The historic halls of Indian Parliament remained a mute witness to a high quality political drama and posturing displayed by the people’s representatives during the winter session, all in the name of legalizing an enabling anti-corruption provision for confronting widespread graft. It might not be embedded as the saddest day of democracy in official scriptures, but this incorrigible collaboration to befool the masses will surely damage the plinth of India’s democratic setup. The government failing to push through the legislation for creating a neutral anti-corruption agency was in reality a part of a predetermined script with a surreal objective of scuttling any genuine move to put in place an established system of investigating official wrongdoings. In fact, the ombudsman called Lokpal has been dubbed by the patriotic lawmakers as a leviathan, completely inconsistent with India’s democratic structure that is already riddled with innumerable loopholes exploited by the lawbreakers with great impunity since independence. It is indeed unfortunate that the nation is forced to go through an ordeal of consuming the bitter sight of their elected representatives unabashedly engaged in manipulating the statute to create a toothless system that can be maneuvered adequately. Moreover, every political party from left, right to center is guilty of playing to the gallery, as their stated intention of responding to widespread public anger against corruption is a big suspect.
The ruling Congress has taken this opportunity as a god send one to promote Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent to the prime ministerial chair and simultaneously advertise his political intellect. The party wasted no time in projecting Rahul’s suggestion of conferring constitutional status on the Lokpal as a visionary and innate idea that will alter the very fabric of India’s political system thereby making it the most purified model ever adopted anywhere. Though legally speaking, an anti-corruption ombudsman bereft of constitutional power and status can be tinkered with frequently, heaping praise on Rahul Gandhi for this “game changing” idea is nothing but unethical.
The very concept of an independent and constitutionally recognized anti-corruption body was originally mooted by the late Ashok Kumar Sen — a former law minister who had the distinction of working in the Cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Way back in 1963, Ashok Sen in his reply to the now deceased legal luminary Laxmi Mall Singhvi’s demand for establishing an institution replicating the Scandinavian ombudsman model during a debate in India’s lower house of Parliament had categorically asserted that “if you really want to set up an effective organization or authority like the ombudsman with overriding powers and spreading over the entire field of governmental activity, you will have to give him some constitutional position.” In all fairness, LM Singhvi must also be credited with the coinage of the term Lokpal as the concept of ombudsman was alien to the Indian tradition. Thereafter, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission chaired by Veerappa Moily had in its wisdom recommended the setting up of a three- member Lokpal and empower them with constitutional status through appropriate constitutional amendment. It is therefore intriguing that the ruling establishment is completely gung-ho in crediting the Nehru- Gandhi family’s scion with a discovery which is not at all elemental or unique. He, however, deserves kudos for bringing the concept back into focus because there have been past instances of provincial governments repealing the entire anti-corruption act established through an ordinary legislative instrument, to save political bigwigs involved in rampant corruption.
Given the circumstances, it would be judicious to bestow constitutional status to the Lokpal and their provincial counterpart called Lokayuktas so that the tendency of passing a simple ordinance to scrap the whole institution can be discouraged. The fear of being fettered and hounded by such restrictive clause has tempted the entire political class including ally partners of the ruling coalition like the Trinamool Congress to cry foul. The anti-corruption act in Trinamool-run West Bengal is nothing but a farce. Ironically, the Communists have played a crucial role in debilitating the Lokayukta in West Bengal. The previous regime had usurped the institution’s power to investigate corruption charges against lawmakers, ministers and government servants on a suo motto basis.
The present government under Mamata Banerjee has gone a step further in making the agency virtually redundant by refusing to appoint a retired judge as the Lokayukt or placing a relevant branch of the criminal investigation department under its jurisdiction. But when the intent is to institutionalize corruption, it is natural to rake up the bogey of state autonomy as a last ditch attempt to deter the union government.
It is a pity that politicians in India have acquired the self-defeating habit of looking at representative politics through electoral prism only. One must understand that the rules of engagement between the ruling class and society as a whole in a civilized democracy boasting to be the largest on earth should be an extra party affair.
The very concept of distinguishing civil and political society is untenable in a democratic structure where the masses should ideally be the masters and not the other way round. Deriding the nonparty mass movements does not necessarily take away the democratic rights of the civil society to influence the legislative process as a pressure group. Intriguingly, the very followers of Jayaprakash Narayan — the pioneer of party-less democracy concept in India — gracing the opposition benches in Parliament these days are hell bent on de-legitimizing the mass outcry against corruption. India today is in desperate need of visionaries who can rise above personalized agendas to evolve political and social consciousness. This is the opportune moment for the civil society and political parties to join hands. The primary task of preserving the sanctity of an all-important Lokpal statute and preventing it from turning into hogwash ultimately rests with the Congress party.
The success of the Lokpal and Lokayukta institutions can be guaranteed by making them completely independent of the government procedures and granting investigative independence and appropriate powers to prosecute and dispose of cases within the minimum time span. Though the corrupt will always discover new ways to indulge in corruption and launch innovative methods of illegal practices, the government must remove all possible conflicts of interest in the present anti-corruption legislation to deter small, medium and big-ticket corruption at all levels of society. It is only then that this nation can restore a semblance of discipline in its administrative and political system.
This article appeared at Arab News