A few months ago, Baba Ramdev demanded a time-bound commitment from the Union Government to bring back the black money stashed away abroad. Sticking to his demand to end corruption in the Indian polity, he undertook a protest fast at Ramlila Maidan grounds. After a series of clarifications made through its emissary, the Union Government decided to negotiate directly with Baba Ramdev, dispatching four senior ministers to address to his demands. What followed these events is widely known but the issue of how to retrieve the ill-gotten black money is yet to reach its logical conclusion. The CBDT Chairman-led Committee on Black Money is due to submit its report on the matter, while the Hon’ble Supreme Court has asked Delhi Police to take appropriate action for the disproportionate use of force at the protest venue. But there are clear lessons to be learnt from this episode.
To begin with, the Union Government has mixed up the serious socio-political agenda of curbing corruption with the challenge of maintaining law and order, which could have been left to the Delhi Police. The issue of ending endemic corruption including combating the menace of black money needs to be addressed with both sincerity and speed. The present Union Government has, no doubt, taken a series of measures to meeting the challenges posed by corruption in public life. However, the impression remains that it is ineffective in tackling the scourge of corruption, which is affecting all walks of our life and making the common citizen, who has no ‘Mai Baap’ in terms of money or influence, its victim.
The UPA chairperson, Ms. Sonia Gandhi, in December 2010 outlined a concrete 5-point agenda before the 83rd Congress Plenary session which included fast-tracking of all corruption cases to restore people’s faith in the political system; full transparency in public procurement and contracts through a clear legislation and procedures so that there is no subversion of due process along with full protection to whistle-blowers; all Congress Ministers, both at the Centre and in the States and all Congress Chief Ministers, should relinquish discretionary powers, especially those involving land allocation, as this breeds corruption; formulating an open and competitive system of exploiting natural resources; ensuring that all Congressmen and women holding high office should follow an austere, simple lifestyle and refrain from indulging in vulgar display of wealth.
A review of the status of implementation of these action-points reveals that much more needs to be done by the Union Government to address the systemic issue of corruption. The new system of fast track courts to handle cases of corruption is yet to take shape and court proceedings continue as before. Even the demand for fixing a time-frame for deciding pending criminal cases against elected representatives has not materialised, with a number of public interest litigations being filed on the subject. There is a huge popular demand for electoral reforms, specifically to prohibiting criminals from contesting elections. However, the government has not managed to cleanse the political system by introducing a dynamic set of electoral laws.
Transparency in public procurement is under the active consideration of the Cabinet but the new public procurement law is likely to face stiff opposition from those with vested interests in the government.
The issue of complete withdrawal of discretionary powers has happened sporadically at certain levels of government functioning but this is not being practiced uniformly throughout the government set-up. Whatever little progress has been made remains hidden from the general public, although the government can notify those key areas where these discretionary powers have been relinquished.
An open and competitive system of exploiting natural resources is still at the examination stage. The Chawla Committee has submitted its recommendations but this remains a complicated subject, requiring time and expertise to give shape to it completely. Even the simplest of the 5-point programme which requires an austere, simple lifestyle and refraining from indulging in vulgar display of wealth has not been converted into an action programme. It is because of this slow pace of implementation that the Union Government has received flak from the public.
Along with this, the Union Government has addressed socio-political challenges of combating corruption as a law and order issue. The police have worked hard to maintain peace throughout the country but it has not been given its due credit because of a few stray and unfortunate incidents. Having been responsible for maintaining law and order during my career in civil service, I can say with some conviction that the police forces in India can handle the challenges of law and order effectively, if there is clarity of the mission to be accomplished. The socio-political challenges should have been addressed through good governance made possible by effective and timely processes of government decision-making.
After Baba Ramdev, came the Team Anna-led movement against corruption. Once again, law and order issues and socio-political challenges intermingled to create confusion for the government. Even before he could begin his fast for a strong Lokpal, Anna was summarily jailed and then later released. The media equated Anna’s stance with that of Gandhi’s, bolstering the demands for a strong Lokpal. The gathering of 1-2 lakh at Ramlila Maidan backing Team Anna’s demands added a sense of urgency for the government to act.
What followed was new precedent set by the Parliament, which debated for a full-day Team Anna’s demand on the Lokpal. Back-door negotiations continued and some kind of political face-saving resolution was passed. Emboldened by Anna breaking his fast, his team believed that they could now change the political face of the country, starting with the by-elections in Hisar. Here, again, the same mistake was repeated— law and order challenges were mixed up with the socio-political challenge of establishing an effective Lokpal.
The Lokpal bill has been finally introduced in Parliament and is currently awaiting the nod of the Rajya Sabha. Perhaps, it may not see the light of the day in its present form. One fails to understand the political attempts to complicate matters that can be kept simple. The institutions of the Lokpal and Lokayukta need not be set-up under an overarching law. Even if it is legally and constitutionally tenable, one needs to respect the federal character of the Indian polity, particularly when many States already have a state-level Lokayukta and only require upgrading their powers.
There is no need for the apex anti-corruption body of the Lokpal to have an organic link with the Citizens’ Right to Grievance Bill, whose objective is to reform the state of public service delivery in the country by giving every citizen the right to time-bound public services. Why have an overarching Citizens’ Right to Grievance Bill, when many states have already enacted their own public services guarantee acts? At best, the Union Government could have enacted a model Lokayukta and right to public services law for the states to adopt and emulate. Perhaps, the imperative to meet the challenges from Team Anna led to the series of measures which have not been examined thoroughly either in terms of its acceptability by states, or its administrative and financial feasibility and its effective implementation.
Now certain individuals from Team Anna have made unwelcome remarks on the proceedings and MPs of Parliament. The issue is that the Parliament need not take cognisance of every utterance made by a few organised groups. To protect the sanctity of the Parliament, members could have passed a law similar to those uploading key national symbols like the national flag, protecting them from the onslaught of public outrage. By debating Team Anna’s utterances, our Parliament has given undue recognition to a select group of social activists, enabling them to garner more political mileage than is due. Individuals and groups trying to weaken parliamentary institutions are no doubt hurting the cause of democracy. But the institutions responsible for running the wheels of democracy have to respond with greater care. Let them not give undue recognition to those who are not mindful of propriety.
The real answer to Team Anna is through concrete actions taken on key demands made at different points of time, be it on electoral reforms or on curbing the role of black money in the economy. The government need not reinvent the wheel on these issues; instead it should refer to the useful suggestions and legislations made by various government-appointed committees like the Law Commission, Administrative Reforms Commission that lie in the public domain. Parliament members would do well to debate these recommendations than to discuss the conduct of a few activists. With so many important Bills pending before Parliament including The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, The Electronic Services Delivery Bill, The National Food Security Bill, Citizens’ Right to Grievance Redress Bill, The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill etc. the time to act for the Union Government is now. With the clock ticking before the next public outburst on corruption erupts, Parliament cannot afford to delay the passage of the Lokpal bill for the want of time. As the old adage goes, action not words is the most effective tool to silence critics.