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Lokpal tragedy

Published : Jan 27, 2012 00:00 IST

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Outside Parliament House on December 29 when the discussion on the Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha continued late into the night.-VIJAY VERMA/PTI

Outside Parliament House on December 29 when the discussion on the Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha continued late into the night.-VIJAY VERMA/PTI

The scuttling of the Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha is one more sign of the lack of political will to fight corruption.

THE ruling United Progressive Alliance's (UPA) political track record in 2011 was of a sustained downward slide. The Lokpal Bill fiasco in the Rajya Sabha on December 29 and the developments that followed suggest strongly that the Congress, the leader of the alliance, is on course to repeating this dismal performance in 2012 too. The state of play on the Lokpal Bill does not augur well for the Congress both in terms of the immediate political fallout and in terms of the repercussions in the medium term.

References to the midnight drama in the Rajya Sabha on December 29, especially the allegations about the Congress leadership's role in engineering it, are bound to come up time and again in the run-up to the Assembly elections in five States scheduled to be held between late January and early March. The Budget session of Parliament is set to commence amidst these elections, and the Congress will have to put in serious efforts at repairing its relations with the Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), its partners in the UPA who have opposed some of the key provisions of the Bill.

The fiasco in the Rajya Sabha also underscored the confusion that exists within the Congress on the Lokpal Bill. Evidently, the party was being pulled in different directions throughout the debate in Parliament and in the run-up to it. In fact, one section was of the opinion that a half-way measure involving the mere introduction of the Bill and the generation of a controversy on some provisions, leading to the eventual non-passage in Parliament, would bring the party political and electoral benefits. They would come supposedly from groups and communities perturbed by the perceived Hindutva orientation of Team Anna, the civil society conglomeration that generated a nationwide debate on the Lokpal issue over the past six months through agitations, and so on.

This section believed that the party could take credit for introducing the Bill and also accuse the opposition of not allowing its passage. It was apparently of the view that a number of provisions in the Bill introduced in December, including those that were not in the Bill introduced in August, would lead to its collapse.

However, this section saw as a negative development the proposal to confer constitutional status on the Lokpal and the passage of the Bill bringing in the amendment on this provision in the Lok Sabha. The move was welcomed by other sections of the Congress and the UPA. Undoubtedly, this strategic mish-mash contributed in a big way to the fiasco in the Rajya Sabha.

All this has also once again raised questions about the Congress' lack of political will to bring in far-reaching laws in many key areas, including in the realm of combating corruption. Already, the Lokpal Bill exercise has been likened to the 15-year impasse in passing the Women's Reservation Bill. These comparisons, naturally, highlight the absence of political assertion by the leadership of the country's largest party.

While the contours of the medium- and long-term issues relating to the Lokpal Bill are still unclear, there is little doubt that in the short term the Congress will have to contend with some intense political jousting on the Rajya Sabha fiasco. The opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties and many powerful regional parties, have all launched a campaign on the developments.

Civil society groups led by Team Anna are also bound to take up some agitprop exercise in the context of the December 29 developments, though the grouping faces two limitations on this front. First, the health condition of its top-most leader, Anna Hazare, is preventing him from taking up any major campaign initiative. Second, is the argument among sections of the civil society movement that both the Congress and the BJP were hand in glove in scuttling the Bill in the Rajya Sabha. These sections argue that if Team Anna is going to campaign on the Rajya Sabha fiasco, it should take on not only the Congress but also the BJP. Many supporters of Team Anna, such as Yogendra Yadav, have stated this position forcefully. As of the time of this writing, the core committee of Team Anna has yet to take a formal view on this.

BJP campaign

However, the BJP has upped the ante by sending a high-level delegation comprising party president Nitin Gadkari, veteran leader Lal Krishna Advani and Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, Leaders of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively, to President Pratibha Patil with a demand to reconvene the Parliament session for voting on the Lokpal Bill. The party launched the campaign with some powerful rhetoric by Arun Jaitley paraphrasing Jawaharlal Nehru's freedom at midnight speech. If it was freedom at midnight on August 15, 1947, it was fleedom at midnight yesterday. At the stroke of the midnight hour when the world slept, India awoke to a great fraud being played on its parliamentary democracy, Jaitley told a press conference on December 30.

