Sunday, August 14, 2011

Racing to Annihilate Corruption

As the race to annihilate corruption heats up, Anna Hazare and team have started off on their next hunger strike to combat the Government’s lackadaisical attitude on the Jan Lokpal Bill. But as the middle class, in desperate search of a messiah, follows the Pied Piper in his mission, a doubt lingers on whether there isn’t an undue haste being followed in trying to pass a Bill that has emerged as a rallying point for citizens frustrated with corruption.

Anna Hazare’s prior Jantar Mantar manoeuvre won him fans across but more importantly put the limelight on corruption in a way that we have not seen in decades. It led to the Government climbing down from its stand on the Lok Pal and instituting a combined committee to re-draft the bill. The Bill has now reached the Parliament and the Parliamentary Standing Committee has invited Anna and team to present his views on the subject.

Governments across the world are normally subject to multiple forms of pressure from all kinds of lobbies like the press, judiciary, corporates and others. The Indian civil society (if such a homogeneous group exists) has been a more passive pressure group; even the most virulent representatives like Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar have been debated in the media only and left untouched by a vast stretch of the population (middle class urban population to be more precise) but the Anna group has successfully managed to create a support base amongst this crowd.

Facebook, Twitter and 24x7 news have ensured that the public is fed on a constant diet of anti-corruption capsules. So you have slogans like “If you are not with Anna and Team, you are with the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats of our country"(Bush would approve!) and “We can’t afford to fail this time. For if we fail, we may never get another chance. It is now or never”. While I am honestly cynical about this business of eradicating corruption with a  magic wand, it must be said that despite the obvious theatrics behind all this sloganeering and ideas (my personal favourite is the Give a Missed Call and Support the Movement), it is wonderful to see people actually talking and thinking about it and forcing the Government to do something about this.

The Government’s position is an open goal post and indefensible; the UPA is at the nadir of its popularity and the multiple scams which leap out of papers and TV sets have reduced it to a motley group with zero credibility. It does not help that the PM is perceived to be a man with no voice and the voices that matter are not available on any public discourse (anyone’s seen a Sonia or Rahul Gandhi interview?). The opposition is practically non-existent in terms of performance and despite the Government giving away its advantage on a platter, the weak knead Opposition is unable to anything about it. In such a position, you cannot blame the civil society for filling in the vacuum and acting as the moral guardian. You'd think that by now our politics would be mature enough to accept dissent but the hara-kiri done in trying to tackle Anna Hazare makes the Government look totally ridiculous and out of touch with people's sentiments.

So, Team Anna has stepped into the Opposition’s shoes and done great service in pitching across an important voice missing all these years – the voice of the electorate. The ruling party realizes that he has the masses behind him and so needs to be taken seriously and so we had the charade of a Joint Drafting Committee that arrived on a consensus that nobody understood. But somewhere in the din of the Anti-Corruption movement (is it one?), there is a concern that the movement is side-stepping its own principles and attempting to bulldoze its own version of the bill in undue haste, bypassing the norms of democracy.

Team Anna has called the proposed bill a Joke Pal and ridiculed its namby-pamby way of trying to tackling corruption. This may be true but the fact that is that the team has a chance to voice their concern in the Standing Committee of the Parliament and so changes can still be incorporated. The RTI Act which was widely touted as a victory of the civil society movement underwent 153 amendments in the standing committee before emerging into the form it now finds itself in.

The team would also be well-advised not to mix the business of governance with popular support and attempt to play to the gallery. It is ridiculous when top cop Kiran Bedi comes to NDTV and suggests that the NDTV opinion polls and their own polls indicate the mass support behind the movement and so their version must be passed; the team even talked about a referendum to gauge public support on their stand. The notion of a people's court to settle issues in a plural society is fraught with dangers. Is public support (assuming that the support exists beyond urban netizens) and rhetoric the basis on which public policy needs to be drafted in this country? If this was the criterion, you’d probably have death penalty as a popular form of punishment and moral policing as an important police activity…

The Jan Lokpal Bill has undergone 40+ revisions and Arvind Kejriwal says that they are open to suggestions but the Team is critical of the Government for not accepting their bill in toto and does not seem to be receptive to any changes in it. Not supporting the Anna movement does not tantamount to supporting the Government at all; staunch public warriors like Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander have expressed serious misgivings about the form of the proposed bill and have in fact even proposed an alternative in the form of a basket of reforms to tackle corruption (haven’t seen much reporting on this other than in the Tehelka).

