It’s War Out There
Seven meetings on, government and civil society reps drafting the Lokpal bill are split on four key issues
- Civil society: PM and Supreme and High Court judges should be brought under Lokpal’s purview
- Government: This is constitutionally untenable; PM should get immunity or should be investigated with adequate safeguards
- Civil society: MPs can be examined by a body headed by an ombudsman
- Government: This can’t be allowed in a parliamentary democracy. Parliament is supreme.
- Civil society: CBI, CVC should merge into Lokpal, which must have an independent investigative arm
- Government: PC now says independent arm possible but it will have to come from within agencies like the CBI, ED .
- Civil society: Lokpal should be allowed to prosecute officials guilty of acts of corruption
- Government: This is against Article 311, 320 of the Constitution. The Lokpal can only recommend action.
It’s back to square one. On June 16, after seven rounds of deliberations by the Lokpal drafting committee had yielded little, the civil society team headed by Anna Hazare held a press conference in Delhi where Arvind Kejriwal called the government version a “Jokepal Bill”, while the man himself threatened a fast unto death from August 16, the cut-off date promised earlier. Meanwhile, at a corresponding press briefing by the government, Union home minister P. Chidambaram said that “fasting is no way to draft a bill” while HRD minister Kapil Sibal promised a “strong draft bill”.
So is it all over for the joint drafting committee? Well, the flip-flop from the government side doesn’t make things any clearer. After the June 15 meeting, Sibal had talked of “several differences” and how they would be “sending two bills to the cabinet”. By the evening of next day, his comments were more on the line of a final single draft “highlighting the differences when we send it to the cabinet. The cabinet can decide and then forward it to Parliament”.
“Why are they insisting on a Lokpal out of Delhi? Will everyone with a grievance come all the way here?”
Sibal, predictably, had reasons to substantiate the government’s objections. “There is a strong divergence of views on the structure of the Lokpal itself,” he had told Outlook earlier. “They (civil society) want the entire bureaucracy, ministers and the PM under the control of the Lokpal. We have objections in principle as well, in light of the constitutional provisions like Article 311 and Article 320 governing conduct rules of government officials. For criminal proceedings, there is always the CrPC. Now, we have to really think this out as to how other concerns of misconduct will be covered under Lokpal.” Sibal also pointed out that the appointing authority for bureaucrats has the right to dismiss them from service. Therefore, it has to be examined if the Lokpal can take over this provision, which might require an amendment to the Constitution. Political parties have already made their objections clear that the government had not consulted the Opposition or included its representatives in the drafting panel.
While there are no easy answers, the non-government members at the meeting perceive a sense of stubbornness on the part of the government. While they were much more amenable to changes in the drafting (compared to their earlier position), they suspect the establishment is attempting to weaken the Lokpal’s ability to combat corruption. “Why is the government insisting on just 11 members, and for the Lokpal to function out of Delhi?” a member of the drafting committee asks. “If that were to happen, then everyone with a grievance would have to come all the way to Delhi just to get their complaint heard. That is a sure way of killing the anti-corruption structure as envisaged by us. We feel the government wants to kill the Lokpal even before it is born.”
In fact, much like the last meeting held some weeks ago, the committee failed to arrive at any consensus on contentious issues. There was no agreement on the inclusion of the PM, MPs, judiciary and bureaucrats below the rank of joint secretary under the Lokpal’s ambit. Nor was there any agreement on whether the existing CVC and the CBI should be merged and whether it should come under the Lokpal.
Plug The Holes Anna and other civil society members leave after the June 15 meeting
What has also irked the non-government members is the lack of discussions at the meetings. “We just initiate a discussion and then we are simply told what their decision is on a particular clause. No arguments or legal positions or rationale is offered. If they have already decided what to do, then why did they set up a joint drafting committee?” a civil society member on the committee asked Outlook. “The government had already made up its mind. The talks were just a formality.” The non-government members have also sought the recordings of the discussions at the meetings. However, the government was categorical that they did not want these audio recordings to be a television debate.
Sibal counters these claims saying there are structural problems in the way the civil society members view the proposed Lokpal. “They want a structure which covers everything, top to bottom. That would mean four million government employees will be under the ambit of the Lokpal. They want to control all of them. Where will we recruit so many people to inquire into their activities? If the existing people are corrupt, where will you get honest people for the Lokpal to look into the activities of the corrupt? These issues have to be really thought about seriously,” he said.
For the moment, it is possible that two drafts of the Lokpal bill will be created, which is exactly where the Anna Hazare agitation and the hunger strike had started from. Then, the non-government members had created a Jan Lokpal Bill to counter the “ineffective and weak bill that the government had proposed”. Sadly, what the whole exercise has managed to do so far is to give the government adequate time to harden its position and a clear intent to dilute the bill.
Meanwhile, in the Opposition corner, the BJP has been insistent that the PM be a part of the Bill since the NDA days; the then chairman of the parliamentary standing committee and current Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had also agreed to the PM’s inclusion in the ambit of the Lokpal. But now, after the agitation, the PM’s inclusion has become a major bone of contention between the government and Anna Hazare’s team. Chidambaram also told Outlook that the Lokpal will try and address the lacunae in the current anti-corruption measures.
Government sources told Outlook that they are “yet to prepare the draft that will be deliberated upon on June 30”. The next round of meetings of the draft committee is slated for June 20 (if necessary, it will continue the next day). If no agreement is arrived at, the government will simply go ahead with its version of the bill. Chances are that the non-government members’ clauses will be rejected. For now, a stalemate is on the cards, and the future of a strong Lokpal Bill seems to be in jeopardy.