Originally Published 2011-05-31 00:00:00 Published on May 31, 2011
Any Lok Pal Bill to be meaningful needs to have in-built saving mechanisms that protect the dignity not only of the individual but more so of the high offices that they hold. Otherwise, there is always the possibility of anti-corruption wars could get reduced into a national past-time.
Fighting corruption should not be reduced to a national past-time
It's possibly since the years preceding the proclamation of emergency in end-June 1975 that governance issues, starting with corruption and probity in public life, have captured national attention on a broad scale. Where scams had remained even earlier, and scam-masters by the political masters and courts in the days since Independence, it is only in these two instances that there are reasons to believe that the people at large are becoming increasingly aware of and conscious about the happenings around them - and are ready to use the power of their vote to try and set matters right.

Elections-2011 in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal prove the point. In West Bengal, the ruling Left Front paid heavily for decades of government without governance. In the past, as in Tamil Nadu of 1996, and Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh (1982), people have voted on issues that went beyond price rise and unemployment rates, two basic issues that had concerned ordinary voters. The parliamentary polls of 1980, 1998 and 1999 likewise focused on political stability and Government delivery being stymied by political instability at the Centre.

Anna Hazare may not be a Jayaprakash Narayan, nor Baba Ramdev, an Acharya Kriplani, Vintage-75. Yet, the results of Elections-2011 have boosted the morale of civil society activists and organisations fighting on issues of governance, starting with free and fair elections and corruption. The Centre's suspect resolve on the Lok Pal Bill has since given way to conceding the demand for civil society participation in the drafting of a new piece of legislation, possibly for the first time since Independence. However, the absence of the political Opposition from the discourse is noticeable. Not being part of the process, they thus reserve the right to oppose any legislative measure that may come up before Parliament.

If such measures were to involve constitutional amendments, they would require a two-thirds majority, which the ruling Congress-UPA does not command on its own in either House of Parliament. Some such measures may also require clearances from a majority of State Assemblies. If one went by the course that a unanimous legislative initiative like the one on women's reservations has gone through, the non-involvement of the political Opposition would hurt when one would expect it not to hurt. Likewise, the exclusion of regional parties, whether in Government at the Centre or not, would also matter, for any Bill as envisaged by the Anna Hazare camp, to have its way, both in Parliament and possibly in State Assemblies. The tendency now seems to be to keep the non-governmental participation on civil society organisations. They too seem happy for it.

As outlined by Government representatives, all legislations will have to fall within the broad framework of the Constitution, or the 'basic structure' as indicated, though not defined by the Supreme Court. To try and over-do the NGO cause would take the current movement towards involving the civil society in motivating and drafting new pieces of legislation away from its scope and goal. It is also doubtful if the larger population, particularly the urban middle class, having handed down an electoral verdict that had produced more than satisfactory results from their personal and societal perspectives, would be in a mood for further street-fights until they feel compelled to. Experience in the matter is not encouraging, either.

Through and through, the higher judiciary in this country has felt offended at finger-pointing, and the need for accountability. There is justification in the arguments that the higher judiciary should be insulated from issues that are administrative at best, but political otherwise. The 'Justice V Ramaswamy impeachment issue', the only one of its kind that Parliament was called upon to vote, was decided not on ethical grounds, or legal arguments. It was voted out, based on a political-divide in Parliament. Our political scheme and parliamentary system have not reached such levels for individual members to be able to draw a dividing line. The anti-defection law has conferred greater legitimacy to the 'three-line whip' issued by party leadership to Parliament members, and this may have deprived some of the freedom that otherwise might have been available to them in matters of conscience and ethics.

It is also political. Needless to point out that around the time the Supreme Court was seized of the 2-G scam and CWG deals in November-December 2010, the Government stopped talking about piloting a Bill on judicial accountability. Union Law Minister M Veerappa Moily had promised a Bill in the winter session of Parliament, in the same period. It is not as if the higher judiciary is shy of accountability issues. It is possible that the Executive was/is shy of de-linking the two and proceeding with the one, independent of the other. Yet, the strength of the argument for accountability of the higher judiciary has only grown over the same period as the 2-G scam. The allegations, cases and impeachment proceedings pertaining to Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan, and Justice P D Dinakaran and Justice Soumitra Sen should implore the higher judiciary to evolve a mechanism for unimpeachable and credible internal modes, where deniability and delaying tactics that are being occasionally denied to ordinary litigants are used/abused/misused. The Rs 23-crore Ghaziabad PF scam is a pointer where nothing much has come out thus far.

With the civil society at work on the Lok Pal Bill, the Government and the nation's polity should encourage the higher judiciary to evolve mechanisms, and consider their possible inclusion in the draft law when presented to Parliament. If in the wisdom of the higher judiciary, such a methodology need not be written into a parliamentary legislation, its views should be respected. For its part, the judiciary cannot close its eyes to the increasing awareness of the people, and its impact on their perceptions not only about the judiciary but also about related issues of governance and democracy as a whole. Such perceptions, if allowed to run riot, could prove worse than the problems and their possible solutions. In this context, the higher judiciary should take cognisance of earlier attempts of the kind that had been half-way houses that failed to meet the high standards of probity to begin with, and accountability, otherwise. If effective, we would not have had the likes of the cited instances.

There is then the question of bringing the high office of the Prime Minister within the ambit of a legislation of the kind. While there is a certain justification to the demands in the matter, the nation needs to be alive to the possibilities of such a provision being misused in political terms. Independent of the intention of the civil society organisations now, our contemporary history is replete with instances of the kind. In the Nineties, we were witness to a 'pickle trader' pointing an accusing finger at Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, and the political Opposition rejoicing at it - and demanding his resignation/removal from office. Long after Narasimha Rao had bowed out, a trial court absolved him, but the damage to the persona of the highest political office in the country had been done. So had certain instability woven into the political scheme at the Centre. The effects could be felt in the second half of the Nineties.

This is not to say that Prime Minister should not be brought into the ambit of the Lok Pal Bill. The question is how to check against frivolous and unsubstantiated allegations being lent initial credibility and publicity. Needless to point out that in this era of 'social media' and pro-active media otherwise, the truth often gets buried between words in high-profile talk-shows and high-pitched news bulletins. One does not expect the nation's Prime Minister to join a shouting match. Nor does it do good for the person of the Prime Minister to depute someone else to join the media shouting war, which marked more by sensationalism than substance. That way, considering the course that some corruption cases had taken in the past, and how they had left the targeted politicians and bureaucrats on the streets, long before the courts had acquitted them, it is pertinent that any Lok Pal Bill to be meaningful has to have in-built saving mechanisms that protect the dignity not only of the individual but more so of the high offices that they hold. Otherwise, there is always the possibility of anti-corruption wars launched by civil society organisations and the political class could get reduced into a national past-time, with each generation finding its issue and targets - and doing little else about it, other than leaving behind an opportunity for a successor-outfit in its time. A job better done by the political Opposition in an earlier era but left half-done by the civil society!
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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