Democracy is a messy business but it’s probably the best way to clean the mess that we find ourselves in. It is naive and even arrogant (at times) to assume that this is a black and white debate and that there is only one set of people who knows what is best and so the rest should follow. The Mumbai blasts in the 90s led to the demand of a stringent anti-terrorist law and POTA replaced the TADA but now in hindsight, most parties have taken a position against it and agreed that there needs to be more safeguards to protect its misuse while many others have said that the existing Criminal procedure Law in the country is good enough to handle the issue.

We have seen the Lok Ayukta in Karnataka, the CAG in the 2G and CWG scams and institutions like the Election Commission and the higher judiciary make an overall impact on the state by their interventions; so we may not necessarily require a super cop to manage our affairs here. A Frankenstein monster who bosses over everyone can be a terror but does the bill have relevant safeguards ( look back at the terror unleashed by Edgar Hoover as the first director of the FBI) or will it even actually do what it set out to do - tackle corruption? This is debatable but is there a room for even such a debate or are the emotions running so high that we cannot tolerate anyone questioning the proposals?

Anna Hazare’s role in pushing corruption to the forefront of the Indian political debate is arguably immense but there is a danger of overdoing his actions and pushing the envelope just too far that is making many his supporters/well-wishers wondering whether the wise men have not chewed off more than they can swallow. The hysteria created in the initial fast has sky rocketed the expectations of the public and they want the death knell to be sounded now but can the artists keep performing for an audience that has begun to relish the idea of a magic wand and may not be willing to accept the complexities of the process involved?

Yes, the final objective is noble but that does not absolve us from acting responsibly and taking the right path. No one says that the path needs to be dismantled but there is a line that needs to be drawn between what can be the role of unelected and unaccountable civil society member and a Parliamentarian? I know we are skeptical about the role of the Parliament but let’s not forget that the same set of people implemented the RTI Act and many other important pieces of legislation.

The parliamentary way of doing things is understandably not the fastest or most glamorous way to do so (the Dravid rather than Sehwag way) but in a democracy, the fairest way to proceed is deploying faith in the parliament, while pressure groups continue to exert their influence on Governments. We cannot bypass institutions in favour of individuals; it may work perfectly well in one scenario but it sets a precedent which becomes difficult to follow. So, yes, Anna and team must continue with all their good work but it must draw a line between the rule of the civil society and that of an elected representative and not become a mirror opposite of the Government in its actions.

To quote Aruna Roy –
I think it’s democratically and politically immature to demand that one take a simplistic and black-and-white position on this. This is what governments have always being doing with us. You are seen as either with them or against them. For instance, if you fought for land rights you were described as a Maoist and a votary of violent revolution. We cannot do the same thing ourselves, but we are. We are not allowing ourselves the luxury of the rich debates and nuanced thinking that has been our strength. Pluralism has been the strength of the so-called civil society. We cannot sacrifice that. I don’t care what happens to the Government but it’s wrong for the people of this country, it’s wrong for democracy and that’s why we have decided to speak from the NCPRI. 
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  1. This is a very well written article. Congratulations.

    My own view (based on what I read and hear) is that the government has shown malafide intentions when they inducted Team Anna and did not consider their recommendations. They went on a slander campaign even when the discussions were on. They finally decided to propose two separate versions to the cabinet. All these made it clear that their intentions were not bonafide.

    Moreover, it can be seen that the element of independence is not there in the proposed Lokepal Bill. Very clearly, this is a big farce and intended to present a weak bill as the cure for the malady of corruption.

    Anna's method may seem extreme and we may even debate on the cosequences / feasibility of the Jan Lokepal bill. Yet, we should agree that the problem is too deep rooted and too wide spread to be tackled by a simplistic law currently approved by the cabinet.

  2. Aruna Roy/Harsh mander...arent these the same members of the NAC who
    came up with the communal violence bill..."a black and white" position
    if there ever was one... expect u to quote from better sources than
    Madam G's kitchen cabinet...

  3. Calling them as members of Madam Gs kitchen cabinet is unfair to
    them...NAC has a positive role in bringing the civil society's voice to
    the Govt and includes sufficient people with experience and expertise
    but it still an opinion body only.. Aruna Roy was among the pioneers of
    RTI in the country and the leading figure who helped in drafting it, so
    would be harsh to discredit her only because she's in the NAC;
    personally, I think the idea of an NAC is a great one whether it is
    constituted by Sonia Gandhi or anyone else...People like Harsh Mander,
    Anna Hazare, John Dreze, Prof Swaminathan, Anu Aga etc. provide a
    diverse set of distinguished expert public opinions which can be used by
    any Govt of the day..Their work on NREGA, Food Security Bill, Land
    Acquisitions can help in creating a proper debate (assuming that the
    Govt actually cares to listen to them)...

