THIS should have been a time of celebration. Following much public drama, an otherwise recalcitrant government eventually acceded to the demand of the Anna Hazare led campaign against corruption to set up a committee to draft a Jan Lokpal Bill, involving for the first time members of civil society, complete the process in a specified time frame and introduce it in the forthcoming session of Parliament. This many saw as a people’s victory.
But when campaigns, in particular its leaders, fall prey to media characterizations about themselves, invariably hyperbolic in the first flush of victory, there is reason for concern. The recent pronouncements of Anna Hazare and his colleagues, all good men and women, have contributed to a growing disquiet. Even as the recent developments around Anna Hazare’s fast generate hope that possibly, this time around, we may finally witness some meaningful action to curb corruption and ensure greater accountability of those in public positions, there is simultaneously growing apprehension about both the proposed drafting process and the likely content of the legislation.
Earlier too, when the fast was underway, and the media (particularly TV) was somewhat ballistic about the campaign as ‘a second freedom struggle’ and Anna Hazare as the new ‘Mahatma’, many were uneasy about the leadership of the campaign, more specifically the presence of religious/spiritual leaders, the overtly Hindu iconography and symbolism in play, the support extended by organizations such as the RSS and, above all, the wholesale denunciation of the political class.
Equally troubling was the tone of moral righteousness, the questionable assertion that unlike the politicians and the bureaucracy (and sotto voce, the judiciary), it is self-selected civil society representatives that carry greater legitimacy and ought to have a decisive say in the designing of the institutional architecture of anti-corruption structures and processes. Cautionary voices stressing the importance of representative democracy, the need for checks and balances to ensure separation of powers, to not jettison but strengthen existing institutional mechanisms, and so on, were brushed aside as diversionary tactics.
This is not to deny that governments, and the political class more generally, across party divides, suffers from a serious trust deficit, and not just among the urban middle classes. Nor should one fall prey to dismissive attitude of many of our secular intelligentsia that would deny any role for people of faith in public affairs. Yet to classify all politicians, political parties, and electoral political processes as fundamentally lacking in legitimacy, as Anna Hazare has done, only feeds into a Jacobian tendency that is not just ahistorical and negates hard won gains, but is deeply subversive of representative democracy.
The draft Jan Lokpal Bill prepared by the campaign (to be fair its authors call it a ‘work in progress’), needs to be subjected to greater public scrutiny. Had Anna Hazare and his advisors suggested names other than those who drafted their bill as members of the joint working group, it would have signalled a welcome openness to other views and helped involve others who too have long campaigned for greater probity in public life. Their current choice signals an unhealthy appreciation of their own labours which, given the unease over many draft provisions, may vitiate the drafting process.
As it stands, the Jan Lokpal Bill is a decided improvement over the official draft. Its provisions for whistleblower protection, to remove the protection given to government servants under Art. 311 (prior permission to investigate and prosecute), ensure the autonomy of the CBI and vigilance departments, and so on are welcome. More troubling are the proposals to enlarge both the jurisdiction and ambit of the Lokpal (bring in the judiciary; the right to question government policy and action); merge the investigation and prosecution processes under a single body; the punishment provisions; just to list a few.
Not only is there legitimate fear about an unparalleled concentration of power, the insensitivity to jurisdiction and limits, a product of radical zeal, can easily lead to a veritable paralysis of government functioning, as rules and procedures based on mistrust and a desire to counter all possible misuse destroy all initiative.
These are not insurmountable problems, resolvable if those entrusted with the task of preparing a draft legislation are willing to work with an open mind and take on board other opinions, including that of the political opposition. The Lokpal Bill should be treated as the first step in what will be a long process of cleaning up our system. But if we remain trapped in moral certitudes and mutual recrimination, we may well miss the moment. Surely that is not the intention of either Anna Hazare and his associates, or their critics.