New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government finally introduced the landmark anti-corruption Lokpal Bill on Thursday in the Lok Sabha, on an eventful day that saw a series of procedural missteps by the government.
However, the mood of the house suggests that the item of legislation is unlikely to go unchallenged.
Protest symbols: Workers make kites with images of Anna Hazare at a workshop in Ahmedabad. Photo: Amit Dave/Reuters
In what could pose fresh political problems for the UPA, social activist Anna Hazare, unhappy with the draft Bill, declared that he will be launching a fresh agitation from 27 December in Mumbai and from 30 December in Delhi.
While the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) objected to the introduction of the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011, as not being constitutionally valid in its present form, a section of the House cautioned the government that it should not surrender the supremacy of Parliament to agitations on the street, referring to the public protests spearheaded by Hazare.
The Bill was introduced along with a Constitutional (116th Amendment) Bill to give the anti-graft ombudsman constitutional status that will allow it to function independently like the Election Commission of India, even as several parties questioned the “haste” with which the Bill was brought to the House. Parliament’s winter session has been extended by three days from 27 December to debate the fresh Bill.
Mint’s Anuja talks about the introduction of the Lokpal bill in Parliament and how political parties and Anna’s team are reacting.
Hazare, who has already rejected the Bill saying it was weak, said he will hold a sit-in-protest in front of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s residence in the national capital.
The house witnessed intense political drama with members belonging to parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Trinamool Congress demanding the inclusion of minorities in the composition of the Lokpal. Of the proposed nine members, a quota has been provided for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward classes and women. The protests led to several adjournments, forcing the government to incorporate the change by distributing a corrigendum.
However, the BJP vehemently opposed the process through which it was allowed and argued that including minorities would mean that the reserved quota would exceed 50%, which was not within the norms of the Constitution. Objecting to the Bill in its present form, leader of the opposition Sushma Swaraj said it will be struck down in court. “It is very important (that) we see beforehand that the laws we passed do not get stuck in the judiciary.”
The government has rejected the argument on the grounds that it is the role of the judiciary to decide whether the provisions of the Bill are in conformity with the Constitution. Leader of the Lok Sabha Pranab Mukherjee said the government was under “no duress” on the issue and it was for parliamentarians to decide the fate of the Bill. “If you feel it is not necessary, we will not have it. Legislation is the domain of Parliament. It is not made on the dharna manch or on the streets.”
Demanding that the Bill be withdrawn as it’s not strong enough, RJD chief Lalu Prasad said Parliament’s supremacy and the judiciary’s independence cannot be sacrificed for agitations on the street. “Parliament can’t be run from the footpath,” Prasad said, adding that the Bill should cover not only politicians and bureaucrats, but also “those who light the candles and take out marches”, referring to non-governmental organizations.
Communist Party of India member Gurudas Dasgupta agreed. “Let nobody pretend to be a single crusader of corruption... Please don’t be afraid of any single person.” The politicians’ displeasure with Hazare and his team was evident from the loud applause both Gupta and Yadav received when they attacked the activists.
RJD, SP, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMM), and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) opposed the inclusion of the Prime Minister in the ambit of the Lokpal Bill. “The Bill starts with a premise that all members of Parliament including the PM are corrupt,” said Asaduddin Owaisi, AIMM leader.
The BJP, the Janata Dal (United), the AIADMK and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) raised concerns over the federal structure being disturbed by making the lokayuktas mandatory for the states. But Mukherjee replied that the “sense of the House” passed on 27 August reflected it. The Lok Sabha held a special debate on the Lokpal after Hazare went on a 13-day fast demanding a strong Lokpal Bill in August.
The activists were, however, relentless in their opposition.
“The Bill seeks to promote corruption and protect the corrupt. Under this Bill, the Lokpal will be a puppet of the government. The government should recall the Bill and redraft (it),” said Arvind Kejriwal, a close associate of Hazare. The main points of contention focus on the ambit of the ombudsman’s office and its powers of investigation. The government Bill offers only limited jurisdiction over the prime minister and requires the ombudsman to put any criminal probes in the hands of the government-controlled Central Bureau of Investigation.
However, Mumbai-based political analyst Jai Mrug pointed out that the Bill in its present form can be questioned by the Supreme Court on many grounds, including “the inclusion of PM under the Lokpal and the quota provided in the Bill”. Mrug added, “It is certainly going to be a rough ride. The government has touched a lot of raw nerves, specially protagonists of minority groups as well as politicians who treat privilege of MPs as sacrosanct.”