Perhaps ever since the ”JP Movement” of the 1970s, India had not seen a people’s upsurge in support of a cause, espoused by an individual, largely unknown across the country.
Gandhian Anna Hazare’s demand for a Jan Lokpal Bill elicited a surprisingly huge response as never before in the last three decades, thanks to its motto of action against corruption.
The response no doubt took the UPA government by surprise. Coming as it did soon after a plethora of scams and mishandling of various issues that caused a dent in its image, the Congress-led government had not really bargained for yet another test of nerves, certainly not just before facing key elections in four states and one Union Territory. The government finally gave in, conceding the demands of the Hazare-led popular movement.
Having an ombudsman would give opportunity to the common man to expose corruption in high places. What came out of the mass movement that took shape largely due to the support of the media and social networking sites, was something no one thought possible just a week ago. In an unprecedented move, the government accepted the demand for setting up of a joint committee to draft the Lokpal Bill.
Interestingly, in a bid to move away from the unending scandals taking a toll on its image, it was the UPA government which decided in 2010 to bring in the Lokpal Bill. In December, 2010 anti-corruption crusader Hazare pressed for expediting it. Hazare was opposed to the Bill drafted by the government and so, along with like-minded activists, brought forth an alternative ‘Jan Lokpal Bill’, which many say, threatens the very fabric of democratic process.
The joint panel will now take up the Lokpal Bill – the draft prepared by the government – and examine it clause by clause and look into the suggestions made by different organisations – including those by Hazare and others – and individuals and jurists.
Did the government take the right step by issuing a gazette notification to this effect and by constituting a joint committee vesting executive powers in non-officials? Several have expressed concern that this may set a precedent for pressure groups every now and then to force the government into submission.
“The Jat agitation leaders may demand it shortly”, said one. According to former Karnataka information minister B K Chandrashekar, “I am all for Lokpal Bill having teeth, that it should have power to investigate and prosecute. However, I am concerned over the issuing of notification as any mass-based organisation in future may pressurise the government to do the same”.
Many within the UPA government wonder whether the overarching powers that the Lokpal is most likely to be empowered with will make it a parallel or “super government”. It will be all-pervasive as it may cover politicos right from the prime minister, besides the chief justice of India and the bureaucrats. While doing so, the Central Vigilance Commission, which has jurisdiction over the government officials and the anti-corruption wing of the CBI may be merged in Lokpal.
There are some controversial provisions that the Hazare camp has proposed. The selection of the Lokpal almost completely bypasses the democratically elected government, as it consists of Magsaysay and Bharat Ratna winners, vests it with police and judicial powers, powers to initiate suo motu investigations and receive complaints directly from the public, provides for recovery of the misappropriated money which will go to a fund, provides for Lokpal to file FIR and investigate cases.
Political parties are not happy over the Jan Lokpal move. Terming the Hazare tactics as fascist, Samajwadi Party spokesperson Mohan Singh questioned the “moral and constitutional propriety of self-selected individuals” to “impose their version” on the nation. Rashtriya Janata Dal vice-president Raghuvansh Prasad Singh criticised Hazare for “dictating” terms to the government. “The fight against corruption is good but the tactics are absolutely wrong”, Mohan Singh said. Said a former minister: “If you accept the Jan Lokpal Bill, then the institution will have powers that combine the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Administration. Jan Lokpal can frame policy, investigate and prosecute, and sit in judgment”.
Direct democracy not far off
However, Senior Advocate K K Venugopal argued that the government-proposed Lokpal Bill – giving only advisory powers to the ombudsman – would not serve the purpose as it vests the control of prosecution in the political wing of the state. “Since the main purpose is to bring about accountability among the ministers, MPs and bureaucrats, the Bill as it is, is wholly ineffective. There should be direct access for complainants to the Lokpal with the provision for dropping frivolous complaints.
It should be able to file for prosecution through its investigating officers directly in the criminal courts. If all these measures are not there, the Bill is without teeth. I am afraid it will be back to square one even if the Bill is passed”.
According to Supreme Court advocate Mohan Kataraki, the Hazare demand and overwhelming support from the public for formation of a people’s committee to draft the Bill may be a beginning of the end of representative democracy. “Constitutional reforms for direct democracy cannot be resisted for long in the age of IT where people are eager to vote directly and make laws to govern their destiny”.
The civil society activists are not entirely united on the alternative Bill. Activists like Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander, both members of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, are not comfortable about bypassing democratic institutions. “Bypassing democratic processes for political expediency, however desirable the outcome, may be detrimental to democracy itself“, Roy said.
NAC member Harsh Mander said, "Corruption is a complex issue. But they want Jan Lokpal to be the investigator, prosecutor and judge together, that’s highly dangerous. We cannot create a frankenstein in its place."Both also want Lokpal to be transparent and have a robust grievance redressal system.
Still, what Hazare exhibited over the last five days was awe-inspiring. It showed that Indians, especially in urban areas where voting is dismally low, will come out of their houses to take part in mass movements. The signal contribution of the `aam janata’ has been to bring to the centre stage the issue of action against corruption.