Friday, August 26, 2011

The Prince Charming has spoken... what a disaster?

If anyone there had a faint hope that the Government of the day was going to listen to the people of India, the Prince Charming has conveyed that such hopes are misplaced. Rahul Gandhi, after several days when the nation had come on the streets and on a day when a resolution committing the Government to three things: A people’s charter in the Lokpal, inclusion of the lower bureaucracy under the Lokpal and Lokayuktas in the States, the most important leader of the ruling party, only because he happened to be born in the Nehru family, has rendered a solution to the deadlock a difficult proposition.

For all the talk, in all these days, that Parliamentary supremacy shall not be denuded, the sight on TV screens, was one where Parliament was sought to be reduced to a stage where the Prince Charming had his say and nothing else. It is strange that one man, whose only credential seems that he happened to be Sonia Gandhi’s son, was given the chance to simply rubbish a Government’s Bill, now before the Standing Committee. This he did when he said that a mere statutory authority called the Lokpal will not do and that we need a Constitutional body. Well. It may be true that we need the Lokpal as a Constitutional body. But Rahul must have conveyed this to such great luminaries as Pranab Mukherjee, P.Chidambaram, Veerappa Moily, Kapil Sibal and Salman Khrusheed whose draft was accepted by the Union Cabinet and moved as the Government’s Bill to set up a Lokpal. He failed to do so then and wisdom dawned late, only at a time when a simpler solution was in sight.

That he chose the Zero Hour to prescribe what the Government should do is stupid. For, Zero Hour is when members raise issues and do not expect an immediate response. And since it happened to come from the Prince Charming, it is futile to expect those in Government to revert back to what they had committed before; to move a resolution, incorporating measures suggested by Team Anna and pass that over to the Standing Committee. Well. It is possible that the Prince Charming’s idea of a Constitutional body in the Lokpal, which will call for a simple Constitutional amendment, is also incorporated in the resolution. It seems remote at this stage for we also saw the most important leader of the Congress party driving away after he preached from the pulpit. And the Congressmen who shouted down anyone and everyone who rose against Rahul Gandhi will now be rest assured that let the people do whatever they wanted as long as Rahul Gandhi did not speak a word on how to bring the crisis to a resolution.

The message is very clear. The Congressmen will shout that Parliament is supreme. But that will not apply to the Prince Charming. And will wait for another day when the Prince Charming speaks out and takes another line. Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, who had promised only 24 hours before Rahul Gandhi screamed, will slide back and take another position. This, certainly, is NOT democracy.

Remember that infamous statement: If they do not have bread, let them eat cake. That is what Rahul Gandhi seems to be telling us now.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

In response to some criticism against the Hazare campaign

The week that passed by was indeed tumultuous. The political discourse in India has changed. Anna Hazare and his comrades have baffled, even those who empathized with the campaign with their perseverance. The fact is that it is clear now that Anna and his team are distinct, in all aspects, from Baba Ramdev. The surge of protests against the arrests is clearly a pointer to this. Baba Ramdev could not move an inch further after the police ``acted’’ against his followers. Anna Hazare’s arrest, on the contrary turned the whole of Delhi and the country into a venue for protest.

All this notwithstanding, there is criticism against the movement and in most instances the critics seem to be repeating chants that were heard in the early Seventies when JP had captured the imagination of a generation of the youth and rallied them against corruption. It may be placed on record, at the outset, that JP drew his inspiration from the Navnirman andolan that rocked Gujarat and where the students, who began protesting against hike in the mess charges in an Engineering college in Ahmedabad, ended up demanding Chimanbhai Patel’s resignation and fresh elections to the State assembly. Patel was considered corrupt by the people of Gujarat and it was not merely a perception. The movement achieved its demand and the victory of the Janata Morcha in the elections held in June 1975.

JP’s movement in Bihar too challenged the state in Bihar and as it grew in strength, the then establishment headed by Indira Gandhi pulled all the stops to crush the campaign. The rest – the Emergency, the 1977 elections and the Janata regime -- is history. The Anna Hazare campaign now has striking similarities with the JP movement. For instance, JP too was apprehensive of involving the parties that were then opposing the ruling Congress. He persisted with that until he was challenged by Indira Gandhi to ``prove’’ his own strength by contesting elections. JP bit the bait and witnessed his apprehensions come true. The Janata Party’s birth and its decimation in his own lifetime led a section of his followers away from the mainstream of Parliamentary democracy and spend their time and energy in building civil society institutions. Some adopted the path of receiving funds from abroad while a few persisted with organizing and orchestrating protests.

