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Fresh Team Anna And India Government Face-Off: Politics In Anti-Graft Agitations – OpEd

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By Maitreya Buddha Samantaray

Team Anna Hazare is all set for a third major face-off with the government. Hazare has decided to hold a day-long protest at Jantar Mantar on Dec.11 if the Parliamentary Standing Committee does not produce strong provisions in the proposed Lokpal Bill and subsequent indefinite strike at Ramlila Maidan commencing Dec.27. On Nov. 24, Parliamentary Committee concluded its internal deliberations without reaching a consensus on any of the major issues and is expected to submit its report soon.

As per the draft report of the committee, all the NGOs, media firms, that are wholly or partly funded by the government, receive foreign funds above INR 10 Lakh or receive donations from the public, should be accountable to the Lokpal. While stressing the need for strengthening Press Council of India and the Registrar of Societies and Trust Act to regulate media and NGOs respectively, team Anna claim that at the most, only government-funded NGOs should be brought under Lokpal. Team Anna is also critical of the exclusion of lower bureaucracy, citizens’ charter and retention of government control over the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the draft. The BJP-led Opposition has backed most of team Anna demands and is likely to give a dissent note on the non-inclusion of a Citizens’ Charter and the protection of whistleblowers – key points in Anna’s Jan Lok Pal Bill.

Meanwhile, witch-hunt has been underway against those who opposed the government in power. Anna Hazare’s key associates have been charged on various corruption issues and earlier received notices of breach of Parliamentary privilege for their utterances against parliamentarians. Vendetta politics has also seemingly targeted another anti-corruption crusader Yoga guru Swami Ramdev earlier. Government’s sudden discovery of alleged misdemeanours and improprieties committed in the past by anti-corruption crusaders also put a question mark on government intention. This government has awarded Anna Hazare with the highest state honour and after sometime charge him with offences. Same government in order to woo Baba Ramdev sends senior ministers to meet him at the airport, later tries to use force to bundle him away from protest venue. Are these not hypocrisy and double standards?

Emergence and prominence of Anna Hazare or Ramdev in Indian social realm typifies that people have lost faith on our political leadership. It looks like people are left with no option but to oppose the government and support any person who provides a platform to channelize their disenchantment with the establishment. The Government might be thinking, it has stopped Baba Ramdev or tarnish the image of team Anna but subsequently, some one else will come up because such is the frustration running across the country. There is no denying of the fact that recent anti-graft agitations including Anna Hazare movement or the protest actions by Ramdev are not the panacea of all corruption like disease or it will bring radical change in the society overnight. But, undoubtedly, people have started reacting to corruption –that is in it a great leap forward.

The government looks like clouding the real issue by resorting to diversionary tactics. It would be interesting to see where this movement will head towards. Will it simply fade away like the two previous nationwide anti-corruption movements including the JP movement in the early seventies, the V.P. Singh movement in the late eighties or will lead to more vibrant activism that will ensure some accountability in the system. Authorities are spreading rumours that such a precedent is being created that anyone can pressurize the government with any demand by bringing few thousand supporters. But is it not a fact that it took some decades for Gandhi to emerge and another few decades for JP to rise and still another few decades for Anna to come up with a billion support base. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that civic bodies are trying to bypass the Parliament, as alleged by the government. Are not our political representatives bypassing the will of the people? Undoubtedly, the situation has reached to such an extent that addressing corruption requires radical, extra-constitutional out-of-the-system remedial measures. Simply dubbing the development as urban middle class affair manned by corrupt leaders sponsored by foreign source, movement opponents have been trying to trivialize the issue for their own solace and not in a mood to read writing on the walls.

As far as the black money issue raised by Ramdev and opposition BJP leadership is concerned, it is perceived that getting it back may be somewhat difficult because foreign banks and their governments have to be involved. Additionally, there must be a genuine political will as was the case in America when President Barrack Obama, had freeze the unaccounted US assets in Switzerland banks and got the list of American nationals having money deposits in Swiss banks within 48 hours. Political parties mostly may not be keen for the same as some of its own colleagues might be involved in the crime. One glaring example was the Bofors gun deal where kickbacks were not brought back and instead Italian businessman, Ottavio Quattrocchi, was allowed to go out of India despite several charges pending against him. Under public pressure, Supreme Court of India, while responding to a Public Interest Litigation earlier criticized the government for not taking initiatives to haul up black money holders and unearth money stashed in safe heavens. Unaccounted money is not just running a parallel economy, but virtually playing a determinant role in the economy pushing inflation and depriving exchequer its legitimate dues.

