August 08, 2020
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A Superman Lokpal?

Do we need a powerful individual or a great institution? The question needs to be resolved now.

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A Superman Lokpal?

Earlier this week there was a discussion organised at the Bangalore International Centre (a TERI initiative) on the Jan Lokpal Bill. I was one of the speakers with a lawyer and an activist on the panel. A former chief justice of the Supreme Court was the moderator. Since Anna Hazare was scheduled to visit Bangalore on 28 and 29 of May, this turned out to be an informal consultation on the proposed Bill. Here are the thirteen points I presented at the discussion. My points not just addressed the letter of the Bill, but also the spirit and general milieu of the movement that pushed it to the foreground.

1. The constant use of the phrase 'civil society' (which has its origins in Marxist writings) to refer to a bunch of people claiming a larger public mandate makes one uncomfortable. It willy-nilly perpetuates an 'us' and 'them' argument. It would be a knotty business to define an 'uncivil society' and who constitutes it. Mass movements in a democratic setting should have a far more liberal and inclusive emotion. Terms that divide and segregate should be eschewed. Calling oneself 'civil' and referring to others as 'uncivil' is tantamount to self-righteousness. The indiscrete use of language can make or break a movement. Since this anti-corruption movement designates itself as a Gandhian one, there is a lesson in Gandhi himself. The Mahatma refused to allow 'Satyagraha' to be translated as 'passive resistance'.

2. We have to be sure if we are creating a superman called Lokpal or an institution called Lokpal. Although the Bill (the 2.1 version) suggests a 10-member Lokpal panel, a lot of power is concentrated in the chairperson. He would, invariably, be the face of the organisation and according to section 19B of the draft Bill, he'll possess powers to look into complaints against High Court and Supreme Court judges as well. It says: "Any complaint against any judge of a High Court or Supreme Court shall be dealt only by the office of the Chairperson of Lokpal." To sound this note of caution is important because most people I speak to imagine Lokpal to be a superman, who'll eliminate all corruption in little or no time. We need a strong institution and not a superman. We need to learn lessons from the Karnataka Lokayukta experiment. The Lokayukta in the state has become less an institution and more an individual over the years. It could be because Justice N Santosh Hegde, who is on the joint draft panel, or his predecessor Justice N Venkatachala, have in the eyes of the people become superhuman tormentors of the corrupt. Whether they have projected themselves in that fashion, or the media has done this disservice is a separate issue.

3. After the joint draft panel for the Lokpal Bill was formed, a statement was made by a senior Congress leader. He asked a simple question: "The Lokayukta in Karnataka is said to be the best in the country, but then, why is it that the state has gained the reputation of being the most corrupt?" What he implied was if the laws were so tight and the institution as efficient, how did it allow politicians and government officials to get away with their crimes? I don't want to read this as a remark on the integrity of the person heading the Lokayukta, but as a pointer to the problems of the institution, limitations of any law and the complexity of the issue at hand - corruption. However, Justice Hegde chose to interpret this as a personal taunt and offered to resign. This clearly establishes the earlier problem I stated. The individual has taken precedence over the institution. It would have been better if the question asked by the politician had been addressed with some reflection. Since the movement has created an 'us' and 'them' divide, nothing coming from the 'other' side is seen as innocent and genuine. Will this entrenched confrontation in the structure of the movement help?

4. Like judges do not speak about the cases they are hearing and do not comment on and interpret the judgments they have delivered, the Lokpal and the Lokayuktas should also shun media limelight. Or else, this would create a problem of both prejudice and perception in the public eye. I have no better example to offer again than that of the Karnataka Lokayukta. Rushing to the media on every little thing has become an ailment. Nobody really has assessed the damage that this may have done to the ongoing cases. Lokpals and Lokayuktas should follow the rules of social interaction that the judges follow. In this direction, perhaps there is a code of conduct that needs to be drawn up. Some anonymity is healthy for the system. When the SC or HC delivers a judgment we simply say it was a SC or HC order. We don't say it was the order of so and so judge. The Election Commission after the Seshan-era has sobered down on the individual/personality count and become a fine, admirable institution run by a set of competent individuals. This example has to be followed.

