New draft, but does it fit the Bill?

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Abhishek Manu Singhvi, chairman of the panel that drafted a new Lokpal Bill, believes it is the best antidote to fight corruption. But Revati Laul finds that Team Anna and Team Aruna are still not convinced about its effectiveness

Long-drawn affair The committee spent 40 hours consulting all stakeholders
Photo: AP

On an expansive wooden desk in a thickly carpeted lawyer’s chamber, beside the globe and the plaques, the rows of legal books in Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s office, sat a crisp stack of papers: The 48th report on the Lokpal Bill, 2011. The setting in the room was almost perfect. Singhvi, illustrious lawyer and MP, was already in the process of writing history. A word his father, LM Singhvi, coined in 1963 — Lokpal — had, by some strange quirk, landed at his door, 60 years later, as he was appointed chairman of the Standing Committee of Parliament, meant to oversee the writing of a new draft. A few things were perhaps wedged into this frame as problems from the start. India is curiously poised, with a 7 percent growth rate, glory-getting malls, Formula 1 and Kolaveri times. And simultaneously, farmers killing themselves, children being sold and tribals being pushed into disappearance. In this new assertive world, inglorious wealth generated glorious scams and the pressure cooker of public tolerance burst. In such times of tumult, how does public discourse translate into action? Is a purely legal solution, slightly anachronistic?

There are now three kinds of camps anyone writing a Lokpal Bill will have to consider. And right now, none are thumping “ayes” on wooden desks, hoping the draft they are reading will actually become law.

In the most volatile camp, Team Anna, the stage has been pre-set (even before the draft made an appearance) for yet another agitation or two. Fasts. Hunger strikes. And campaigns against what they believe Parliament and the government are incapable of getting right.

“We have no confidence left in them that they will bring a proper authority that is independent and empowered and decentralised,” says Prashant Bhushan. He’s one of the ‘big five’ in Team Anna, who summed up a year’s struggle to say that this Bill is riddled with problems. Forcing him into a rigid, uncompromising position that is now more steadfastedly fixed about wanting only one kind of Lokpal and none other. Before the new draft was prepared, Bhushan had told Tehelka that they were flexible on some of their demands. For instance, judges can be looked at separately, through a Judicial Accountability Bill. Even grievance redressal, the question of where everyman can go with his complaint of no ration card, no gas, no FIR being filed at the local police station. This too could be handled by a separate mechanism, he once believed. Everything does not have to come under one big, all-powerful anti-corruption body called the Lokpal.

Three months have changed all that. Ten of the 40 hours of consultations on the new draft were held between Team Anna and Singhvi, along with the 31-member Standing Committee representing 14 political parties or a mini-Parliament. Singhvi’s version of events were: “The meetings were intense but cordial…” Bhushan’s reading: “Of course, there was some amount of venting of pent-up feelings on the part of many of these MPs.” The man behind the classy desk representing polite Parliament vs the righteous brothers who’d fought on the street, also men of law and letters, now virtually flinging the new draft in the faces of The Establishment, with a loud “No, thank you.” And so, a retraction from Team Anna. Now they insist, the Lokpal MUST cover the judiciary and all grievances. It’s that or the street.

But the new draft has also begun to gather dissent from a camp that has a very different view from Anna’s. The Aruna Roy camp. Or the set of people who have spent the past decade fighting for the Right To Information to become a law, and it did. The NCPRI or the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information.

The main source of worry with the new draft is it doesn’t have enough teeth to probe graft independently

“Broadly we have welcomed the report on the new draft; but we have some concerns and some non-negotiables,” says Shekhar Singh of the NCPRI. Two of their main sources of worry with Singhvi’s draft are that it doesn’t have enough teeth to probe corruption independently and that the system for checking corruption of the lower bureaucracy is so top-heavy that it won’t work.

But there is a third camp — which frankly, is not a camp at all — that should be Singhvi’s biggest area of concern. The people. Represented from Friday on, by Parliament. And next year, the people will have other chances to express their contentment or discontent — elections due in nearly half-a-dozen states. It is to please them, that the 199-page draft is written, as Singhvi proudly points, in an ‘argumentative style’ — for the first time.

The draft starts out loftily, making the Lokpal a constitutional body. It also crucially says there will be one law across the nation that will cover the Lokpal or the Lokayuktas.

But the real devil is in the detail. What both Team Anna and the NCPRI agree on is that there is a big problem in this new draft with the way the Lokpal is meant to investigate corruption. This draft says, when someone points a finger at a corrupt government official, a preliminary inquiry will be made by the Lokpal. If they find there is reason to suspect the official, they will forward the case to the CBI. The CBI has, for this reason, been described in this draft to have independent powers — independent from the Lokpal and the government.

Team Anna’s main critique is that the CBI is still a government- appointed body and so there will still be no independent investigation of corruption charges. The NCPRI’s Shekhar Singh points out a bigger cause for alarm. If the CBI is independent of the Lokpal and of the government, is it a law unto itself? A Big Brother of sorts? A new-age Gestapo? On the whole, the NCPRI should be happy that the new draft at least looks like it’s borrowed heavily from the model they’d suggested. This draft says judges should be examined separately for corruption through a Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill and further by the setting up of a National Law Commission, which will have the power to prosecute corrupt judges. Grievances — the aam aadmi’s tryst with corruption — no ration, no FIR, no BPL card will be dealt with by a separate grievance redressal mechanism. And whistleblowers will be protected by a separate law, to be made into law at the same time as the new Lokpal.

If CBI is independent of the Lokpal and the government, is it a law unto itself? A Big Brother of sorts?

But, says the NCPRI’s Anjali Bhardwaj, the similarity is more in appearance than in substance. For instance, the NCPRI had suggested a decentralised system of complaints against the lower bureaucracy. Where if you didn’t get your BPL card, the first place you go to with your complaint is your local police station. If that doesn’t work, then you can take it up with the district-level Lokpal or Lokayukta official, who will put pressure on the cops to sort out the mess or ensure action is taken. What this draft has instead, according to Bhardwaj, is a fat, top-heavy system. Where complaints against the lower bureaucracy — 57 lakh officials in the Central government alone — will all be handled by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). “For 57 lakh Central government staff, to have one body looking after complaints of corruption is mind-boggling. If they’d followed the system we’d suggested, then you’d have 28 Lokayuktas, one Lokpal and 34 state polices, so at least the load will get divided up,” says Bhardwaj.

On perhaps the most contentious question: Will the prime minister be left out or subject to this new anti-graft mechanism, the new draft has come up with perhaps its cleverest answer. Which is no answer. Instead, it leaves it to Parliament to pick between three options.
1. The prime minister is completely excluded from being examined for corruption by the Lokpal
2. He is examined only after his term of office is over and
3. The PM is examined while still in office, but with many caveats thrown in like issues of national security and national interest

Team Anna says the system for looking at corruption in our courts is poor. And the NCPRI says the alternative grievance redressal mechanism has many design flaws.

So for now, both camps with their alternative models are planning different modes of protest. Team Anna is planning to fast and hold a street campaign in all the states going to elections next year. Aruna’s NCPRI? Their method may also include protest if the government does not give this Lokpal more teeth.

“We are people who have protested innumerable times on many things. And it doesn’t mean that just because Parliament passes something, we have to accept it. We will keep working to change it, if need be,” says the NCPRI’s Nikhil Dey.

The time for deliberation in quiet rooms to try and win some consensus in a dud year for Parliament is now nearly over. So is the year. While more deals are done, SEZs lost and won, an entire year has passed, from one Lokpal draft to another. Lawmaking in this country has never been this stormy.

Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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