Sunday, December 11, 2011

Will fight for strong Lokpal, but leave details to Parliament: Parties at Anna's debate


The sunny winter afternoon was as comfortable and equanimous as the debate on the Lokpal Bill that lasted nearly four hours at Jantar Mantar, where Anna Hazare held a day-long token fast, as he described it, against the government's intent to deliver a weak Lokpal Bill to combat corruption.

There were few fiery moments. Leaders of opposition parties stressed that though they agree on the need for a strident law, a debate on its provisions must be held in Parliament.

Point noted, said Anna when seeing off his guests. But he said in a short speech that while law-making is the prerogative of MPs, people are on stand-by to fill the streets and jails if they are "deceived with a weak Lokpak Bill."

The Congress had RSVP-ed against today's event, arguing that this sort of debate should not be conducted outside Parliament which has yet to review the Lokpal Bill. Spokesperson Rashid Alvi described today's discussion as "an insult to Parliament."


The BJP dismissed that accusation. "A debate outside is as important as a debate inside Parliament," said the party's Arun Jaitley, adding that people have the right to use any platform available to make their voice heard to lawmakers.

But the politicians at Jantar Mantar today also sent a clear message to Team Anna - that they must be flexible on their demands, and that they are wrong to criticize all politicians as untrustworthy. (Read: What Anna, parties said at Lokpal debate) Each party thanked 74-year-old Anna for creating a nationwide movement against graft, but said he must now trust opposition parties to do their job in Parliament by fighting for an effective Lokpal Bill. "Leave it to the wisdom of Parliament," said Left leader AB Bardhan.

When the politicians, like Mr Bardhan or the Samajwadi's Ram Gopal Yadav, or even Nikhil Dey an activist from Aruna Roy's NCPRI, took a stand different from Team Anna, the crowds booed them. They booed D Raja for speaking in English. This was clearly Anna Hazare's turf and contrary opinions were unwelcome, reinforcing the criticism that Team Anna often seems to want to dictate all terms and is intolerant of differences and dissent.

Today's fast by Anna was his third this year for a Lokpal Bill that delivers an ombudsman agency armed with powers which his team of activists deems essential. The event saw an impressive turnout with nearly 6,000 people turning up. The 74-year-old Gandhian has warned of a longer hunger strike starting December 27 if the Lokpal Bill is not passed as a law during this winter session of Parliament, which ends on the 21st.

But some leaders at today's debate warned against adopting the law in a hurry. Sharad Yadav of the JD(U) said if needed, this session should be extended or a special session be called for a thorough debate.

Meanwhile, the government is readying its own strategy. The cabinet will review the Lokpal Bill on Tuesday. The Congress will also seek the opinions of key allies like Mamata Banerjee, before meeting with all parties on Wednesday. That session is crucial for the government, which cannot afford to be perceived as being soft on graft, besieged as it is by a series of financial scams.

So the fight for the Lokpal Bill is now in its final act. After an epic 12-day fast by Anna in August, Parliament agreed - via a formal statement on a "sense of the House" - that Anna's basic principles for a new law against graft would be studied immediately.

Except that the report on the Lokpal Bill delivered by a Parliamentary committee two days ago has been rejected by Anna as "a betrayal of the people. "The Lokpal refers to a new ombudsman agency with nine members that will have the right to investigate corruption charges against government servants. The Parliamentary committee says 57 lakh junior bureaucrats and the Prime Minister should not fall under the review of the Lokpal. And the CBI, when investigating charges of corruption, should be supervised by but not accountable to the Ombudsman.

The Left and the BJP said it is unacceptable to exempt the Prime Minister from investigation while in office, as the government wants, except on matters of national security. "Why should we suffer a corrupt PM for even a day, leave alone five years?" asked the BJP's Arun Jaitley. The parties present also agreed the junior bureaucrats must be accountable to the Lokpal.

Most parties also agreed with Team Anna that as the country's main investigating agency, the CBI must be freed from government control. Parties agreed that how the CBI director is selected must change, so that the agency does not act "as a lapdog of the government" as the BJD 's Pinaki Mishra put it, to settle political scores by the party in charge. Currently, the CBI chief is selected by the government. Team Anna wants the agency to report entirely to the Lokpal. The CBI has said this will defeat the purpose of making it autonomous. The BJP today said the investigative powers must be wrested from the government while handing he agency's administrative control to the Lokpal. The CPI agreed with Team Anna that the CBI should have the Lokpal as its boss.

Privately, sources say, the government will yield to extending the Lokpal's jurisdiction over all bureaucrats and the Prime Minister. Some suggest that Dr Manmohan Singh may offer in Parliament to include his office in the list of those that can be reviewed by the ombudsman - a moment whose PR potential, according to some in his party, has been noted. It is on the matter of the reporting structure of the CBI that the government hopes to build bridges with the opposition.

Anna's doctors have said he is not well. His aides are worried about the possibility of his fourth hunger strike later this month. Today's protest was designed also to test-drive Public sentiment and ensure it keeps Anna's campaign poised as a force the government has to reckon with.