Government apathy to tackle corruption in general can be gauged from the fact that after India signed the UN Convention on corruption in 2005, it was ratified only in May 2011. The Jan Lokpal Bill was introduced in the Parliament for over eight times since 1968. Can we expect radical reform initiatives from our current political representatives at a time when 76 Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha or 14 % of its total strength stand accused of serious crimes? Arrest in 2G case happened only after Supreme Court intervened.

It needs to be understood that adherence to ethical behaviour like not to give and take bribe will not address this complex corruption issue India. We are more or less unanimous with the fact that to start with at least a strong legislation is needed in the line of Team Anna-led Jan Lokpal Bill. Proposed Lokpal bill was initially intended to deal with corruption in public service. If we stick to that aspect only, then in order to make the bill really strong, the bill needs to cover Prime Minister (PM), lower rung of bureaucracy, citizens’ charter and anti-corruption wing of the CBI under its ambit. Government seems non-committal to PM’s inclusion as it is presumed to create instability at the top and may make PM vulnerable to politically motivated allegations. Civic bodies are of the view that as Indian constitution grants immunity only to the President, rest others can very well be come under the purview of the law. If somebody is clean, why should he/she be afraid of such inclusion, claim civic groups?

Further, Government bill states that CBI will investigate PM; but can CBI which comes under PM impartially investigate the cases against PM if any? Political pressure on CBI can be ascertained from one past instance when a former road and Transport Ministry allegedly didn’t allow the anti-corruption unit of the CBI to investigate allegations against a senior National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) official involved in corruption. Government’s draft proposal is expected to include only top categories of central government bureaucrats — Group A and B — who comprise 11% of central government staff. This effectively means there is no remedy against corruption that a common man faces daily at the grassroots by lower rung government officials like that of police inspectors, ration inspectors, junior engineers. Block Development Officers or Tehasildar. It should be Lokpal’s responsibility to protect the whistle blower. Government draft proposal has reportedly ignored inclusion of citizens’ charter specifying a time limit on government departments for providing services and fixing responsibility with a designated officer, in the draft Lokpal Bill and has instead prepared a separate draft Public Grievances Bill to address the issue. If the charter will be violated, then Lok Pal would penalize the concerned officer, as per team Anna’s intention. Earlier, team Anna member Arvind Kejriwal said the charter was needed as government employees “deliberately” sit on files to cause delays and extract bribes. Inclusion of citizens’ charter was one of the key demands put forward by Team Anna for Anna Hazare to call off his hunger strike at Ramlila Maidan in August.

Now that the government bill is expected to cover civil society, media, it should also cover companies and business houses including film industry. The largest bribe-payers in India are corporations. Business Houses are the primary source of mostly unaccounted political funding. Only difference is that share holders bear the cost of private sector corruption, while in government corruption, all citizens are the sufferer. Needless to say, government corruption walk off with public resources, but the principal beneficiaries of the same are business groups who secure licenses at discounted rates using kickbacks. As per the annual global fraud report prepared by the leading risk consulting company, Kroll in partnership with Economist Intelligence Unit, corporate fraud and corruption in India is still amongst the highest in the world, behind Africa but in line with China. If the objective is strong anti-graft ombudsman, government must ensure that Lokpal’s job is not just advisory and Anna team must see that anti-corruption watchdog Lokpal can’t have draconian power and should be subject to democratic restraints.

We need to understand that anti-corruption legislation like the Jan Lokpal Bill if implemented will detect the corruption as they occur and address the issue afterward. So there must be certain attempt not to allow corruption to be taken place at the first place. Structural reforms should be put in place as preventive measures. Reform is needed to address some of the root cause of corruption in India including stifling bureaucracy, excessive regulation and restrictive labour laws. The first systematic change in this regard will be to publish all rules clearly, openly and transparently without keeping any clause of `prior approval’. The concept of prior approval gives scope to authorities to use discretion and tempt corruption. If people can easily know, understand and follow the rules, then prior approval of bureaucrats won’t require. If they violate rule, punishment should be exemplary and quick that they won’t dare to break it again.

Maitreya Buddha Samantaray is a Regional Intelligence Analyst-Asia, with US-based iJET Intelligent Risk Systems (www.ijet.com). Prior to that, he worked with Israeli company Max-Security Solutions, US-based At Risk Protection, International SOS and was a correspondent of The Indian Express news paper, Jammu and Kashmir, India. He was the recipient of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) Doctoral fellowship for his PhD work in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He has published a good number of articles in different magazines, journals and web portals of national and international repute and presented several papers in national and international seminars. Views expressed in the article are his own and purely personal. He can be reached at [email protected]

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