The point is that the soul of the JP movement had not died and the IT explosion in the past two decades lent a means to mobilizing protests that was not available to JP and his comrades then. In other words, censorship of the state controlled TV and Radio and the willingness of the print media to confirm had left JP without any other option than enlist support from the parties that were then in the opposition to mobilize in times of protest. This is not the case now. Some hard work during the past months with a dedicated set of IT professionals gave Anna Hazare and his team the cadre that could carry out protests, simultaneously, across the country. In other words, unlike in the past, technology has helped raise a political campaign without having to depend on parties, whether from the Left or the Right.

Only the naïve would have waited for one of the many parties to launch a campaign of this nature. Political parties across the spectrum are guilty of corruption and if the BJP and the CPI(M) have joined the campaign in their own way, it is guided by their survival instinct rather than any commitment to an effective institution to catch the corrupt. The nation’s middle classes as well as the poor and the oppressed are no longer innocent. They know the truth about the parties. And they waited for an alternative. There is, hence, now a possibility of an option emerging from this movement. It may or may not be a part of Hazare’s agenda and may or may not turn into another party in the long run.

The point now is whether the nation needs a law that creates an institution to catch the thief from among the political class, investigate their crime and prosecute them; and also do what is needed in accordance with law to take back such ill-gotten wealth? And if this is the question, whether the institution that the Government’s Bill seeks to set up will achieve the objects. The answer is that it will not do. The institution that will come into place will have to be empowered to receive complaints; must have the machinery to investigate under its superintendence; must be empowered to prosecute. And leave the judgment to the courts. This, after all, is what the CBI is meant to do: To receive complaints against the high and mighty, investigate and prosecute. The political establishment that is resisting a meaningful Lokpal is happy to allow a CBI with such powers! Only because they know that the CBI is their handmaiden.

Just think of this: Jaganmohan Reddy is now in the CBI’s grip. It is happening because he began irritating the Congress party. Not a day before he set out on his own. This is not to say that he is a victim. He is not. But he may manage to wriggle out if he negotiates and assures the Congress that he will behave in future. The CBI officers, drawn from among the IPS personnel, are indeed vulnerable because the agency comes under the Department of Personnel and Training and hence under the Prime Minister. An independent Lokpal, like the CAG or the Election Commission, can change the situation. It may not. But it can. And that is making the political class adamant that it cannot accept the proposals put forward by Anna Hazare and his team.

The Government side is now arguing that they may alter their Bill in a substantive sense but not within the time-frame set by Anna Hazare and his team. They say that Parliamentary Procedure will take longer and that August 31, 2011 is too short a time and that changing the law in such a pace will be an affront to the Constitution. The Congress leaders will only have to be reminded of the Constitution (Thirty Ninth Amendment) Act, 1975. The supreme law of the land was amended, in the middle of the Emergency. The amendment added Article 329-A to the Constitution by which election disputes involving the Prime Minister and the Speaker were kept outside the scope of the courts to decide. It was intended to save Indira Gandhi, whose election from Rae Bareili was held null and void by the Allahabad High Court.

The Constitution (Thirty Ninth Amendment) Act, 1975 was moved on August 6, 1975, the Bill was considered and voted in the Lok Sabha on August 7, 1975, in the Rajya Sabha on August 8, 1975 and endorsed by State Assemblies in special sessions convened on August 9, 1975 (though it happened to be a Saturday) and brought into effect on August 10, 1975 after obtaining assent the same day. A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court was to take up the appeal by Indira Gandhi against the Allahabad High Court verdict on August 11, 1975! It is another matter that the Constitution Bench struck down the amendment.

The point is that it is possible that the Bill can be amended and made into a law in just a few days. It is, after all, an ordinary legislation.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The apprehensions of Team Anna are justified

The political class, cutting across the spectrum, is now being haunted by a spectre. Anna Hazare has captured the imagination of a cross section of the people and his campaign is certainly gathering support. It remains to be seen if this support translates into a movement on the streets and more so against the state machinery that is threatening to pull all the stops. The people have shown such courage in the past. That is another matter.

Team Anna’s decision to go ahead with protests against the draft Lok Pal Bill, as approved by the Union cabinet, has spurred a debate. The proponents of the draft bill as well as sections in the political arena who claim to oppose the Government are united against another round of fast by Anna Hazare; they call it as blackmail and an attempt to usurp Parliament’s power to legislate. They also claim that the principles of democracy shall not be sacrificed.

A number of them are on record that the draft proposals are subject to amendments and that the power to propose amendments and decide on them shall rest with the elected representatives of the people. It is another matter that the Prime Minister, who heads the cabinet, qualifies as a representative of the people only because membership of the Rajya Sabha is considered as good as being a member of the Lok Sabha to remain a minister under Article 75(5) of the Constitution. In any case, the fact is that Dr. Manmohan Singh has claimed, in an affidavit, that he is ordinarily a resident of Assam! We all know the truth but that is besides the point.

The argument that the details and the contents of the Lokpal Bill must be left to Parliamentarians and that the people shall not insist upon having a say may appear to be one in defence of Parliamentary Democracy. But then, if we accept that democracy is not an abstraction but a concrete system that mankind has devised, it is possible to see an infirmity in the argument now peddled. In concrete terms, we the people of India must allow such of our representatives including K.Kanimozhi, A.Raja, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Dayanidhi Maran, Amar Singh and Suresh Kalmadi (only an illustrative list and not exhaustive) to decide the fate of a Bill that is intended to contain corruption that has become endemic in our polity!

Similarly, let us take the argument that the Bill as approved by the Cabinet will become an Act only as amended and passed by Parliament. It means that after Mr. Salman Khursheed introduces the Bill in this instance, every member of Parliament has the right to move amendments including such ones that the Prime Minister be brought under the ambit of the Lokpal, that the Lokpal shall have prosecutorial powers and that the CVC and the CBI be brought under the superintendence of the Lokpal. Any member of either of the Houses may also move an amendment that acts by MPs on the floor of the House shall be within the investigating powers of the Lokpal.

It is possible and even likely (a remote possibility though) that such amendments are moved by members from the opposition as it is. Then, in Parliamentary democracy, such amendments will only be defeated because the opposition parties do not have a majority in either of the Houses. In other words, such substantial changes in the draft bill are possible only in the event they are proposed by the ruling party (or combine in this instance). And that is indeed the demand from the people who have rallied behind Anna Hazare in the past few months.

It may also be argued that MPs from the ruling coalition may muster courage or turn conscientious and vote in favour of such amendments (presuming that the BJP or the Left parties or Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party move one as such) and thus ensure that the will and the wish of the people are carried out. This, however, would lead to two consequences: The loss of a Government Bill establishing its minority status in the Lok Sabha and the consequence, in the moral sense, would be that the Government goes. One would assume that morality and ethics are relevant concerns for those in the ruling combine. The other possibility would be that the Government stays on and this will be a wonderful scenario because the nation would still have a Lokpal with teeth.

One should be naïve to imagine on these lines. For these are based on two presumptions. One that there will be a resurgence of conscience in the MPs. And the second one being that the ruling combine will refrain from issuing a whip to its MPs (and let them vote according to conscience) and the opposition parties will issue a one line whip to its MPs that they vote in favour of the amendments. Even if one can presume the opposition doing that (only a remote possibility), to expect such sanction from the Congress and its allies will be asking for too much. Recall that the Congress had issued a whip in the Lok Sabha to vote against an impeachment motion when Justice (Retd) V. Ramasamy was to be punished after corruption charges against him were confirmed by a committee.

The Government side also argues that some of the provisions of the draft bill suggested by Anna Hazare and his associates go against the Constitution. That is true. A provision that acts by MPs on the floor of the House shall be within the investigative powers of the Lokpal will go against Article 105 of the Constitution. Well. Article 105 was invoked for protection by such MPs and Feroze Gandhi, Jyotirmoy Basu and Madhu Dandavate in the past. And so did N.C.Chatterjee. But they invoked the provision to expose acts of corruption and wrong doing by the high and the mighty. To hold that such acts as raising questions in either houses after taking gratification or voting on a confidence motion in exchange to currency wads and seek protection will only make those who used the protection in the past to strengthen democracy turn in their graves.

All that we need is a Constitutional amendment; one more to say so. A proviso be added to Article 105 that it will not apply in cases involving corrupt practices by members of either house or the state legislatures. Such an amendment will require support of two thirds of the members in each House.

In other words, an effective Lokpal will be possible only where the ruling coalition agrees to go for it. And introduces a Bill that contains such provisions. For this reason, it is not proper and reasonable to insist that Anna Hazare and the people of India, the majority who detest corruption, shall wait for the elected members of Parliament to do what they deem fit. That will be waiting for godot. It is not only proper but also necessary that the people agitate for what they want and against what they detest. Such agitations, as long as they are peaceful, strengthen democracy and induce a new meaning to the Parliamentary system of Government.