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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Is the Jan Lokpal Bill the answer?

Posted on Apr 07, 2011 at 12:12pm IST

What is Anna Hazare really campaigning for? To Indian citizens, his courageous display of moral outrage represents a crusade against corruption. This is a time when the ruling UPA Administration is beleaguered not only by the surfacing of a number of big-ticket scams but also by its inability to act firmly against the people seen to be the perpetrators. No wonder, then, that Hazare’s fast has become for angry Indians a potent symbol of protest against dishonesty. And it is this that has become a clarion call for citizens raising their voice – online and offline.

However, the majority of his newfound supporters are probably not aware of the precise nature of Hazare’s demands. He is asking for a drastically revised version of the Lokpal Bill, the draft legislation that seeks to set up a body to investigate accusations of corruption against individuals and institutions within the government and the administrative machinery around the country. Or, against public servants.

An alternative version of this Bill, dubbed the Jan Lokpal Bill, has been drafted by, inter alia, former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan, former IPS officer Kiran Bedi, Justice N. Santosh Hegde, renowned advocate Prashant Bhushan and former chief election commissioner J. M. Lyngdoh. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this version: it seeks to virtually bypass the involvement of the government in the process of creating the Lokpal body.

Thus, the selection committee it envisages would include, among others, all laureates of Indian origin, the last two Magsaysay Prize winners of Indian origin, the two seniormost judges of the Supreme Court and of the High Courts, and Bharat Ratna award winners. The Administration would be represented by the chairpersons of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, the Chief Election Commissioner and the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Clearly, this version sees no role for the people who have been democratically elected to govern the country. The message runs deep: to adopt such a system would be to acknowledge the failure of democracy as an institution, and install a vigilante-oriented body that can act on its own discretion in terms of what and whom to investigate and has police powers to prosecute perceived transgressors.

There is a naïve idealism imbued in this alternative structure, implying that the women and men who will be members of the Lokpal will be perfect citizens with no agenda other than weeding out corruption. But its powers will be sweeping, and with no checks and balances, what will prevent such a body from turning into a motivated, witch-hunting mchanism? The wheels of the administration may grind frustratingly slowly, but that also reduces the chances of the kind of arbitrary prosecution that India saw during the Emergency.

For instance, among the activities that the Bill considers as evidence of corruption are:

1. Gross or willful negligence; recklessness in decision making; blatant violations of systems and procedures; exercise of discretion in excess, where no ostensible/public interest is evident; failure to keep the controlling authority/superiors informed in time.

2. Failure/delay in taking action, if under law the government servant ought to do so, against subordinates on complaints of corruption or dereliction of duties or abuse of office by the subordinates.

3. Indulging in discrimination through one’s conduct, directly or indirectly.

It is not difficult to see the room for interpretation here, leading to persecution rather than prosecution. In effect, the Jan Lokpal Bill wants to arm the Lokpal with powers that combine the Legislative, the Judiciary and the Administrative. The way its creators see it, it can set policy, investigate and prosecute, and sit in judgment.

Step back further, and a larger question presents itself. Are democratically elected and constituted institutions no longer to run this country? The extreme measures proposed in this ‘people’s version’ are a measure of the unhappiness, frustration and anger within civil society at what appears to be the tacit complicitness of government in corruption. However, to demand sweeping powers on the basis of moral outrage is another matter altogether.

None of this is to disparage the purity of Anna Hazare’s mission - or the Indian citizen’s eagerness to join hands with him in what is perceived as a crusade against corruption. But in its present form, the Jan Lokpal Bill may only substitute one monster with another.