The Great Lokpal Debate

After many false starts, the government finally began the process of bringing to an end the ongoing tamasha of the Lokpal Bill when the Union DOPT Minister Narayanswamy introduced the newly drafted Lokpal Bill 2011 in the Lok Sabha.

With Anna Hazare beginning his agitation against the centre on November 27, the winter session of Parliament has been extended from 27 to 29 to enable both the houses to pass the bill, which has drawn the ire of political parties and left the government to face the charge that it has succumbed to pressure of the agitationists and that the bill is being brought in a hurry.

Even after the cabinet passed the bill and it was being readied for printing, there were dissensions within the government at the highest level. Sources said that it was P Chidambaram who persuaded the Prime Minister late on Wednesday night that they should remove minorities from being included under the reservation category since it would be ultra vires of the Constitution and would be struck down by the Suprme Court. This is because there is no provision of reservation on the basis of religion, hence minorities would not fit in.

Consequently when the bill was sent for printing, this was excluded and when the bill informally found its way around Parliament, many leaders including Lalu Yadav protested and the house was stalled. A Congress core committee meeting was held and it was felt that Parliament should reflect the will of the people and it was for the courts to later do what they wanted.

Leader of the house Pranab Mukherjee was seen giving Narayanswamy a huge dressing down, wanting to know how the word minorities was removed from the original text when the cabinet had cleared it. A separate agenda was circulated to make up for the lapse and the government has now brought reservation for the dalits, tribals, backwards, Muslims and women in the bill.

Once the government firmed up its mind and the cabinet had cleared it, Congress President Sonia Gandhi also broke her silence and batted strongly for the bill and in the process criticised those forces which were trying to destabilise the government and which had not reconciled to their defeat in either 2004 or 2009. The reference was obviously to the BJP which had lost the general election and to the RSS and its sister organisations which are seen to be the driving force behind the Anna movement.

With the the UPA government finally tabling the Lokpal Bill and a constitutional amendment bill the debate and voting would take place on December 27, after the Christmas break. This after some strong speeches by leaders and an appeal from Leader of the House Pranab Mukherjee to the House that its 543 MPs would decide the fate of the Lokpal, so “disagree or change it…but allow the Bill to be introduced and to put the motion to vote.”

Mr Mukherjee said to the MPs, “You will collectively decide what you want to have. If you feel it is not necessary, we will not have it. Legislation is the right of Parliament. It cannot be done on the streets or on the fear of agitation.”

But at the same time the Anna Hazare agitation looms large. On the day that the Lok Sabha will debate the Lokpal Bill, activist Anna Hazare will launch his fourth hunger strike of the year and what his team of activists promises will be a bigger protest than before. Team Anna has rubbished the Bill that has been tabled as “anti-nation and dangerous” and said the protest will include sitting outside the homes of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi as part of his jail bharo agitation.

In Parliament, Anna’s threats were not looked upon kindly by many political parties. Lalu Prasad Yadav sought that the Bill be redone and not passed in haste under threat of agitation. “What is the hurry to pass the Bill…Let us study this Bill…don’t make us do the wrong thing for fear of an agitation…an agitation cannot run the country,” Mr Yadav said, making a frontal attack on Anna Hazare for putting pressure of a deadline on Parliament to pass the Bill.

The SP, RJD, JD(U) and LJP concurred with Lalu Yadav on the need to not act in haste; in rare consonance, the Shiv Sena echoed, “Where is the hurry? This is anti-democracy.” Gurudas Das Gupta of the Left constituent CPI said that the fight against corruption could not be a single man’s crusade and that Anna Hazare could not hold the Parliament to ransom with the threat of a fast. “We are not operating in fear of anybody—least of all, an ex-policeman, an ex-bureaucrat, least of all a man who pretends to be another father of the nation. There is only one father of the nation: Mahatma Gandhi. There is no single crusader against corruption. Please don’t be afraid of another hunger strike,” he said.

Battle lines are clearly drawn and the stand of major parties as they placed their objections in the Lok Sabha made it clear which way discussions in Parliament will head. The BJP has already said it will seek amendments on issues that it has voiced dissent on earlier. It sought that the Bill in the form that the government has introduced be withdrawn and a new bill be brought. What has primarily drawn the BJP’s ire is the government’s move to add reservation for minorities in the Lokpal. It objects to that move, to the language and to the way the government has done this through a correction in the language of the Bill, rather than through a constitutional amendment.

Minutes after the Lokpal Bill was placed in the Lok Sabha on Thursday afternoon, Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj tore into the government’s move to introduce a quota for minorities; she objected to the language of the Bill. Ms Swaraj said, “The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that reservation cannot cross 50 per cent…This bill sets apart quota for not less than 50 per cent. There are nine members—so it suggests reservation for five members. So if we go with this Bill, it will be struck down in seconds as patently unconstitutional. This language is not acceptable.” Her party colleague Yashwant Sinha accused the government of “blackmail”—a corrigendum, he said, was meant to make corrections, not make amendments to a bill.

Ms Swaraj also contended that provisions of the Bill, which lays out similar rules for state Lokayuktas as for the Lokpal at the Centre, violated federal principles and would force the hand of states into adopting a “bad law”. This view found support across many parties in the House, especially those like the BJD that rule states. Mr Mukherjee suggested that the MPs should not take the role of the judiciary.

The Bill was to have been tabled hours earlier. But the issue of reservation for minorities among the nine members of the new Lokpal or ombudsman threatened to turn bringing the Bill to Parliament into Mission Impossible. After a tirade in Parliament led by Lalu Prasad Yadav—he accused the Congress of conspiring with the BJP and the RSS to oppose a quota for minorities—the government decided to bring back the quota. However, it sought to do so through a correction in the language of the Bill, rather than enforcing it through a constitutional amendment, which is what the BJP has objected to. The decision was taken at an emergency meeting between the PM, Sonia Gandhi and senior ministers like Pranab Mukherjee and Salman Khurshid

Earlier, the government had removed the term ‘minorities’ from the Lokpal Bill where it asks for a 50 per cent quota for Lokpal, who will investigate charges of corruption against government servants. That’s because the Constitution does not allow for reservation on the grounds of religion. But now the government will argue that “minority” refers to a class and not a religion. So, the 50 per cent reservation among the nine members of the new Lokpal will apply to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs/STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs), women and minorities.

Some parties have objected to including the PM under the ambit of the Lokpal. The CPM said all its demands had not been met, but pressed for a Bill in the extended Winter Session of Parliament after a robust debate.

Anna Hazare and his team have rejected the government’s Bill as weak and said the Bill did not include any punishable offence. “The government’s Bill is weak and it won’t end corruption…The government is scared of including the CBI within the ambit of the Lokpal,” said Anna Hazare.

The Bill tabled has two parts: the first asks for a constitutional amendment, the second asks for the creation of a Lokpal or ombudsman at the Centre, with parallel anti-graft agencies in states. Because the first part asks for a constitutional amendment, a two-third majority is needed. That means the support of opposition parties will be critical. The second part of the Bill can be passed with a simple majority, which is doable for the UPA in the Lok Sabha.

Senior Ministers said that with the introduction of the Bill, half the battle had been won since the government’s resolution to bring in an anti-graft legislation was there for all to see. If the political parties do not support the legislation and bring it down, the government says it would not be blamed and secretly many leaders said it would be a blessing if the Bill is not passed since it seeks to create a many-headed monster which would be a parallel executive but without any accountability and certainly no responsibility.

 

By Renu Mittal from New Delhi

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