All parties pledge to back ‘strong’ Lokpal

NEW DELHI: India is set to get a tough anti-corruption Lokpal by the end of the year. Faced with a deep crisis of credibility, the political class on Sunday came together to pledge a “strong and effective” Lokpal bill in the monsoon session beginning on August 1.While provisions of such a bill, particularly the Lokpal’s powers to investigate the prime minister and higher judiciary, are likely to be intensely debated by a standing committee, a law to check graft in high places is almost a certainty by the time the winter session of Parliament concludes in late December.
A single-line resolution read out by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the end of more than three hours of discussion said, “The all-party meeting agreed that government should bring before the next session of Parliament a strong and effective Lokpal Bill following established procedures.”Periodically dusted, the bill has been in discussion for more than two decades though it was first mooted even earlier. The momentum for a legislation became unstoppable after civil society relentlessly built pressure in the wake of scams unfolding in the Commonwealth Games, 2G spectrum allocation and Adarsh Housing Society.

The PM acknowledged the public mood when he said in his opening remarks that there was a “feeling that institutional arrangements in place are not strong enough to ensure the guilty, especially those occupying high positions, are brought to book swiftly and given deterrent punishment”. He said the government was committed to a Lokpal.The reference to established procedures was in deference to the strongly critical views of Opposition parties about the government’s decision to bypass political parties in drafting a Lokpal bill that included a joint drafting committee with the civil society.

BJP leaders did not get into the details of the bill but Sushma Swaraj said “working papers” were not the same as a bill which should be brought to Parliament and referred to a standing committee. The committee’s views should be reflected in the bill. Arun Jaitley said support for a law should not be construed as endorsement of the government’s current formulation as BJP differed on powers and qualifications of a Lokpal.With the exception National Conference and RJD among others, which were harshly critical of civil society, most parties did not offer any views on contentious issues such as the Lokpal’s jurisdiction over prime minister, higher judiciary and conduct of MPs in Parliament. Only CPM and INLD spoke of the PM being in the ambit of the Lokpal.

While the BJP, CPM, CPI, Biju Janata Dal, Telugu Desam Party, Asom Gana Parishad, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party were unhappy over Parliament being given the short shrift, they did not criticize the civil society camp, instead pointing out that it was the government that chose to involve activists. “You first sent ministers to the airport to meet Ramdev and then the police,” CPI’s Gurudas Dasgupta said.Both Left and BJP said the views of all sections should be heard in framing the bill and Dasgupta said it was the right of persons to hold candle-light processions or protest. BSP’s S C Mishra read out a letter from UP chief minister Mayawati in support of the Lokpal bill at the earliest.

If the government was hoping to tap the perceived resentment of the political parties about ceding powers to an anti-corruption ombudsman, that too under pressure from civil society, the Opposition did not rise to the bait. Apart from Congress supporters Lalu and Farooq Abdullah, the rest kept the ball firmly in the government’s court.”The Opposition cannot bring a bill, it is for the government to do so,” said CPI’s D Raja. It will be up to the government to frame a convincing Lokpal bill as although BJP did not commit itself on specifics in the meeting, Jaitley supported inclusion of the PM in the Lokpal’s ambit outside in an interview to TOI.

The government will need to build a strong consensus in Parliament if it is to counter Gandhian Anna Hazare who has threatened a second edition of his fast that brought the Centre to its knees in April. While Hazare is insistent that the bill sent to Parliament include the PM, higher judiciary and conduct of MPs in the Lokpal’s ambit, the government needs to show that it is doing enough to combat a public trust deficit. – TOI