The demand and debate of public participation in the drafting of the Lokpal bill has seemed to go awry. At many places it seems to veer off the path of rationality altogether. The ‘civil society’ may have fundamental differences and legitimate concerns on points evaded or negated by the government’s panel but it is the nature of the discourse itself that has become so worrisome.
There have been strident demands by the ‘civil society’ to make the discussions of the drafting committee public. Demands have ranged from making the parleys televised to having the audio tapes of the discussions released. The ‘civil society’ group itself has also been making continuous press conferences detailing the proceedings after every meeting that has taken place in a believed attempt to keep things transparent. But the question is how correct it is to make the discussions public when the bill is only in the drafting stage? There are bound to be differences of opinion when discussions happen. People in their entitlement of having different views may choose to disagree but that shouldn’t be construed as criminal, which in all likelihood would, given the popular sentiment fanned by making these details public. The matter would naturally be further compounded with the differences coming out in open as is evident with the constant coverage this issue is getting. It needs to be understood that the public has connected only with the central idea of the movement against corruption and not with the technical issues pertaining to the draft in question. At this stage the draft needs inputs from experts and not demands made out of popular sentiment.
Erroneous arguments are being put forward in order to make the discussions public. Some have cited the televised debates in US as an example. But don’t the debates in US pertain to the election of candidates to senate or Presidency? Where on earth do discussions get televised when only a draft is being prepared? The minutes of the discussions are already on the website, hence out in public, and the draft would be discussed in parliament which is anyways televised live. How more transparent can the proceedings be made?
Let’s imagine for a moment that the discussions are made available to public. A member objecting to a certain point, which later on gets adopted through consensus, would be seen in a poor light even though the person had every right to object in his own assessment of the point in question. It would be a PR disaster particularly so if the member happens to be a government nominee. Since it is very well known that the government panel has differences with the ‘civil society’, this attempt to make the discussions public appear less related to transparency and more to point scoring. Whether the objections are right or wrong, they would eventually be out once the draft gets discussed in the parliament, so is there really a need for this demand?
Some have also questioned the silence adopted by the PM and the UPA chairperson. It is only wise that the two have kept a silence on this matter. The very nature of their positions gives a lot of weight to their say. In this light if the PM were to make a statement on some point in the draft on which the committee members hold a different view then it will become hard for the committee to explain their divergence of opinion. Just as one should abstain from making a comment on a case that is sub judice so should be the case here too and the drafting committee should be allowed to formulate provisions without any external influence so that they can go about their business with all the peace and focus that is required for the job at hand.
The talks between the ‘civil society’ and the government’s panel have hogged the headlines also for the acrimony on display in the past few days. Both sides have failed to exercise restraint to keep the atmosphere conducive for fruitful discussions. The ‘civil society’ seems to be more hot-headed in this regard and sees red at any objection raised by the government. Here it occurs that the context of this agitation is more at play than anything else.
If one were to look back and observe then it would be noted that the entire movement had a streak of confrontation to it. A series of scams had formed the backdrop and a very lame draft of the Lokpal bill had come riding on a purported resolve of the government to fight corruption. So one understands why the ‘civil society’ group decided to confront the government. But what one fails to understand is the continuation of this attitude to confront even during these discussions. Both the sides should come to the table with an open mind to acknowledge suggestions and reservations alike. That the suggestions made by the ‘civil society’ are finally being taken into consideration by the government is a testimony of a failure on the government’s part to have come up with a strong draft in the first place. But it also testifies that the government is more serious than ever and there is a will to go the length to have a strong legislation in place. The very composition of the government’s panel – home minister, finance minister, law minister, hrd minister and minority affairs minister – demonstrates the serious intent of the government. So it’s time now for the ‘civil society’ to stop looking at the government with suspicion and work as a team to come up with a good draft. But the events of past few days have shown anything other than this. Not only the confrontational attitude seems to continue but also at work is a premise that the entire government is corrupt and a bigot. The press statements made by the ‘civil society’ bear ample evidence of this premise and statements to this effect have been made by saying that this government is scared to bring an effective Lokpal in place because more than half of it would then be in jail. This premise is making them see villainy in any objection or reservation made by the government. Just because the government has been put on a backfoot these days doesn’t mean that it has lost its right to disagree.
Another question that is being raised is that of the missing opposition parties from the panel appointed to discuss with the ‘civil society’. Many, including team Anna, believe that the opposition parties should have been made a part of these discussions since it would have then involved the entire political class in the drafting of the bill. But there is a problem in doing so. If the opposition parties are to be made a part of the discussions then the panel must include representation from every party irrespective of the numbers commanded by the same in parliament. Assuming that such a panel does get set up then once a draft is ready what role is left for the parliament to play? Since all the parties are already aligned with the draft, the only job left now for the parliament is to stamp approval on it. This is a dangerous precedent that completely undermines the fundamentals of parliamentary democracy. A bill is supposed to originate within the government, tabled and discussed in the parliament before assuming any finality. Here we have already gone beyond the dictates of fundamentals of our democratic system by engaging with an unelected group to draft a bill. On the question of being ‘unelected’, people have compared team Anna with NAC. But this comparison is flawed. NAC‘s mandate is to give suggestions and inputs and not sit and draft bills with government nominees. A bill still goes through its normal lifecycle and while doing so may also consider any suggestions made by the NAC. So to allude to double standards adopted by the government is not correct. This extra-constitutional space accorded, given the extraordinary circumstances, to the ‘civil society’ therefore must limit to discussions with government and Parliament should be allowed to play its assigned role of discussing the draft before taking it any further.
This din and commotion around the lok pal bill is slowly reducing things to a tamasha. Even fasting is increasingly becoming a gimmick. People in their eagerness to paint an already capitulant government as evil have stopped looking at reason. It remains to be seen what comes out of all this but the tale so far has been a tad disappointing.