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The People Legislate

Lokpal Bill discussions are sure to see standoffs

The People Legislate
Tribhuvan Tiwari
The People Legislate

For over a year, travelling to various parts of the country, activist and prime mover of the Jan Lokpal Bill, Arvind Kejriwal, has been repeating the same story over and over again, on the anti-corruption structures we have currently. Last month, at a huge gathering of RTI activists in Shillong, Meghalaya, he explained. “When an official acts as a whistle-blower and complains against his boss, a senior officer, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) takes up the case and sends it back to the errant officer himself! So we now have the same corrupt officer conducting an inquiry against himself and then presenting a report with recommendations of what action to take.” As Kejriwal launched into his second story, cheers erupted in the hall.

The state feels the judiciary should be kept out of the Lokpal’s mandate. Anna’s team says they will only probe specific corruption allegations.

“Now let’s look at A. Raja and the maximum punishment that will be meted out to him if, and only if, he is found guilty,” said Kejriwal. “He will be in prison for seven years. So if I have embezzled Rs 2,000 crore of public money, will seven years imprisonment be a deterrent? What happens to all the wealth and properties somebody has amassed using corrupt means? This is why we must have a strong Lokpal Bill, one that will ensure that people have the tools to fight and deter systemic corruption.” Once again, his words were drowned out by the roar of applause.

A month or so after that meeting, on Saturday, April 16, the joint Lokpal Bill drafting committee of five government nominees and Anna Hazare’s five representatives will meet. Everyone expects it to be a stormy meeting. On the table will be a number of contentious issues to be debated by the two groups in the drafting committee. Some of the points that the government is likely to play hard ball on are:

Lokpal draft panel members Prashant Bhushan, Arvind Kejriwal. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)

  • The powers of the proposed Lokpal: The government says it doesn’t want a “supercop” with unfettered powers to summon, investigate and prosecute any allegation of corruption. Civil society constituents argue that it is precisely the weak nature of the existing anti-corruption bodies that has led to such endemic corruption in governance today. They want the Lokpal to have administrative and operational powers over the CBI, thus making the Lokpal truly independent.
  • Ensuring the proposed Lokpal has no jurisdiction over the judiciary: The government feels that this should be kept separate from the Lokpal and a separate mechanism must be created for the judiciary. Anna’s team contends that the Lokpal will only investigate criminal allegations against the judiciary that are specific to acts of corruption.
  • The method for selection of a Lokpal: The government says this needs to be revised and the current proposals of the drafting committee are not “grounded in reality”. Anna and his colleagues vehemently argue that earlier measures like the CVC and RTI Act were subverted by selecting wrong people for key positions. The overwhelming number of retired bureaucrats—some with a dubious past—as information commissioners, they say, subverted the RTI Act. And let’s not forget the hugely controversial selection of former telecom secretary P.J. Thomas as the CVC.
  • Much heart-burn over transparency clauses: The government says that if all the material from an investigation is put into the public domain, it will violate the privacy and other fundamental rights of an accused. Here, the government’s reservations have found a sympathetic chord with other civil society groups like the Aruna Roy-led Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and the national campaign for the people’s right to information (NCPRI). They agree with the government stand and have proposed that the current safeguards on denial of information in the RTI Act must also apply to the Lokpal’s investigations.
  • The Lokpal cannot take cognisance of public grievances, must concentrate only on anti-corruption: The government argues, and with some merit, that if the Lokpal is burdened with public grievances, it will collapse. But Kejriwal and his colleagues point out that only a part of the Lokpal’s structure will feel burdened. They also argue that if the Lokpal starts functioning as envisaged, then public grievances will go down considerably as the vigilance officers and public grievances officers will become more effective and accountable.
  • Bringing the prime minister under the ambit of the Lokpal Bill: The government is adamant that it will not concede to this demand. Having burnt its fingers in the 2G spectrum allocation scam, where the PM was embarrassed by Raja’s letters, they want to ensure the Lokpal has no say on the functioning of the country’s top leader.

“Did those agitating with Anna spell out that they were doing so to be included in the drafting committee? What about transparency?”

There are others also who have voiced many reservations on the way the events during the four-day fast unfolded. Many feel the selection of civil society representatives on the Lokpal drafting committee should have been carried out in a better manner. “Did those agitating along with Anna in those four days spell out that they were agitating to be included in the joint drafting committee? If they did not, then what transparent method did they use to select these five names?” asks a civil society group member closely linked to the Lokpal Bill issue.

Other key bodies such as the NCPRI have welcomed the agitation and the need for a strong bill but emphasise the need for large-scale public consultations. “Our stand is that there must be widespread public consultations on the bill. We have a wide array of complex problems peculiar to every geographical area. There are also concerns of including public grievances in this bill. These have to be dealt with carefully and we can’t see the Lokpal collapsing even before it takes off,” says Anjali Bharadwaj, a member of the NCPRI working committee.

Much of this “battle” of ideas will now move into the conference rooms as the government and Anna Hazare’s nominees meet and begin discussions that will hopefully see Parliament pass a strong Lokpal Act before the monsoon session ends in August.

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