Unbending attitude

Unbending attitude

It was not unexpected that the talks between the government and the representatives of civil society on the drafting of a Lokpal legislation would end in failure, given the hard and uncompromising positions of the government on some provisions of the proposed bill. The interaction between the two sides has been marked by acrimony, though there were at times some signs of a compromise. With the ninth and final meeting of the committee failing to end the deadlock, an exasperated civil society leader Anna Hazare has announced his plan to re-launch his agitation. The government, on its part, has decided to go to an all-party meeting and then to parliament with its proposals. These look like evasive and obstructionist tactics because, in spite of the lip service being paid by political parties to legislating a strong Lokpal bill, it is unlikely that any of them would want an effective anti-corruption institution.

The government’s claim that there was agreement on 34 of the 40 issues that the joint committee discussed is deceptive and misleading. The differences are about the most crucial issues relating to the powers, status and structure of the Lokpal. The government has not accepted the demands for bringing the prime minister, the higher judiciary and lower bureaucracy within the Lokpal’s ambit. In most other countries where the office of a Lokpal-like institution exists its jurisdiction covers the head of government. If the argument is that the Lokpal cannot handle the complaints against lakhs of government servants, state-level institutions like the Lokayukta can be empowered to look into them.  Issues relating to the higher judiciary can be effectively addressed by strengthening the Judicial Standards and Accountability bill.

Some progress has however been made, with the civil society wresting some concessions. They include provisions for the Lokpal to order suo motu probes, waiving of the need for sanction to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials, power to confiscate assets acquired through corrupt means, investing the office with an independent investigative machinery with police powers and the mandate that the government has to act on the Lokpal’s recommendations within a fixed time frame. But the Lokpal will not be an effective institution without the government agreeing to concede the most crucial demands about it.  Popular pressure has to continue for it.

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