When things fall apart

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Euphoria over a mass movement led by a charismatic leader gave way to a sober reality check. Revati Laul recalls the highs and lows

One-point programme Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal address the media
One-point programme Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal address the media

IF THERE ever was living proof of how bizarre our country is, then this week was probably it. Gandhians became demagogues and a people’s movement took on the shades of a dictatorship. And a government riddled with charges of corruption, ended up strangely smiling, as the cast of characters pointing fingers at them looked increasingly like the villains of the piece.

Since this story concerns debates on honesty and integrity, the story starts with a personal disclosure. Like the thousands of people flocking to Jantar Mantar, Azad Maidan and venues in 200 cities, in support of the fast against corruption, journalists too were swept by the tide of the day. The anarchist within welcomed all the rabble rousing and the “we will bring down the politicians” slogans that went with it.

It was cathartic and overpowering. Calm, reasoned voices rankled in this atmosphere. Until the dust settled and the draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill was at hand. And slowly, painfully and disturbingly, the cookie began to crumble.

This story describes this crumbling piece by piece.

It begins in the calm and serene atmosphere of the Teen Murti House seminar room, where Jawaharlal Nehru once lived. On 3 April. Two days before Anna Hazare was to begin his fast. A meeting was called by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). It included Arvind Kejriwal and Shanti Bhushan — people in the core team that had drafted the Jan Lokpal Bill.

The meeting also included various other activists, campaigners and lawyers — like Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander, who had different opinions on the draft version already created. The objective was clear. Since Hazare’s fast was imminent, how could the various individuals representing different civil society organisations agree on at least the broad principles of the Bill? A Bill that was meant to be a strong anti-corruption law. A Bill that was soon to become a movement against corruption across the country.

Shekhar Singh, one the founding members of the NCPRI, had the difficult task of trying to create a middle ground.

“There was an effort to make sure that there wouldn’t be dissent from the side of civil society. The idea was that the main battle is being seen as the battle with the government and that there was a fear that if there were also differences of opinion within civil society, it would be exploited by the government,” he says.

However, the differences of opinion were serious. Starting with what the Lokpal should be and why it was being set up. The draft already on the table, called the Jan Lokpal Bill, was made by a core team consisting of RTI activist Kejriwal, former Union law minister and constitutional expert Shanti Bhushan, his lawyer-activist son Prashant Bhushan and Karnataka Lokayukta Santosh Hegde. This team believed that the Lokpal should be a strong anti-corruption body with enough powers to investigate and prosecute, to rid the country of corruption.

Aruna Roy, activist and champion of the RTI movement in India and also a member of the National Advisory Council, claimed that the mindset of the core team that had drafted the Bill was politically naïve. “That a powerful Lokpal will somehow get you a corruption-free India.” Whereas her own view was that the Lokpal is one of a series of processes that can address corruption.

There were other fundamental differences. Should the Lokpal address just corruption, or also maladministration and public grievances? The current draft said it should. Thereby, giving the Lokpal a concentrated amount of power. Many activists and lawyers present at the Teen Murti House meeting calmly pointed out that they all wanted an anti-corruption body that was strong and independent. “But not so powerful that the power itself corrupts the position of the Lokpal and the institution of the Lokpal,” says Aruna Roy.

The core group led by Kejriwal said all these suggestions were being taken on board. Already, the draft being discussed was the 10th draft, an 11th was in the making and the successive drafts were different from the first one that had been put out.

STILL, WITH these vast differences of opinion, D-day arrived: 5 April. Hazare began his indefinite fast against corruption and the four-day frenzy took over. And galvanised what many say was a groundswell of support from across the nation, not seen since the Jayprakash Narayan movement of the 1970s. People from various classes fasted and protested, from farmers in Maharashtra fasting alongside their ‘Anna’ to school students, businessmen, yoga gurus and even film stars.

And on the 97th hour, when Hazare broke his fast, the stench of sweat and victory was an intoxicating mix for any pair of nostrils at Jantar Mantar. Almost enough to snuff out the fact that what had in fact happened was not one thing but two.

