August 4 marks the first anniversary of the ill-fated Lokpal Bill. It was on this day one year ago that the UPA government promised to bring a strong anti-graft law and introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha in the face of mounting public pressure and the Anna Hazare movement. But, as everyone is aware, the appointment of a national ombudsman to rein in the corrupt is nowhere in sight.
Far from having an effective law to combat corruption, what we have 12 months hence is a virtual repeat of the drama of 2011.
Caught in a maze of corruption, the government continues with its duplicitous ways, with some overt and covert backing from virtually the entire political class; the proposed legislative measure has conveniently been put on the backburner (sent to a committee of Parliament) with the active connivance of the main opposition party — the BJP; Jantar Mantar has seen a second indefinite satyagraha by Anna Hazare and his team; Union ministers who bad-mouthed the anti-corruption crusader and his followers in August 2011 are also back at work, with some old and some new accusations being hurled at them.
Anna Hazare has now announced that he is compelled to explore the political option in a bid to send ‘good people’ to Parliament. And unless these ‘good people’ constitute the majority in the two houses, history tells us that India may never have an anti-corruption ombudsman. Since the 1960s, politicians of all hues have hoodwinked people into believing that they are committed to the establishment of an institution to rein in corruption, but the charade has gone on for over half a century. Let us not allow ourselves to be fooled by the political class on this count any more.
Indira Gandhi was the first prime minister who promised a Lokpal, but this bill, introduced in May 1968, lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 1971. She reintroduced the bill after she won a massive majority in 1971, but did not ensure its passage, although she rammed through amendments that turned the Constitution on its head and robbed India of the basic structures of democracy.
Thereafter, the Janata Party, which came to power in the post-Emergency phase and whose MPs took an oath at the Gandhi Samadhi at Rajghat, introduced the Lokpal Bill to prove its commitment to good governance and thereafter allowed it to lapse. India Gandhi made no pretence of her commitment to fighting corruption when she returned to power in 1980, and so there was no re-enactment of the farce vis-a-vis the Lokpal, but her son who was taken in by the ‘Mr Clean’ title bestowed on him by the media introduced his own version of the Lokpal Bill in 1985. Although he had 412 MPs, he backed out when he himself became the target of anti-corruption crusaders following the Bofors contract.
VP Singh, Deve Gowda and Atal Behari Vajpayee are the other prime ministers who went through the motions of introducing a Lokpal Bill and letting it die a natural death with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.
In all, eight prime ministers have introduced this bill and all of them have done so in the Lok Sabha. Bills introduced in the Rajya Sabha can have a longer life span because the Upper House is never dissolved. So, a bill introduced in that House can stay alive for long years until the government finds a conducive political environment and the numbers to ensure its passage in the two Houses. However, bills introduced in the Lok Sabha have a much higher mortality rate because under the Constitution, bills initiated here lapse if they have not gone through the legislative rites of passage at the time of dissolution of the Lok Sabha.
So, this is a sure giveaway. Just see which House the government introduces the bill in and you will know how ‘committed’ it is to a particular legislative measure. All the eight prime ministers including Manmohan Singh have failed this test. Also, three prime ministers who enjoyed brute majorities in Parliament but never ensured passage of a law to establish a Lokpal were all from the Congress and from a single political family — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
In the year gone by, the UPA government has slipped further down on the credibility meter and strangely, it is taking the main opposition party — the BJP along with it. The people have begun to feel that the Congress and the BJP, both of whom are seen as unreliable, are engaged in a mock fight. That is why the emerging debate is not about the failure of the UPA but about the failure of the political system itself.
The writer is a senior fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation