Is the world’s largest democracy yielding to politicians before its citizens?
By Annie Banerji
One would think India would be able to have a parliament worthy of its name to represent the world’s largest democracy.
But for many civil society activists, who have championed an anti-corruption campaign for months in the wake of government scandals, the Congress party’s ruling coalition is doing its best to water down a potentially game-changing anti-corruption bill which is slated to be brought to parliament during the ongoing monsoon session.
The Jan Lokpal Bill (citizens’ ombudsman bill), propagated by septuagenarian Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare, aims to form an independent, powerful institution to prevent corruption by prosecuting top officials.
However, the draft of the bill which the cabinet approved last week has, in line with the government’s wishes, omitted the prime minister, the judiciary and bureaucrats from prosecution while they are serving in office.
This is especially galling for anti-graft campaigners, given that the prime minister and several sitting ministers are under scrutiny in a string of corruption scandals worth billions of dollars (all have denied wrongdoing). Even the former Chief Justice of India, K.G. Balakrishnan, has been accused in a few graft cases of his own.
“This bill (Jan Lokpal bill) which included protection for whistleblowers, grievance redressing, judicial corruption and vigilance — they have broken it all up and have said that they will make separate bills for all these matters. They’ve taken four years to bring about this bill, now they will take 400 years to make these other bills,” said Kiran Bedi, a social activist.
Hazare and his team are fighting back, carrying out a poll referendum in a prominent minister’s constituency, which canvassed 72,000 people. The result concluded that 85 percent of people in the telecoms minister’s turf in New Delhi voted against the government version of the bill.
Sibal immediately shot down the results of the poll, accusing Hazare of cooking the books and commenting he was surprised the poll hadn’t found 100 percent in Hazare’s favour, instead of just 85 percent.
A meaty anti-corruption agency could emulate what many see as the success of the Lokayukta of Karnataka, an independent ombudsman in the southern state that implicated Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa in a $3.6 billion illegal iron ore mining scandal last week leading to his resignation.
Given that Indian politicians tend to retire very late in their lives, Karnataka would have had a long wait to put its chief minister under scrutiny if it had excluded top ministers and bureaucrats in the way the central government is proposing.
Hazare has pledged to start another fast on August 16 in protest of the cabinet-approved bill. But the Delhi police has denied permission for the Gandhian to protest at Jantar Mantar, a common location for demonstrations in New Delhi, further infuriating civil society activists.
“This is all a sham,” concluded Hazare in a recent press conference.