Central to the campaign is the thrust that the government ran away from the Rajya Sabha because it had to accept the opposition's conditions while passing the Bill in the Lok Sabha. The party also proposes to highlight the consensus among opposition parties on three basic amendments: protecting the legislative jurisdiction of the States under Article 252, the appointment and removal process of the Lokpal, and the autonomy of the investigating agency.

Jaitley said the government knew, from the experience in the Lok Sabha, that these consensus amendments would be enforced, and that was why it conspired to kill the Bill in the Rajya Sabha. That is exactly why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee refused to intervene in the Rajya Sabha debate. They got a friendly party like the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to disrupt the House, Jaitley added. According to him, the strategy of the BJP and several other opposition parties was to defeat a weak and spurious Lokpal law but at the same time insist on amendments which would improve and convert the weak law into a strong law.

Along with the BJP, regional parties such as Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (S.P.) are bound to highlight these issues to target the Congress.

The Left parties have made their position clear through the statement of Sitaram Yechury, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Yechury termed the Rajya Sabha developments as nothing but subterfuge and sabotage engineered by the government. The Congress used its allies in the UPA such as the Trinamool Congress and outside supporters like the RJD to create chaos, he said.

Interestingly, the Trinamool Congress, which Yechury referred to as an accomplice, has continued with its criticism of the Congress position on the Lokpal bill even outside Parliament. In fact, the party is planning an independent campaign in at least three of the five election-bound States, and by all indications this campaign will have an anti-Congress thrust. Clearly, that is bound to accentuate the Congress' embarrassment.

Congress response

The Congress response to all this has followed the offence is the best form of defence dictum. On December 30 it held a high-profile press conference, fielding Home Minister P. Chidambaram, Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Congress spokesperson and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee that drafted the Lokpal Bill. Chidambaram and Bansal told the media that it was the BJP that had no intention of passing the Bill. The BJP's slogan was Support Anna, defeat the Bill. So it hit upon the ingenious device of moving 187 amendments, many of them contradictory and several others that could not be reconciled. It is alleged that the debate was choreographed by the government and that it was the murder of democracy. In fact, it was the opposition that choreographed chaos and murdered democracy, Bansal said.

According to Chidambaram, the real story is that the BJP had no intention of passing the Bill in the Rajya Sabha and that is why the opposition party moved 187 amendments. On occasions, it is possible that one or two new amendments are moved in the other House. But, 187 amendments were moved. That is the real story. Can anyone make sense of 187 amendments? Can anyone reconcile them in a matter of a few minutes or a few hours? The real story is that the BJP had no intention of passing the Bill, said the Home Minister. Obviously, the Congress' political defence will be on these lines.

The party leadership also maintains that it will sit down and talk with the Trinamool Congress to sort out the differences.

We are ready to refine and redraft certain provisions of the proposed anti-corruption legislation to address the concerns of our ally. In the Lok Sabha we accommodated the concerns of the Trinamool Congress. They were satisfied. They voted in favour [of the Bill in the Lok Sabha]. There was a change of stance later. We need to sit and talk with them. We think the proviso [that the Act shall be applicable to a State which has given prior consent to its application] is adequate, but we can always refine it, redraft it to take care of their concerns, Chidambaram pointed out. On his part Singhvi asserted that the Lokpal Bill is certainly not dead and it is not even in the ICU or emergency. It is merely under rest and recovery and it will be back soon, he said.

It is not yet clear how the Congress leadership proposes to go about effecting the return of the Bill after rest and recovery. Technically, the Lokpal Bill has not lapsed. It has been passed by the Lok Sabha but has been stalled in the Upper House. The Parliament's Business Advisory Committee has to take it up for consideration before the next session. Before that the government will have to go through all the amendments that have been moved by different parties. It will have to reach out to different parties, particularly allies with reservations on the Bill. The government also has the option of passing the Bill through a joint session of Parliament.

Several Congress leaders told Frontline that these options are being considered collectively. The government is yet to evolve a concrete plan of action, but it will be delineated in about three weeks, said a senior Minister. Even as these assurances are being given, there is growing apprehension among sections of the political class and civil society that the Lokpal will go the way of the Women's Reservation Bill because the mainstream political parties, particularly the Congress, do not have the political will to enforce it. Team Anna associate and former Lokayukta of Karnataka, N. Santosh Hegde, has been vocal about this. It is for the Congress leadership to disprove these apprehensions.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 27, 2012.)

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