One thing was certain. The government was forced to acknowledge that it was really do-or-die for them. With Assembly elections on in five states, letting this public outpouring of collective rage could be dangerous, politically. The people had been heard. A joint drafting team with the government and people would be set up to draft the anti-corruption law.

People’s day Hazare makes his way through the crowd of supporters in Delhi
People’s day Hazare makes his way through the crowd of supporters in Delhi

But there was also a second thing. The group of people who had organised and spearheaded the Anna Hazare movement had bargained not just for letting people draft the Jan Lokpal Bill. But for “the people” drafting the Bill to be represented by them. In contrast to the euphoria and clamour on the streets of Jantar Mantar, in private groups, activists and campaigners were stunned into silence.

“The process is only three months old,” says RTI campaigner and activist Nikhil Dey. He was verbalising what was uppermost in the minds of many civil society groups. The widespread consultations that Kejriwal was referring to, was still very nascent and many contentious clauses hadn’t even been debated properly, much less a consensus reached.

An indignant Kejriwal, now on the joint drafting committee, didn’t understand where this criticism was coming from. His arguments were: there have been extensive and wide consultations that have led to the Jan Lokpal draft Bill changing its shape and form 12 times already.

“With limited resources, we could not reach out to a large number of people,” says Kejriwal. “So through this joint committee we will have access to the government network. As a result, we can reach out to a large number of people and still hadget more suggestions about the draft Bill on board.”

But when you ask more questions about why all five people that are defenders of one draft Bill were now the only representatives of the people and who gave them the right to appoint themselves there, you hear a different, more shrill voice. Kejriwal’s answer was that this group drafted the law, so they have the right to defend it against a strong government panel.

When asked further why should this version of the law be considered as worthy of defending or need to be defended at all, Kejriwal’s answer was: “Why didn’t you draft the first law? Did you draft the first law?” and further — “There is a deliberate attempt to create controversy out of nothing, and some of these controversies are planted by the government.”

When you ask questions about who gave the five representatives of the people who drafted the Jan Lokpal Bill the right to appoint themselves, you hear a different, more shrill voice

By now, many could see that a citizens’ movement began to look like the preserve of the few. Hazare, Shanti Bhushan, Prashant Bhushan, Kejriwal and Hegde — five people who all helped draft the Jan Lokpal Bill. Five people who were therefore in complete agreement with its clauses and not representative of the spectrum of opinion and dissenting voices that were raised at the 3 April meeting before Hazare’s protest fast began.

Yet, this was also a group of people with proven track records of championing the RTI, human rights, corruption, and in the case of Shanti Bhushan, he’s even been Union law minister. No one could point a finger at their credentials or track record. But their conduct now was puzzling.

The increasingly worrying question was, why was this group holding on to a draft with such a short gestation period? Why did they feel they needed to defend it, given that the basic tenets were still being hotly debated in civil society? And when they repeatedly said they were open to suggestions, did they realise that they were already excluding many? Because the presumption behind taking suggestions is that there is a blueprint on which there is already a broad agreement.

Which in fact, was not the case.

Prashant Bhushan said he was going in to the joint drafting committee with his mind made up that three basic principles are non-negotiable. “That the Jan Lokpal should be chosen by a broad-based transparent selection process, that it should be able to investigate charges of corruption of all public servants including judges and that they must have the power to prosecute.” While there was already a broad consensus on the first and third points, the issue of investigating corrupt judges was still being widely debated.

And the question being asked of this five-member citizens’ body was this: by what right would they decide what demands are non-negotiable? And what would be the meaning of wider consultations with the people in that case?

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Bones of Contention

Questions that need to be understood and answered

The chosen five

Why did team Anna appoint itself to the joint drafting committee as representatives of the people? Who gave them this right?

All things to all men

The current draft sees the Lokpal addressing corruption and grievances. Many say this makes it a dinosaur.

Supercop

Should the Lokpal have the power to investigate and prosecute corruption cases?

Infallible

Who recruits the Lokpal? How does a selection committee keep out bias, nepotism and political pressure?

Who checks the Lokpal

In the current draft, complaints against members of the Lokpal go to the Supreme Court. Is that enough to keep them in check?

