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Decluttering the Lokpal

The Lokpal debate is the rage all over again, and the clutter being thrown into the thinking is escalating. It suits many, because the less people are able to think, the easier it is to sell them a nice sounding conclusion.

There are three chief camps around the Lokpal. The first is the India Against Corruption and other supporters of one version of the Lokpal. The second is the government version of the Lokpal. The third is the ones who are still mentally parked in a time before the government committed to creating a Lokpal, so they don’t want any Lokpal, regardless of current situation. Apart from these, small number of people want a Lokpal, but have serious concerns about both versions.

First, I want to put aside those who don’t want a Lokpal, since that doesn’t currently seem to be an option, with the IAC and government – the two main voices – certain about creating one. It is sad that these voices are irrelevant, because they were the ones who raised some of the most important concerns and could be really useful in ensuring that important concerns are not ignored. Anyhow, this is the lobby currently spending time insulting Anna Hazare and Government both, but more Anna Hazare because he opened this can of worms.

Putting them aside, because they aren’t currently up to anything useful, though they probably are the loudest chatter.

The next is the Government. Frankly, the government is the largest part of the problem with its continuing lack of coherence on this subject, which pretty much killed a vital debate on whether we need a Lokpal or not. I say this, because if they had addressed the initial protests in a mature manner, there would have been a possibility for addressing important concerns with reform – which is probably what most anti-Lokpal people were recommending. Instead, the government choose to use suppression, ad hominem attacks and power games in an attempt to out-power the movement. They completely failed, and still fail to understand the “human” concerns bringing the Andolan power.

The superficial pretense that the concern is about corruption is accepted and to avoid any examination of these concerns, the band aid of agreement to creating a Lokpal is slapped on it. Their actions continue with the same disregard and lack of willingness to introspect and apologize. Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s speech to Congress MPs took a tone of being unfairly targetted in spite of having done many things and attempted to hold the opposition wholly responsible for obstructions in the process of the parliament. Like the government is a small child that can be stopped from doing its job when it really wants to.

Yet the “action against scams” that the government is peddling as proof was forced by the supreme court and sabotaged by the government at every chance. People remember. People are not stupid. This PR stunt is backfiring.

The lack of understanding of the eroded trust base that drives some of the more “objectionable demands” of the JanLokPal, or rather the unwillingness to look at them is a large part of the problem. While looking at them will be damaging to the Government’s image, pretending they don’t exist will only prevent any solutions from addressing them, and escalate the power struggle till a thoughtless and more extreme step is taken.

A case in point being the CBI. Tehelka has this shining list of 50 cases where the CBI has been misused for political fun and profit. Fifty is no small number to be published as a list of misuse of power. In another article Kunal Majumder speaks with Former CBI director Trinath Mishra and RTI activist Nikhil Dey on the subject of the decision to keep the CBI out of RTI purview without any consultation with the public. B Raman also mentions in a tweet that the last major review of performance of CBI was done by Shah Commission under Morarji in 1978-79. In the meanwhile NDTV quotes CBI Sources saying “We would have been better off with the Lokpal“.

What credibility does it leave the government that while it can create reforms for the Judiciary, it will not do so for the CBI, it will not allow CBI to exit its control (either autonomous or under Lokpal), it has made no major evaluations of performance either and it will not open Right To Information access to the CBI either. Sonia Gandhi complained about people continuing to accuse Congress of corruption, but would she allow any other party such opacity if she were in the opposition? And if she would, would that be in the interest of the country anyway?

Alas, the governments inability to both introspect itself as well as accept the suggestions of another creates a stalemate and escalates this conflict unnecessarily. All it serves to achieve is lose ground for negotiable options as it hurtles toward an inevitable capitulation. This has been the pattern all through to the extent that most of media being critical of the Lokpal after the first phase now has people speaking up recommending that Anna fight hard to wrest control of the CBI from the government – Anna, please get angry. CBI needs to be out of government clutches.

This senseless rigidity has created a trust deficit with the government and left Team Anna with a virtual monopoly to claims of ethical design of the Lokpal. Not because it’s draft is better, but because there is no one with credibility to debate with.

The IAC is in a concerning place. Its initial surge of popular support was enough to bring the government to its knees. However the extended duration of the protest and the unwise shift to highlighting individuals as leaders rather than the movement as a public movement together have eroded a large part of their support. Those leaders further being embroiled in controversy have raised questions about their credibility and concerns of misuse of power among those already opposed or even somewhat supportive earlier.

Another dysfunctional area is the uncompromising nature of demands and judgments about the government if they are not met. This antagonizes many, as disagreement is not the same as mal-intent, and disallowing disagreement is the mark of a dictatorship. Other problems with this intolerance are the resulting lack of flexibility to negotiate, ability to assimilate new influences and refine the demands and the association of correctness or legitimacy with own demand that turns the perception compromise from mature solution finding to a loss of face. In essence it is the exact same problem as the government. Too much rigidity making “break” more possible than “make”.

Whether a worthy cause or not, bending an elected government to will can only be done for so long, post which, the challenger’s “sins against democracy” start piling up and eroding legitimacy. There is a fine line between protest and a hostage situation, and signatures made with a loaded gun at the head are easy to negate later – no matter how “right” that coercion was. This will not help the country.

The need of the hour is to move beyond this issue and think of the functionality. We have had many amendments in our history, and rather than a stalemate, it might be wise to pass certain aspects and see how they work and the kind of resources or changes that are further needed and collect concrete data for deliberation in next session.

Though some things must be done this time itself. The government needs to let go of the CBI. This is very important, as the CBI is losing credibility and functionality like this. Political parties need to accept that the new reality is that there is resistance to using government resources for political party intentions. They need to see that this is the best for the country and lead the change to a better reality than lose all credibility in preventing it.

Autonomy for the CBI would have perhaps been better, but the space for that deliberation is already lost in the earlier irresponsible behavior. With a decision facing the Lokpal, and this being an important demand, the government has not been able to convince on why they should retain control of the CBI, nor do they have any agenda for its independent empowerment. Creating one now will only be seen a political gaming and will likely anger many. However, there are other ways than these absolute ones too, which should be considered in the little time they have remaining. Regardless of who controls, there is a need for detailed evaluation and well designed reforms, and space should be kept within the decision for these to be initiated at earliest.

Other suggestions have included separation of administrative and operational control, more empowered autonomy, etc. time should be spent on these.

At the same time, Team Anna needs to see that admirable and historical as their effort is, the more specific they get with their demands, the less people will demand the exact same in support. Unlike the elected government, they do not have the legitimacy to use their judgment of what people want and on specific matters, the support base narrows considerably. The need for the hour is to pick battles, negotiate others, postpone some, and lose some.

For example, the PM not being under the Lokpal is not the end of the world. The creation of the Lokpal and the powers it does have is a landmark. If indeed a PM is corrupt, the Lokpal still has the power to bring down all associated, or even amend in the future to add more powers once the utility of such power is experienced in action rather than theory. Perhaps it may turn out to be not such a big issue. Perhaps it may prove vitally necessary, but we will at least be talking with facts in hand.

The important thing is to identify the powers needed to make the Lokpal viable – even with a narrowed scope, so that it may exist as an entity and become a pillar we know, respect and defend. Like this, we will be able to evolve rather than create a monument that is supported by a few and opposed by others. Also the many who are still debating its existence itself can be reconciled to it as a feature of our country and then be engaged to refine our effectiveness as the new whole.