on any aspect of governance, including foreign affairs, defense and security. • The selection committee for Lokpal will comprise of CVC, Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), activists, journalists, winners of international awards and people with judicial background.” The people are fed up. They want an end to these scandals. In a recent poll ninety-five per cent of the respondents said there is need for a strong law against corruption. This is therefore the right moment for the UPA government to tap into this groundswell of public opinion and bring the corrupt to book.
Yet, action involves high risk to the UPA coalition. The arrest of A. Raja in the telecom case has already strained the Congress’ relations with the DMK to breaking point; the next noose would be around the Karunanidhi family, while Sharad Pawar also awaits accountability. The question is can Manmohan Singh risk breaking with the DMK and Karunanidhi and drop Pawar from the cabinet, without seriously denting the coalition? But Dr. Singh has to do some surgery before the cancer of the status quo cripples the coalition.
According to the notification the Joint Committee was to begin its work from April 16. The deadline to submit the draft bill is June 30. But it seems plagued with controversies even before it started its work. For example, on the very day the committee membership was announced, Baba Ramdev, a prominent anti-corruption activist, lashed out at the alleged nepotism in the appointment of both father Shanti Bhushan and son Prashant Bhushan. Ramdev wanted Kiran Bedi on board along with Hazare, Kejriwal, Santosh Hegde and one of the Bhushans.
Members of the Committee from the government’s side include Kapil Sibal, Pranab Mukherjee, P. Chidambaram, Veerappa Moily and Salman Khursheed. Yet, the trust deficit between the two groups presents a serious challenge. For instance, Anna Hazare’s praise of NDA chief ministers Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar for their honesty has alarmed the Congress.
At the end of the day, though, it is only strong political will that could deliver, and not Lokpal, for there already are a number of laws which, if they had been implemented sincerely and agencies given full power, could take care of the problem. The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of SouthAsia Magazine.
It is time to refine democracy