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That the long slumbering Indian is waking up to the reality of what our democracy has become is becoming obvious - the chatter about the disgraceful decline of governance and Politics in our country is loud and reaching everywhere.
Hacker: Are you saying that winking at corruption is government policy?
Sir Humphrey: No, no, Minister! It could never be government policy. That is unthinkable! It’s only government practice.
This exchange between the fictional British Prime Minister and his Cabinet Secretary from the TV series ‘Yes Prime Minister’ pretty much sums up the state of governance in our country.
And, it is not funny. It’s tragic and corruption has seeped into the very nervous system of the republic, and make no mistake - every Indian attempting to lead a normal life and raise and provide for a family is paying the cost of this corruption.
The groundswell of public support for the amendments to the Lokpal Bill has clearly established that ordinary Indians want a recast of their democracy and governance.
While democracy is supposed to create a representative form of governance and a government of the people and for the people - the influence of money and other inducements combined with low participation of the educated is distorting this so called representative democracy.
Today, the voters’ mandate is easily violated by political parties purchasing majority in the Parliament and government priorities are subverted by paying for such majority. The nexus of big money from big business and politics is the real driver of this distortion. The influence of business on government and politics is almost unfettered and unchallenged because there are almost no government institutions that are capable, willing or interested in challenging this capture of Government. This is compounded by the almost complete failure to the most part of Indian media - the so called fourth pillar of the Indian democracy.
That’s why the demand for Lokpal and Lokayukta institutions is essentially a cry for a watchdog on behalf of the citizens for whom the government is supposed to exist - in the absence of any other. The Lokpal will be a super cop - not the best way to address malfeasance in government but unfortunately the only option left for us.
The campaign to have a citizen-oriented Lokpal institution has achieved an important breakthrough, but the hard yards begin now.
This is essentially a historic renegotiation of rights and obligations between the government and the citizen - a long overdue one that is critical to put India back on the path of a democracy that our founding fathers envisioned. Governments and Politicians have to be moved to a role of ‘public servants and public service’ from the current ‘ruling elite’ mindset. The Lokpal Bill will be the catalyst and prime mover for this change.
To have a credible and effective Lokpal, it is vital that the provisions of the Lokpal Bill are beyond reproach and practical.
To begin with, transparency and public participation in redrafting of the Bill is absolutely necessary. The leaders of the redrafting campaign have rightly demanded broadcast of the meetings of the redrafting committee. In the interest of transparency and for enhancing citizens’ participation in the process, the proceedings of the Lokpal committee meetings must be telecast live on Lok Sabha TV. The redrafting is going to be a tug of war between the natural reluctance of a political/bureaucratic system that thrives only in hazy non transparent world versus the increasingly strident and uncompromising demand by citizens for transparency and honesty.
To start with, the issue of suo motu investigative and prosecution powers with the Lokpal is vital. There could be threshold evidence criteria that could need to be produced before this power is exercised to prevent ad hoc use of this very important power. I have no doubt the political and bureaucratic class will kick and scream and oppose this tooth and nail and invent all kinds of excuses for it. But this suo moto power will either make or break the success of the Lokpal.
Next, Lokpal as an institution must supersede and/or subsume all existing anti-corruption institutions like CVC. Because if not, there will be classic obfuscation by forum shopping i.e., Lokpal can’t investigate it because CVC is ’seized’ of the matter or ‘CBI is investigating it’! Only the Supreme Court should be able to intervene/adjudicate on Lokpal’s decisions and findings.
Further, all bureaucrats and MPs/cabinet will be covered by the Lokpal, i.e., there will no immunity for anyone either using Parliament as a cover or Government. This is critical as well to ensure the long arm of the fight for probity reaches everyone including Prime Ministers and Chief Ministers.
The issue of appointment of Lokpal is an important one - given the powers that will vest in it and the truth about an institution only being as good as the people in it. The Lokpal institution is a representative of the people and must be legally mandated to function in the most transparent and disclosure driven manner - with use of public hearings and video and other broadcasts and transcripts to involve the people fully in its efforts. The appointment of Lokpals should be by a Supreme Court monitored committee of Indians with a track record of work against corruption and for probity in Government. The five year term is excessive and terms should be of 30 months and no more than two terms should be permitted. The second term should be allowed only under exceptional defined circumstances.
The proposed structure of 10 members and a chairperson also looks good. The proposal that they will be working in benches of three or four on each matter would add both efficiency and credibility to the functioning of Lok Pal.
However, there are some aspects of the amendments to the Bill that need to be reviewed.
The proposal to have a panel of a minimum of 4 lawyers should be improved to create a concept of a special prosecutor. Lokpal should be able to bring in outside counsel in areas of sophisticated financial crimes and graft where normal criminal or civil lawyers may not be enough.
Let’s be clear, the demand for a Lokpal bill by the Indian citizen who is waking up from his hibernation is only a first tentative step to rebuilding our democracy. But this first step needs to be taken, and to paraphrase Neil Armstrong as he stepped on the moon - ‘it will be a small first step, but it is a giant leap for Indian democracy!’
This article appeared in DNA, May 21st, 2011