Monday, August 13, 2012

Has the Political Class Failed Us?


A. Surya Prakash
Senior Fellow, VIF


The end of `Operation Jantar Mantar’ by Team Anna without any tangible gains vis-à-vis the fight against corruption and the indications from within government that the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011 may not come up for debate until the Winter Session of Parliament – should come as a major disappointment for all citizens who believe in the pursuit of peaceful and democratic solutions for major problems confronting the country.

With Anna Hazare virtually throwing his hands up and signalling the failure of the tried and tested Satyagraha route, every section of the political class, and this includes the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Third Front and the still nebulous Fourth Front, must be laughing all the way to their respective vote banks. This is a moment of triumph for politicians as a whole because they have successfully beaten back, at least for the moment, the biggest threat that was posed to their corrupt ways. The UPA of course is leading from the front and has been able to stop the anti-corruption movement dead in its tracks.

One year ago, as the Anna Hazare Movement picked up, the UPA government introduced the Lok Pal Bill in the Lok Sabha and repeatedly claimed that it was committed to the passage of this law. Other members of the political class made similar noises and swore that they too were keen on having an independent ombudsman to probe cases of corruption. However, within parliament there was an unwritten agreement among all parties that they should not go beyond rendering lip service to the anti-corruption movement. All parties also believed that by dragging the issue, they could tire out the crusaders. This plan appears to have worked. Twelve months hence, the anti-corruption crusade has become a victim of middle class ennui and the much-talked about bill has virtually gone into cold storage.

Caught in a maze of corruption, the UPA government was not keen on having an independent Lokpal. But it was not alone. It got some overt and covert backing from virtually the entire political class. The government introduced the Lokpal Bill on August 4, 2011 in the Lok Sabha and immediately referred it to a Standing Committee head by Mr.Abhishek Manu Singhvi. This gave the government a much-needed breather and also an excuse. It asked Team Anna and others to advance their arguments before the committee. The Singhvi Committee recommended that the Lokpal must have constitutional status and parliament must take a call on whether to bring the Prime Minister within the purview of the Lokpal. It said group A and group B employees must be brought within the purview of the Lokpal, but the Chief Vigilance Commissioner should have jurisdiction over group C and D staff. The committee wanted MPs to be kept out of the Lokpal’s purview in so far as their vote, speech and conduct in parliament was concerned. The judiciary was also to be outside the Lokpal’s jurisdiction. It suggested a single law for establishment of the Lokpal and the Lokayukras in the states. Once the committee’s report was tabled, the government withdrew the bill it had introduced in August and came up with a new bill – The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011.

After much debate, which drew nation-wide attention, this bill was passed by the Lok Sabha and the government raised the expectations of the people by pretending that it would see the legislation through in the Rajya Sabha as well. However, the government’s real intention – to stall the passage of this legislation – became clear when the bill came up for discussion in the Upper House on the last day of the Winter Session in December, 2011. The Congress Party’s floor managers cleverly ensured that MPs belonging to many small and regional parties raised objections and obstructed the debate. Thereafter, as the debate dragged on, the party took advantage of the commotion in the House and mischievously ensured the adjournment of the House sine die, even though MPs wanted the debate to be concluded. With the abrupt adjournment of the House, the curtain came down on the Winter Session of Parliament, thereby giving the government yet another breather.

However, when the Budget Session of Parliament opened in February this year, the UPA resumed its subterfuge. It promised to complete the legislative process in the Upper House but sprang a surprise on parliamentarians and the nation as a whole last May, when it announced the bill was being referred to yet another committee – a select committee of the Rajya Sabha. Sadly, the BJP became a party to the government’s dilatory tactics. This committee has been given time till the end of the Monsoon Session in September to submit its report. So, even as Anna Hazare and Co have ended yet another indefinite fast in order to live to fight another day, there are indications that the bill will not come up for discussion until the Winter Session of Parliament this year. Going by the prevailing mood in the political class, do not be surprised if this bill too suffers the fate of all previous Lokpal Bills and lapse when the present Lok Sabha is dissolved in May, 2014 or earlier.

In the year gone by, the UPA government has slipped further down on the credibility meter and strangely, it is taking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) along with it. As the main opposition party, the BJP ought to have been the moral policeman and the standard-bearer for clean governance, but it is even more irrelevant today than it was a year ago. The Congress and the BJP are now seen as two sides of the same coin. The people feel that they are merely engaged in a mock fight and they are tired of listening to the same old rhetoric. Film maker Shekhar Kapur correctly summed it up when he said the debate is not about the failure of the UPA but about the failure of the political system itself.

“India does not need change of government but change in political system. 65 years of current system has created huge divide between the people and governance”, he said in one of his recent tweets.

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