5. In the interest of the Bill that is being drafted, it would be a good idea to have Justice Santosh Hegde to write a critical/reflective paper (instead of a memoir) on his time as the Lokayukta? Anyway his term is also drawing to a close and he has had five years in office. It would be best if the paper focuses on the problems he faced while running the institution. The kind of pressures, political and otherwise, he faced. The internal systems he developed — or didn't develop. The nature of internal corruption. Does his police staff have an operational manual or do they act arbitrarily? Etc. Section 8(1A) of the draft Bill, interestingly, speaks about the integrity of the Lokpal staff. A paper like this one would help understand that section better.

6. The size of the government is shrinking with economic liberalisation. The role and influence of corporates, corporations and their lobby houses is growing bigger. The Radiagate has proved the kind of nexus that exists between businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats. Also corporate crimes are getting complex as we are seeing in the 2G spectrum case. How does one routinely track, for instance, a bribe paid as an unsecured loan to a company, which gets written off over a period of time? Should the mouth of the Bill be where the money actually is? Also, our caste and religious seminaries and the babas who head them have grown enormously rich in a short span of time. Before we speak of Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Swiss banks and other such tax havens, we need to focus on these local depositories of illegal wealth. How can the Bill address this kind of corruption? Aren't we being naive to assume that the corruption is only in the government?

7. The prime minister should be included but the judiciary should be kept out of the Bill. The judiciary should develop its own internal mechanism to check and punish corruption among its members. The SC should always remain a point of last resort and hope.

8. If this draft of the Bill is passed, as it is, will the Lokpal become more important than anybody else in our country? Would its influence be pervasive and across institutions? Is the proposed institution biting off more than it can chew? Should we allow such an omnibus institution in the interest of our democracy?

9. All through the draft Bill, the word 'integrity' has been used loosely and liberally. The draftsmen seem to be in love with the word. It perhaps springs from a certain self-love and self-righteousness. With what foolproof method do we determine the integrity of people who'll hold the office of the Lokpal? In the first place, how do we verbalise this sublime abstraction called integrity?

10. The civil society draft panel, with an inclusive spirit and also a strategic intent to draw in people from various communities, should have allowed greater diversity among its members.

11. Since this is a 'Gandhian' movement, it is important to understand what 'Satyagraha' meant to Gandhi. For him it was a process of self-purification and introspection. 'Satyagraha' was meant to 'convert' and not 'coerce' an opponent. He makes an important distinction between 'Satyagraha' and 'Duragraha.' By the latter, he meant a process more to 'harass' than to 'enlighten.' He says clearly that 'Satyagraha' cannot be categorised by hatred. However, the discussion that we have so far had on the Lokpal Bill has had an undertone of hatred and distrust (asking for videography of the proceedings is a case in point). It is trying to target somebody— may be the politician, may be the bureaucrat, may be the parliamentary system. It is trying to assume that there is a category of people which corrupt and there is another which is incorruptible. That is being miles away from the truth. We are all corrupt in some sense or the other. If the undertone of hatred and distrust can be eliminated from the drafting of the Bill, then perhaps, we'll achieve a far more efficient piece of legislation. To our interpretation of economic corruption, we should also blend the aspect of moral corruption. That would create a soul for the Bill.

12. Everybody is affected by corruption in one way or the other. It creates a universal victimhood. As long as 'corruption' is an abstract, amorphous, distant term, people will assemble to speak about it. The moment one gets into the specifics they'll disperse [Now that Anna Hazare has criticised Narendra Modi and his government, how many BJP supporters and RSS sympathisers would shift to Baba Ramdev's anti-corruption campaign?] In this light, shouldn't the process of fighting corruption be a process of self-purification? Why didn't Anna Hazare speak about this at Jantar Mantar? In fact, why does he refuse to speak that language as a Gandhian?

13. Finally, this looks like an urban movement of the articulate middle class. Why has there been no consultation in the rural areas? The people in rural areas may not speak English, but do understand corruption.

14. Is the draft Bill available the 22 official languages of India for people who can't read English to respond? I assume not. Is this not mass exclusion?

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