New Delhi: In a fresh overture to break the deadlock over anti-corruption legislation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday reiterated the government’s willingness to open negotiations with social activist Anna Hazare to evolve common ground.
The move, which comes in the backdrop of a visible shift in government strategy to project new and relatively more acceptable representatives over the weekend, signalled that the United Progressive Alliance was willing to start afresh to resolve what is otherwise a rapidly worsening political crisis.
Two days after Unique Identification Authority of India chairman Nandan Nilekani articulated his views, aired by NDTV, which called for a more holistic approach to fight corruption rather than only through anti-graft legislation, rural development minister Jairam Ramesh told reporters his ministry was working on a draft legislation that could address grievance redressal, particularly related to delivery of public services and entitlements, at the lower echelons of the bureaucracy.
“The Lokpal Bill placed in Parliament should not be seen as a stand-alone legislation. There are other Bills dealing with corruption like whistleblower’s Bill, judicial accountability Bill, etc.,” Ramesh said, adding that the draft Bill, called the public services grievances redressal Bill, will be put in the public domain within a week. One of the contentious issues over the draft Lokpal Bill introduced by the government in Parliament is that it does not cover lower-level government officials.
Meanwhile, the 74-year-old activist’s ongoing hunger strike seems to have struck a chord with people continuing to turn out in large numbers, both at the venue and in rallies at other metros. The main political opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has been seeking to draw itself into the movement to derive political mileage in its fight against the Congress, particularly with an eye on key coming elections to state assemblies next year.
A worried government, led by the Prime Minister, is clearly attempting to rethink its earlier confrontationist strategy, wherein it first personally attacked Hazare and then jailed him preventively.
“We have made it clear that all concerned individuals should convey their concern on different aspects of the Bill to their representatives in Parliament and to the standing committee. The standing committee has the power to propose any amendment. We are open to a reasoned debate on all these issues. But it will not solve the problem. It needs to be supported by improvements in the pace and quality of judicial processes,” Singh said at the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata, on Monday morning.
A person familiar with the developments and who did not want to be identified maintained that the government had softened its stance to buy some crucial time for itself.
However, it is not clear whether the shift in stance was sufficient to bridge the trust deficit with activists.
Hazare’s associate and activist Arvind Kejriwal, while addressing the crowd at New Delhi’s Ramlila Ground, said the team was open to discussions, but no one had approached them from the government’s side with a concrete proposal.
“It (the PM’s statement) does not mean anything unless he actually sends someone for discussions,” Prashant Bhushan, another member of Hazare’s team, said, commenting on Singh’s call for a debate. “Let them send somebody, they haven’t sent anybody.”
Analysts, however, believe it is time for both sides to look at a compromise.
“The ice needs to be broken and it can’t stretch too much. The government has to take initiative and both sides have to revive the channels of negotiations,” said Balveer Arora, former head of the political science department at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Eminent journalist and editor of Marathi daily Loksatta, Kumar Ketkar, criticized Hazare and his team’s “stubbornness”, saying it is “neither principled nor ideological, but political and egoistic”.
“Therefore, I feel that the so-called uncompromising attitude is more of a strategy than a philosophy. That’s why they want to see how much the Prime Minister and the system can bend,” he said.
Alleging that Hazare and his team have been “taking the nation for a ride on a very simple and apparently innocent-looking issue of corruption”, Ketkar maintained that the activists will come around for discussions only after “earning brownie points”.
The government has been arguing that Hazare and his team are trying to impose their will on Parliament, which it warned would weaken parliamentary democracy in the country.
The Prime Minister on Saturday said there was “a lot of scope for give and take” over a proposed anti-corruption Bill that Hazare’s campaign wants replaced with their own version.
On Monday, Singh said: “Corruption has not disappeared from the system. It surfaces in many forms... We cannot ignore this problem. Corruption not only weakens the moral fibre of our country, it also promotes inefficiency and cronyism, which undermine the social legitimacy of market economics. It also creates a trust deficit, which ultimately weakens our ability to act unitedly.”
To tackle this, Singh proposed improvement of the regulatory mechanisms and a revamp of existing government procedures that will “reduce discretion and make the basis of decision-making as transparent as possible”.
Meanwhile, two Congress MPs from Maharashtra met protesters in Mumbai, with one of them—Priya Dutt—seeking the inclusion of the Prime Minister and the judiciary within the ambit of the Lokpal Bill—a provision the government has been opposing. Her colleague Sanjay Nirupam said while he supported Hazare’s movement on the issue of corruption, he was against setting any deadline.
PTI contributed to this story.