    Again while I follow their proposals regularly, I do not agree with
    their recommendations on the communal violence bill but that is still a
    draft and when it goes to the Cabinet and subsequently the Parliament,
    it will undergo changes...Don't think they have taken a "black and
    white" position on it - 'Black and white' referred to the point being
    suggested that if you are not with Anna, you are with the Govt or not
    against corruption.. Suggest you read the last Tehelka edition with her
    interview where she's not dismissed Team Anna's suggestions but
    suggested another framework; just because something has not happened for
    50+ yrs, we shouldn't be in a hurry to get something done in haste -
    that's the only point I had...

  4. first of all ...the NAC is an extra constitutional body that is not
    elected .....not having to fight elections allows them to propose even
    the most farfetched of ideas without even giving due consideration to
    the long term effects of their actions...both economical and social....

    Their proximity to the power centre in the congress gives them immense
    leverage over the Govt..who are the actual elected representatives...who
    are accountable to the people..the very fact that they enjoy power
    without responsibility allows them to make their ridiculous
    recommendations that the govt is obliged to humor and respect..this is
    the truth and we need to face it...

    now..forget being are they even selected?...there is no
    prescribed competency or experience required....they are elected on who
    they know...not what they are...

    also,..everybody knows and can understand from their recommendations
    that the NAC follows a leftist..welfarist model (under which India
    suffered for around 50 years) they have actual representation of
    different strands of thought.?? why are market oriented intellectuals
    like MS Swaminatham Iyer also not part of it?? can there be a
    balanced debate within the NAC?? please dont call them diverse
    the way..u need to check your records...jean dreze (the brain behind
    NREGA) has resigned from the NAC recognizing it for the failure it has

    take NREGA...besides being a simple handout to is also a
    means to institutionalize the back end collections of election funds
    ...NREGA is a huge drain on India's resources that besides from
    increasing the fiscal deficit provides a working model that is
    impossible to implement helps middle men politicians and their
    like by giving them access to huge amounts of public money with very
    little accountability...

    the food security bill..another money pit ...which will not be
    implementable given the lack of a good PDS system...again helping middle
    men and hoarders while also increasing government spending (indirectly
    contributing to inflation)...even doesnt address the real
    Indian problem..lack of nutrition...India's starvation late is very very is nutrition that we need to address...

    land acquisitions...the best model for this exists in the very state
    that the NAC despises the most (this is what the Supreme Court
    said) many of the representatives from this state are there in the
    drafting committee??...

    why has pranab of the most respected politicians in Govt
    refused to accept these two bills as it is??... are right..communal violence bill isnt black and white..its
    just black...and how can u say that the NAC hasnt taken a "with us or
    against us" view on it...everyone who supports the bill is
    "seculr"..while anyone who opposes is comunal ....

    i have to confess..i dont read tehelka too much...the magazine that
    supports maoists and seperatists, calls Arun Shourie a CIA agent and
    colludes to save the people in the cash4votes is not very high on my
    reading list...

  5. NAC is an Advisory body that has been created by the UPA Govt to help in
    policy formulation; it is not a statutory body and its proposals are not
    binding, so it would be the government's prerogative to determine who
    should be on it. Don't see any harm in looking at its recommendations -
    right to accept/reject lies with the Cabinet and Parliament, so why the
    need to stop a Committee from making recommendations? No one is obliged
    to humour and respect their proposals; Pranab Mukherjee has refused to
    endorse 2 of the proposals which is good it means that it is not binding
    enough despite SGs presence as the chairman of the panel..
    When it is a 10-15 member team, there can always be question son who can
    be there and who cannot? It has economists, bureaucrats, social
    activists and even businessmen (Anu Aga) and should be good enough to
    make suggestions but I leave it to the Govt to decide that. Jean Dreze
    has been on the panel since 2004 so am sure he's been active member
    there and whether he's quit due to difference of opinion or otherwise
    should bother the panel..

    NREGA is among the more successful ideas of the UPA but the biggest
    issue that I understand with NREGA has been the lack of social audit
    done here which is a major cause of corruption..Helps workers to get
    minimum wages paid but the conflict between States and Centre on
    determining the wages and in what areas it can be used has led to a lot
    of issues..Since the funding is done by the Centre, States have been
    demanding higher minimum wages but this has now been amended with the
    Centre fixing a certain price and any price beyond it to be footed by
    the State..

