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11 April, 2011

Broad-basing democracy

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The issue of appointment of a Lokpal to deal with corruption, discussed off and on for half a century, received a new impetus last week with the Indian government constituting a committee with representation for the civil society to finalise a draft law.

The government’s hand was forced by Anna Hazare, a 73-year-old social activist from Maharashtra, who staked his life on the issue. Four days after he began an indefinite fast in New Delhi, it conceded his demands, yielding bit by bit in continuous negotiations.

With the New Media and private television channels playing up the Hazare campaign, it quickly caught the imagination of the people, especially the urban youth. Solidarity demonstrations erupted all over the country spontaneously. Shedding its proclivity to procrastinate, the government responded swiftly, apparently fearing the campaign may snowball into an Indian jasmine resolution.

The establishment of ombudsman-style mechanisms at central and state levels, styled as Lokpal and Lokayukta respectively, to look into complaints of corruption and maladministration was mooted in the 1960s by an administrative reforms commission headed by Morarji Desai. The Lok Sabha adopted a Lokpal Bill in 1969 but it did not become law as the Rajya Sabha did not pass it. Successive governments introduced similar bills in the Lok Sabha on nine more occasions only to let them lapse at the end of the life of the house.

Several states enacted legislation to set up Lokayuktas, headed by former high court chief justices, but the institution has not been a conspicuous state. Its main weakness is lack of authority to punish the guilty.

It can only recommend punitive measures to the government. For a long time the Lokpal issue was bogged down in a controversy over whether the prime minister must come under its authority. The governments were generally unwilling to allow the Lokpal to look into the prime minister’s actions.

Dissatisfied with the Lokpal bill drawn up by the government, India Against Coalition, a non-government organisation, drafted an alternative Jan Lokpal bill.

The government has now set up a committee comprising five ministers and five civil society representatives to study the two drafts and come up with one acceptable to both sides. While a minister is the chairman of the committee, a former minister, picked by Hazare and his backers, has been named co-chairman.

While Hazare hailed last week’s developments as a victory of the people, a government spokesman described it as a victory of democracy.

Hazare has put fight against corruption at the top of the national agenda through his campaign, which drew wide popular support because of the seething anger generated by the many scams reported in the recent past.

Ministers, judges and high civil and military officials are among those whose misdeeds came to light during this period. The electronic media played a big part in building up popular enthusiasm for the Hazare campaign by providing continuous live coverage. Its strident campaign lit up the screen with excitement during the short interval between the World Cup and IPL cricket matches.

The New Media’s role in the campaign has prompted some to dub the New Delhi venue of the fast as India’s Tahrir Square. Others, however, disapprove of any attempt to draw a parallel with the uprising in Egypt, insisting this was a movement of Gandhian vintage. Both viewpoints betray a tendency to romanticise the event and gloss over ground realities.

While the bill drafted by the government falls short of requirements, the alternative draft of India Against Corruption is based on woolly ideas like appropriating a role for civil society in the official mechanism. The law must have teeth but they must be in the right place. There is no ground to presume that civil society is lily white.

All those who jumped into the Hazare bandwagon cannot be accepted as credible crusaders against corruption. The Opposition parties and the corporate sector, both of which endorsed the campaign, fall in this category. Few parties active in power politics can claim a cleaner record than the Congress. Unscrupulous businessmen have contributed as much to the growth of corruption as unscrupulous politicians and officials.

Elimination of corruption is but a part of the task of broad-basing Indian democracy, now largely limited to holding elections once in five years. The content of democracy will be determined not by the televised battles fought in the cities but by the struggles waged by ordinary people all over the country which receive media attention only if they erupt into violence. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 11, 2011

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