NEW DELHI: Anxious to resolve the standoff with the Anna Hazare group over Lokpal, the government appeared set to relent on placing the Prime Minister within the jurisdiction of the anti-graft ombudsman. “We don’t have any problem in placing PM within the scope of Lokpal,” senior government sources indicated.
Although they made it plain that they don’t agree with Team Anna’s demand that Jan Lokpal Bill should be the sole reference point for the creation of an anti-corruption watchdog and insisted that Parliament would only discuss the legislation approved by the Standing Committee, the re-think on including the PM in Lokpal is a significant concession as well as a tactical move to break the logjam.
In another significant move, the government has fast-tracked the process to draft a Grievance Redressal Bill which will deal with corruption faced by the common man it getting licences and other clearances, as well benefits under government schemes. The draft of the proposed law is expected to be put up for public discussion by this weekend.
Besides mollifying the anti-corruption sentiment that has being powering the Anna campaign, the move to bring the PM within Lokpal is also aimed to help end Congress’s isolation in Parliament. The BJP, Left and other parties like the DMK are opposed to keeping the PM outside the Lokpal’s purview.
However, while these concessions may potentially narrow the divergence between the two sides, there was still no indication of the activists accepting this as a basis to end their agitation. Manmohan Singh had argued for keeping his office within Lokpal’s ambit but was overruled by a majority in the Cabinet who felt that such a move could tie a prime minister in knots and paralyze the government with motivated complaints.
On Monday, however, the tune was different. Sources indicated that PM’s inclusion could be unconditional, reflecting a drastic re-think forced by Anna Hazare’s huge mass mobilization. Spurred by swelling crowds, Team Anna continued with its pressure tactic, denying that they were negotiating with the government through negotiators. It said it would settle for none other than an empowered representative of the PM. Rahul Gandhi or Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan as negotiators.
Law minister Salman Khurshid said that the Grievance Redressal Bill was part of a bouquet of new laws that the government aims to bring – on judicial accountability, whistleblowers, Lokpal and a legislation to strengthen the CVC. This, he said, was a multi-pronged anti-corruption strategy envisaged by government.
The chairman of the Standing Committee, Abhishek Singhvi, however, said that a solution is possible if the civil society agreed to defer its activism for a while. Asserting that the committee can come up with a constructive solution, Singhvi said, “If the Standing Committee strains its every sinew to fast-track its proceedings, look at the huge amount of diverse inputs, and hold intense deliberations, it can submit a report as early as eight weeks from now.”
PM sent out a conciliatory signal on Monday, his second since Saturday. Speaking at the Golden Jubilee event of Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, Singh said: “We are open to a reasoned debate on all these issues. We have made it clear that all concerned individuals should convey their concern on different aspects of the bill to their representatives in Parliament and to the standing committeea¦the standing committee has the power to propose any amendment.”
Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh said that his ministry would put the draft of the grievance redressal legislation on the ministry’s website by the weekend. If the timeline is significant and betrays the government’s anxiety to counter the perception of it being soft on corruption, so is the choice of Jairam to craft the legislation.
Team Anna group had demanded that Ramesh should be put on the ministerial panel that negotiated the draft of the Lokpal bill. Although the government did not agree, Anna aide Prashant Bhushan told TOI that Ramesh would be acceptable to them as interlocutor.
However, chances of a fresh dialogue between the two sides are still not looking bright. Team Anna stuck to their August 30 deadline for the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill, rejecting the government’s stand that parliamentary process be allowed to play out. Kiran Bedi chided the government, saying it “took MPs just five minutes to clear the bill to raise their salaries, but it’s finding it difficult to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill in five to six days.”
The government does not seem inclined to make any further concessions on the sticking points: essentially, inclusion of higher judiciary and civil society’s insistence on including the entire central government officialdom. Unlike in the case of judiciary, government has no philosophical opposition to putting the lower bureaucracy within the scope of Lokpal, but is deterred by the daunting logistical constraints.
Sources in the government also pointed out that Centre can’t direct states on what kind of Lokayuktas they should have as the Constitution prohibits New Delhi from legislating on state matters.
Last Thursday, The Times of India offered three solutions (while acknowledging the legal/constitutional roadblocks to each one of them) to break the logjam: (1) A referendum; (2) An MP introduces Team Anna’s draft as a private member’s Bill, and Parliament debates both the government and the Jan Lokpal versions; (3) The issue be referred to an eminent persons’ committee. We would not be so immodest or foolish to believe that a better solution does not lie outside of the three proposed by TOI. But there can be no second opinion on the need to find common ground. Both the government and Team Anna claim to be doing what they’re doing “for the people”. If that be so, neither side should allow ego to come in the way of a solution that best tackles the curse of corruption and serves the cause of India and its people. This is a moment in our history that calls for humility and guts, not hubris or bravado.