Understanding Lokpal

Tuesday morning, Anna Hazare was arrested, before he could proceed to JP Park, the venue for his fast, demanding that his bill be brought before Parliament. Ever since then, we have had a news overload. Every news channel and paper is covering Anna’s protest extensively. Even the second tier of information source, people’s contacts are proclaiming support for Anna Hazare and his campaign. In today’s information age, it is nigh impossible for one to not know that a 74 year old Anna Hazare, is protesting that something called the ‘Jan Lokpal’ bill be presented in front of the Parliament.

But sadly, this is all they know. Hordes of people have been mobilized, and these people who have poured onto the streets have offered undying support to Anna Hazare and his campaign. The reason for this mass support, without a doubt, is the people’s frustration. There is no denying the fact that the common man is fed up with the rampant corruption in society and he feels powerless against this evil. So, when in such an environment (in reference to the various publicized scams such as Commonwealth, 2G etc.), one man comes to the fore claiming to fight the system, it isn’t surprising that he receives the kind of support that Anna has. While the mass support is understandable, the tragedy is that most of the people out on the streets, who swear to stand by Anna, don’t even know Anna’s basic demand. Some know that it has something to do with the Lokpal bill, but don’t know whether he wants it passed or presented. And it’s a very small percentage of the street protesters who know what exactly the Jan Lokpal bill says, and the differences between Jan Lokpal draft and the Government draft.

So, what exactly is the Jan Lokpal bill? In a nutshell, it’s an anti corruption bill, drafted by civil society members (hence the Jan prefix), which seeks to create an ombudsman at the centre, Lokpal, with counterparts at the state level, Lokayukta. The purpose of this is to deter corruption, redress grievances and protect whistleblowers. Now, the basic demand from Anna’s side has been to present the civil society’s version of the bill, and not the Government’s version, which, Anna and his supporters believe is too weak, and incapable of tackling corruption. Those of you who are wondering how members of the civil society (just a fancy name for people who hold no official position) got to draft a bill in the first place, let me refresh your memories. Anna Hazare went on a fast-unto-death, in April, demanding the creation of a joint committee, with equal representation by the Government as well as civil society, to draft a Lokpal bill. The Govt. gave in and a committee was created, but could not present the Parliament with a single bill. Thus, two versions were created and the Govt. decided to present the Parliament with its own version, and not the civil society’s. Now, what are the differences between the two drafts? The major differences are inclusion of the PM, the Judiciary, MPs, and lower bureaucracy, grievance redressal system, whistleblower protection, selection and authority of the Lokpal, and the punishment dished out to offenders.

The Govt. draft excludes the PM, MPs, Judiciary and lower bureaucracy from the purview of the Lokpal, while the Jan Lokpal draft includes all of them. The Jan Lokpal draft states the penalty for not providing services to citizens on time, whereas the Govt. draft chooses not to state any such penalty. Coming on to the selection process, the provisions in the Jan Lokpal draft provide for a transparent selection process, with the selection committee making all details publics, whereas the Govt. draft leaves everything to the discretion of the selection committee. Another major difference is that the Jan Lokpal draft provides for only 2 politicians in the Lokpal committee, as opposed to five. Another difference is in the accountability of the Lokpal committee. The Jan Lokpal draft proposes that it be answerable to the people, which would mean that any citizen can go to the SC and demand removal of the Lokpal, as opposed to only the Govt. being able to do so. They also want the Lokpal to have police powers, to file FIRs, after preliminary investigation and that the accused be dealt in the same manner as accused are in cases of regular crime, whereas the Govt. draft suggests special protection to the accused. The civil society draft also enables the creation of a Lokayukta at the state level, who will have all the same powers and duties as the Lokpal, but at the state level. A major standoff between the two committees is the whistleblower’s protection provision in the civil society draft. The Govt. draft has no provisions to protect whistleblowers. Apart from this the civil society wants the Lokpal to have prosecution rights, with special branches created in HCs, but the Govt. draft creates the Lokpal only as an advisory body, which can forward reports to a ‘competent authority’.

The civil society’s stance is that only if such strong measures are put in place, will we be able to deter corruption, to which the Government’s response has been that the PM’s office should not be under the ambit of the Lokpal, since the PMO is sacred. Regarding Judiciary, they believe that such a provision would undermine the powers and sovereignty of the Judiciary.

Add to this that Anna Hazare has clearly stated that he has full confidence in the Parliament, and he believes in the supremacy of its powers. Hence, all he is demanding is that ‘a strong version’ of the bill be presented to the Parliament. Never has he said that only his version of the bill be presented. I don’t think there would be many people who would say that what he wants to bring in is wrong. Thus, the only question that arises from all of this is whether his methods are right, or rather, do you support them? And that, I feel is totally personal.

Rithvik Pamidi