Misconceptions

That members of the Lokpal are selected by Bharat Ratna and Magsaysay awardees. The select committee actually includes the Lok Sabha Speaker, Leaders of the Opposition in both  Houses of Parliament and the Vice-President among others.

Not so powerful

That the Lokpal acts as judge and jury on corruption cases. It actually only recommends at the start of the year the number of special courts to be set up to clear the backlog of cases and does not have any judicial power.

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Suggestions made already, to restrict the job of the Lokpal to anti-corruption and not include public grievances alongside was not factored into the draft for instance. It’s what caused people like Wajahat Habibullah, former head of the Central Information Commission, to call the Jan Lokpal draft in its present from a Leviathan and unworkable.

In the past few days, the group of five had begun to attract more and more ire from both the media and civil society activists. Why are two of the five representatives — Shanti and Prashant Bhushan — from the same family, people asked. Couldn’t one of the two Bhushans be part of the “wider consultations” or offer advice without being on the drafting committee? And leave that space open for another representative?

“We need tough negotiators inside the committee,” explains Kejriwal. Whereas Shanti Bhushan’s own explanation was less convincing — “It’s up to Anna,” he said.

RTI activists like Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey pointed out how the arriving at a consensus on the RTI took nine long years and a sustained campaign with feedback constantly coming in from people all over the country. They explained that it’s not possible for one person or even a set of people to have thought of everything. And on the back of that experience their own demands in the anti-corruption movement were far less circumscribed and specific than the group of five. So that before presenting a draft, the widest possible consensus on its basic principles could first be obtained.

POLITICAL SCIENTIST and JNU professor Zoya Hasan went further in her alarm at the sequence of events that unfolded over the week. She explained that if laws are drafted by non-elected representatives, then how will it ever be possible to arrive at who these representatives should be? It will invariably take on the contours of a turf war, or at the very least, an unresolved situation where the government comes off as the winner.

As the voices of alarm gathered momentum over the week, the government, having buckled under pressure from Anna Hazare, came off looking bizarrely like the more sensible, accommodating voice. Aware of the divergent opinions within civil society and the growing concerns with the Jan Lokpal draft.

“If the government doesn’t have monopoly of wisdom, then no group will have monopoly of wisdom,” says Salman Khurshid, a member of the joint drafting committee. “So how much of the inputs come from what part of civil society, all this will have to be seen.”

“I’m not fearing that this committee will come up with a draconian law,” said RTI and anti-corruption campaigner Shekhar Singh. “The only fear is that we shouldn’t fall into a trap where this whole process gets stalled.”

There was another danger as well, Singh pointed out, of the whole of civil society getting discredited in the process. But he added: “Fortunately so many discordant voices are coming up, that that danger is over. People are realising that this is not how civil society as a totality thinks.”

And so, one week after the blood, sweat and tears, things are now, scarily, nearly back at square one. Or actually, two squares. On 16 April, the joint drafting committee — five from the government and five from civil society or the Anna Hazare group — will meet to begin work on the Lokpal Bill.

And on the same day, in another seminar room somewhere, activists who feel their voices must be heard and that the longer, slower, less dramatic method of public consultation must go on alongside, will meet separately. Will they work towards a third draft?

“We also have to make sure that we don’t get our timing wrong,” says Shekhar Singh. “But as the opportunities arise, we will present an alternate scenario before the country and say they are alternate ways of doing this process.”

AND SO, as the group of five sit with the government to create history — by being the first citizens’ group to jointly draft law with the government, they will have to carry out two sets of negotiations. With the government on one hand. To give the Lokpal Bill its much needed teeth. But also, outside the board room, with civil society groups. Who will need to be taken on board, instead of forcing them to come up with a parallel strategy.

Now that the people of India have shouted, fasted and tweeted that they want a robust anti-corruption law, they should be warned, the real work is now. And it’s even more crucial than Hazare’s fast. That everyone who went onto the street gets down to the much more tedious and boring job of reading. Reading all the drafts that come out of the government, the joint committee and civil society groups. And then discussing it. Deciding what they want to keep and what to throw out. Their basic freedom and the access to redressal will most certainly depend on it.

The hurly burly’s done, but the war is still to be lost or won.

Revati Laul is a Correspondent with Tehelka
[email protected]

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