    Food Security is a rather more complicated problem and you are right
    that it tackles hunger and not nutrition but then there seems to be so
    many complications that I am honestly confused on what's the best way to
    handle this? Should it be through cash transfers or direct subsidies and
    how to identify the target population - think the jury's still out on
    this one..Of course, I have heard that the Tamil Nadu PDS works the best
    in the country in a way that it uses Universal PDS - everyone gets the
    rice/grains at a low price..

    Land acquisitions is a touchy issue and yes, I have heard that the
    Gujarat model has worked well but I am myself not fully aware of
    that..The latest Govt proposal mooted by Jairam Ramesh seems to be doing
    a few things right in that direction; plan to read an article on that

    Had apprehensions about Tehelka earlier but I don't have that any
    longer..Strong journalism which questions many of my pre-conceived
    notions and I am glad to question myself on those lines..Differences of
    opinion may be there but it's been an eye-opener for me in terms of the
    number of issues that they have highlighted..

  6. im glad u agreed with me on the gross inefficiencies of nrega, food
    security and land acquisition...u havent mentioned the commnal violence
    bill i assume u r in agreement with me that it was drafted with a
    perverse implementation of that bill will destroy any hope of
    commnl harmony forever, it will victimise certain people and destroy the
    federal structure...i dont understand how you can overlook these facts
    and not realize that the NAC has evolved into a political tool ....

    now just because it is called Advisory Council doesnt mean it is only
    advises...look at the evidence..if you have observed the first few
    drafts of the land acquisition bill, the food security bill or the
    communal harmony bill, you will see that they are immature documents
    that would have been rejected outright even if it was a school can such ridiculous documents be sent to the FM? why
    should he be obliged to answer them?..also, how many times do you think
    he will be able to reject these bills..dont u think there will be a
    breaking point fuelled by political pressure..?? paper, the body is not statutory but in reality it is...we can
    choose to live in a dream world and make light of this gross undermining
    of fiscal responsibility under the guise of intellectualism and
    statesmanship...or we can see things as they are and react
    accordingly...unless we critically assess how things are working and
    stop taking things at face value our future will not be very bright...

    i still think tehelka is crap...the news it reports and facts it
    presents is questionable...i hope you dont believe them as blindly as u
    believe the good hearts of the NAC...

  7. There are inefficiencies in the below mentioned bills but am sure that
    these can be ironed out; these are pretty complex issues and am not too
    sure anyone will be able to solve the issues pertaining to them in one
    go.There have been so many different articles that have appeared in
    papers, especially pertaining to Food Security, that I don't think that
    they are going to get it right in the next few yrs..Will take multiple
    iterations to fix it - something which will also happen as in the case
    of Lok Pal..

    On the communal violence bill, I am in disagreement with the stand taken
    by the NAC because it seems to suggest that riots and communalism are
    traits only of the majority and while I personally am of the opinion
    that the majority has a greater responsibility in creating harmony, I
    look at that from a moral perspective and not a legal clause..Legally,
    all communities need to be treated at par and any suggestion at putting
    the onus on a majority community is fraught with dangers...Funnily, the
    bill even draws upon provisions akin to those in TADA and POTA;
    something that you would expect a civil society bill not to do..The fact
    that the Centre can intervene and even bring in Article 356 is pretty
    strong a clause and I am sure that the Parliament will not approve it in
    the current form..

    Treat me as gullible but I am not willing to question the integrity or
    moral nature of these people; we all have certain prejudices and these
    may get into our outlook but to question the people itself, I think
    that's going too far. Let's restrict the criticism to the issue in
    question and not get bothered about the individuals; conspiracy theories
    are perceptive; let's leave it at that..

    Regarding Tehelka, I stand my ground..I am a subscriber to the magazine
    and as a piece of journalism, I find it pretty fulfilling because it
    questions things that I take for granted and am glad that I have
    graduated from India Today and Outlook to Tehelka...They have written
    articles on both sides of the spectrum and I look forward to their
    reporting..You will have to give me benefit of doubt of my intelligence
    because am not too sure I'd blindly agree to anything and everything
    that I read even if it is written by favourites like Arun Shourie or

  8. My friend ... U seem to think that ironing out the bill will solve all
    problems . The issue with bills like this is in it's implemenation. And
    who is to say we need a cmmnal violence bill? Why is this unecessary
    piece of legislation being pushed down our throats ... Same with the
    food security bill.

    Also .. I don't think much of india tday and outlook either but tehelka
    cannot claim to be better even in their best days .. Provocation is not
    improvement ...

