New Delhi/ Mumbai: The country moved a step closer on Tuesday to getting a new anti-corrpution law after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) blinked and accepted key amendments to the legislation, clearing the way for its passage in the Lok Sabha.
Now, the legislation—the Lokpal and the Lokayuktas Bill, 2011—will have to be approved by the Rajya Sabha—where the ruling coalition is in a minority. Expectations are that the legislation would be struck down or require fresh amendments, which will need a joint session of both Houses to forge a consensus.
In the Lok Sabha, a walkout by the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party enabled the UPA to manage the voice vote on most of the amendments and also when the opposition forced a division which required members to vote.
Anna Hazare began his hunger strike in Mumbai on Tuesday even as the Lok Sabha eventually passed an amended version of the Lokpal Bill
The UPA may get a political breather after a protest led by anti-graft activist Anna Hazare in Mumbai to pressurise Parliament to pass a strong anti-corruption legislation failed to strike a chord with the public, unlike the two hunger strikes he undertook in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan venues. As Hazare began a three-day fast in the city, only around 8,000 people trooped to the venue.
One of the key amendments ensures that states’ consent will be required for setting up a Lokayukta. And it further insulates the Prime Minister from being subjected to misuse of the Lokpal provisions by requiring a two-thirds approval vote in the Lokpal panel for initiating an inquiry against him.
The debate in Lok Sabha was largely along predictable lines, excepting that two key partners of the UPA—Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)—were critical of the draft Lokpal Bill that was tabled in Parliament. While the opposition parties attacked the government for what they maintained was a hasty effort, the treasury benches defended the legislation.
Checkmate: A doctor examines Anna Hazare
Leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, set the tone for the debate when she questioned the constitutional validity of “religion-based reservation”. She further alleged that by moving the legislation for the creation of Lokpal and Lokayukta under Article 253 of the constitution, the UPA was infringing on the federal freedom of states.
Article 253 would make it mandatory for states to accept the legislation as approved by Parliament due to the country’s international commitments. Instead, Swaraj argued that it should be moved under Article 252 of the constitution, which requires two states to pass a resolution asking Parliament to pass such a law.
“We wanted this Bill in the winter session but did not want such a Bill which will even destroy the existing system. We wanted a strong and effective legislation,” Swaraj said, adding: “Accept our amendments or withdraw the Bill.. Send it back to the standing committee for further discussion and bring it after 2-3 months.”
Swaraj also objected to the process of appointment and removal of the anti-corruption ombudsman and demanded that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) be brought under the purview of the Lokpal.
Swaraj termed the inclusion of the Prime Minister under the Lokpal—with riders—a “farce”. She even questioned the provision for in-camera proceedings and disallowing making public these proceedings even through the Right to Information Act.
Making the government’s case, human resource development minister Kapil Sibal sought to put the political onus on the opposition. According to him, the opposition was engaging in double speak: claiming to support the anti-corruption legislation, but aborting its chances through obstructionist tactics.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh intervened midway through the nearly 10-hour debate in the Lok Sabha and appealed for a political consensus to fight the “cancer of corruption”.
“Unless Lokayuktas are put in place, the cancer of corruption will spread. Let us not delay the issue any further. Federalism cannot be an impediment in the war against corruption,” Singh said, before adding, “State authorities are charged with providing essential services to the common man. It is here that the bane of corruption needs to be combated.”
In a veiled reference to Hazare, he said, “The task of legislation is very serious business and must eventually be performed by all of us who have been constitutionally assigned this duty. Others can persuade and have their voices heard. But the decision must rest with us.”
TMC representatives who spoke after Singh took exception to the Prime Minister’s remarks.
“Don’t undermine the state legislature, don’t undermine the ministers of the state,” Kalyan Banerjee, TMC member of Parliament (MP), said. “Don’t enter into the field of the state legislature, it would be a dangerous proposition.”
Senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Yashwant Sinha also joined issue with Singh and claimed tongue-in-cheek that the prime minister’s intervention was a “farewell speech”.
Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj speaks in the Lok Sabha (PTI)
“A morally bankrupt government has brought not a Lokpal bill but a Brokerpal Bill...The government will say to people in poll-bound states that they had brought the Bill, but Parliament did not pass it...We doubt their intentions. We doubt that they (government) themselves do not want to pass the Bill. They have included such irrelevant issues that the Bill will fall flat in the court,” he said.
Similarly, the Left parties too criticized the Bill in its current form.
“I welcome a Lokpal Bill but not the one that has been introduced,” said Gurudas Dasgupta, a leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI). “If you say that something is better than nothing, then of course it is good...but (it is) not everything that the country needs,” He also questioned whether the Bill had been introduced under duress.
Basudeb Acharia, of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, said the government’s intention was to create an institution that is not accountable to anyone.
“We don’t want such an institution. That is why we raised in the all-party meeting that Lokpal should be accountable. They should be accountable to Parliament and the Supreme Court,” Acharia said.
Harsimran Kaur, MP from Shiromani Akali Dal, said the Bill was “toothless”. She alleged that the UPA was hurrying the legislation through with the sole purpose of mitigating the political damage ensuing from Hazare’s campaign and to posture ahead of the upcoming polls in five states.
Lalu Prasad, leader of the Rashtriya Janta Dal, which supports the UPA from outside, rejected the Lokpal Bill and asked the government to introduce a fresh and strong Bill.
“This also brings armed forces, Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing under Lokpal. They should not be covered and (should) remain outside Lokpal,” he said.
In Mumbai, meanwhile, observers attributed the lukewarm public response to Anna Hazare’s fast to his team’s inability to mobilize support from local political parties, the strong north Indian community in the city and the Dalits.
Hazare’s first two agitations in Delhi for a strong ‘Jan Lokpal Bill’ received massive public support, so Mumbai had been expectant about the response he would receive in the city. The grounds where he sat on fast can accommodate around 60,000 people, but according to Mumbai police, there were only around 8,000 in attendance.
Gaining momentum: Anna Hazare’s supporters gather at the fast venue in Mumbai on Tuesday.(Reuters)
“The government has reneged on its commitment of a strong Lokpal Bill to Parliament given in August and this is nothing but cheating,” Hazare told the crowd. “We have to teach a lesson to Congress for not keeping its promise. I will tour all five poll-bound states and appeal to the people not to vote for the Congress.”
He also reiterated his demand for electoral reforms and giving people the right to reject all candidates in the fray if they wished to do so.
“There are around 150 MPs in the Lok Sabha with a criminal record today and the only way to ensure that such elements do not enter Parliament is to give people the ‘Right to Reject’.” He also announced a plan to launch an agitation in support of the demand that without village councils’ approval, no land acquisition for industry and infrastructure projects should take place.
“Anna’s agitation did not get much support in Mumbai as the Shiv Sena, which provides muscle to any agitation in Mumbai, is opposed to the Lokpal Bill,” said Prakash Akolkar, political editor of the Marathi daily Sakal. “North Indians, another highly politically aware group in the city, also stayed away from the agitation as their leaders like Kripa Shankar Singh and Raj Hans Singh belong to the Congress, who are obviously anti-Anna; and another politically important group comprises Dalits and Dalit organisations who are also opposed to the Lokpal as they feel it is an attempt to change the Constitution given to us by Dalit icon Babasaheb Ambedkar.”
In a separate development, the Election Commission of India issued a press release clarifying on some media reports that the EC was “watching the moves” of Anna Hazare and his team’s campaign in the five poll-bound states.
“The Commission has already clarified repeatedly that everyone has a right to canvass for or against any political party or candidate, as it fully respects the freedom of expression of every Indian citizen guaranteed to them under the Constitution of India. The Commission’s concern is, however, limited to the extent that in such campaigns no inflammatory speeches or slogans are raised...” the EC said in a statement.