The Aam Aadmi Party’s stupendous electoral debut and its plans to enter national politics on an anti-corruption plank have adequately unnerved the Congress and the BJP. Now both parties are in an unseemly contest to pass a “strong” Lokpal legislation and take credit for it. Arvind Kejriwal has termed the bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha last week as a “jokepal” bill, but his former ally, Anna Hazare, fasting at Ralegan Siddhi, has done a u-turn and called it a good beginning. When a succession of scams rocked the country and the BJP stalled Parliament for want of a better strategy, and even as an unfazed Congress brazened it out, it was a civil society initiative — India Against Corruption — that provided a creative solution. The IAC and its draft Jan Lokpal Bill was not taken seriously prompting Hazare to launch a fast and the rest is recent history.
The political establishment’s inability to address corruption has long made it suspect in the public eye. The Lokpal Bill is probably the longest pending legislation and was first tabled in Parliament in 1968. The bill was re-introduced several times but did not pass muster with either house. With the political discourse against corruption reaching a feverish pitch since 2010, the two national parties have suffered by ignoring the issue. But the resistance of parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal to the Lokpal continues. What the SP, which fancies its chances of heading a third-front in a hung Parliament scenario, does not realise is the erosion of credibility through opposing reforms that enjoy wide public consensus. In junking the feeble Lokpal bill passed by Lok Sabha in 2011 and pitching its lot with a Rajya Sabha select committee’s recommendations of November 2012, the Congress has shown that it is taking the challenge seriously.
But the government bill does not go the whole hog that the AAP wants it to. The AAP has opposed a whole range of provisions— the delinking of Lokayuktas from the Lokpal bill, the absence of a citizen’s charter to which officials can be held accountable, the predominance of the political class in Lokpal selection, and the government’s retention of control over the CBI. The government has anchored itself firmly on a liberal philosophy while criticising the AAP’s Jan Lokpal Bill. It has warned that the Jan Lokpal would become on omnipotent Frankenstein’s monster that could paralyse government functioning. But the AAP is raising some valid concerns too. The government continues to interfere with the CBI despite the Central Vigilance Commission monitoring corruption cases. The AAP wants the CBI to come under the Lokpal to negate the influence of the government on transfers and promotions. The powers enjoyed by extant Lokayuktas have wide variance: the Lokayuktas in Uttarakhand and Karnataka are empowered, in Delhi and Gujarat are toothless. Nine states are yet to institute the office. Without central initiative, uniformly-empowered Lokayuktas that have investigative and prosecution powers may never become a reality.
Meanwhile, the Left parties are clamouring for public-private partnerships and corporate institutions which get government contracts, licences and leases to be brought under the Lokpal ambit. It is encouraging that most political parties are in agreement over the necessity of an anti-corruption watchdog. But the hesitation to arm the Lokpal with more powers reveals the lack of intent to bring about a transformative legislation to weed out corruption at all levels.