    And .. I am sorry to say this but I don't think I believe your theories
    in the innate goodness of everyone ... No innately good mind can come up
    with the cmmnl violnce bill ... U can continue believing but some day u
    will realize that u allowed ureself to be taken for a ride ..issues
    don't exist in vacuum.. They r driven by the personalities that lead

  9. 1.If I recall correctly the bill introduced in the parliament is in the form of some -------- , I dunno, some latin word but basically it means that the standing committee cannot propose amendments. If the bill has to be amended it has to be withdrawn and reintroduced. It is like those Hollywood movies where you leave that little tit-bit, just enough for a sequel. But in this case the sequel has run more than 40+ years already. This seriously questions the intentions of the govt does it not? Im not sure about this but I think I heard Arvind Kejriwal talk about it on tv… Just confirm…

    2.“We have seen the Lok Ayukta in Karnataka, the CAG in the 2G and CWG scams and institutions like the Election Commission and the higher judiciary make an overall impact on the state by their interventions” – Then how come Sheila Dixit has not resigned? And just to put it on record, just watch, in 5 years Mr Kalmadi will be out of jail and all cases against him dropped… we have seen this happen so many times….

    3.Referendum is not such a bad idea considering elections are also one kind of referendum.

    4.I think the problem with the parliamentary system of governance is the existance of “party whips”. May be some people in congress or in the BJP do support the Anna version of the bill. But individual opinion does not count unless you are elected as a independent.

    5.Just search for Arvind Kejriwal in Wikipedia. He is an IIT graduate and civil services officer who has given up his easy lifeto fight for the people. I don’t think people like us will ever have the guts to do that? Anna’s life is even more admirable. So lets do atleast 10 % of wht they have done before making judgements.

  10. 1. Have not heard of this part of it, am going by what I learnt about how the RTI had evolved over as part of the discussions on the Standing Committee, with over 150 amendments. Did read today that a member of the Parliament can propose a private bill and then this can be taken up with the Standing Committee. The Govt intention is suspect and there is no doubt on that but when it goes to the Parliament and the standing committees, there will be a lot of discussion which we normally kind of disregard simply because of our poor impression about politicians as a whole.

    2.The law is inadequate – we both agree – and a stronger law is needed but the issue primarily (atleast I think) stems from the fact that while we have institutions who can do things, they are bound in their hands by political and business interference. The fact that we have such low prosecutions happening is also a problem and the Judicial Accountability Bill which suggests reforms in the Judiciary is lying in the cans for a long time. In the Anna bill, the investigation, prosecution and even judicial wings are part of the same structure making it a very powerful institution and absolute power can also breed corruption; the proposed bill loads with practically every grievance which it Is not equipped to do making it a heavily worked institution; I think that this version of the Lok pal will ensure all the corrupt will be punished seems to be slightly farfetched. We have not got a proper anti-corruption body for 50+ yrs but don’t rush into it so that what you have becomes something very sinister.

    3. Referendum on policies is a very tricky business because you are going to get people to vote on something that is not so simple to discuss in terms of Yes or No. We are talking about how systems and processes can be designed and so am not sure whether people can actually vote on something like this – unlike an election where the choice is simply between X or Y (like when UK had done whether to join European Union or not?)

    4. Agree but how do we balance Parliament vis-à-vis pressure groups like NGOs and social activists in a democracy? The final authority should be with the Parliament at the end of the day and not an individual set of people who do not have accountability. And so my belief that political reforms probably is what can make a proper difference like the Right to Recall, maybe state funding of elections etc. because we need the right leaders in Parliament.

    5. Probably the most common criticism I hear when we differ on this. Even before the Lok pal bill started being discussed, I know about Arvind Kejriwal because of his role as an RTI activist and I don’t think any of this criticism is person specific – people who differ with their version of the bill are not questioning their integrity at all; why can’t we look it as an issue based debate and not a personality driven debate. If Arvind Kejriwal is driving this bill, there are also people like Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander (both ex-bureaucrats who resigned to become social activists; Aruna Roy was possibly the most important force behind the RTI) who have a different opinion on how this has to be structured. Good people with good intentions does not necessary translate into good ideas but at the same time it does not mean that they are gullible in any way ofcourse; we don’t think that our founding fathers of the Nation are bad but when there are points that we have a disagreement with, shouldn’t we raise our opinion? People like Gandhi and JP have done so much for India but there are views that we do not agree with but should we not question them just because of their stature? I hope we can respect people and still question them.