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Lokpal Bill: Compromises have to be made in this unique experiment of civil society participating in governance

There is no doubt that systemic changes are required to root out corruption which is at the heart of the engine of the government and politics in the country. But there is no quick-fix solution

An observation came to mind as the movement to end corruption suddenly gained momentum, with disparate organisations and individuals forming the new Civil Society platform. I searched the Mahabharata and found a very similar situation in Medhavi's story in the 'Moksha-Dharma' section of the Shanti Parva, a part of the epic.

Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, asks Bhisma, the grand-uncle of the Kaurava clan, (after the end of the Mahabharata): 'Respected Pitamaha, in a situation where the peaceful and harmonious living of people is threatened, what sort of actions can set things right?'

Bhisma narrates the story of Medhavi ('great person' in Sanskrit, whose narrative is recorded in certain renderings of the Mahabharata); how he discussed with his father a plan of action to deal with a crisis that threatened the entire society, namely the existence of violence and selfishness that would cause serious harm to peace and harmony.

Currently, there are two scenarios that are similar to this situation—namely international terrorism and corruption. In our story, the roles of Medhavi and his father are acted by Prashant Bhushan and his father Shanti Bhushan. (It's also nice to note that in Medhavi's story the revolutionary peace initiative was named 'shanti-yajna')!

 In the Medhavi story, what was sought to be changed was the conventional varnashrama-dharma, by including the concept of aapad-dharma. Now we have the 'topic' of the 'Lokpal Bill'—to root out corruption, and the collective appropriating to themselves the name 'Civil Society'.

Let's understand the sane and sound recommendations of Medhavi: "The lack of right education and knowledge are all partly responsible for the social crisis. Delay in taking remedial action will cause greater harm to society."

Medhavi tells his father: "So far you remained too busy studying and practicing law. Kindly change your viewpoint and accept that we all are partly responsible for creating the crises. He stresses the importance of non-violence and 'Truth with firm intention to do good to all.' And he names the special type of yajna as 'shanti-yajna'.

Doesn't this strike a similar note in our present situation?

'Livid Anna sends SOS to Sonia', read a news headline. Anna Hazare had once called Baba Ramdev immature, with "expertise only in yoga". His actions do not make him any better though. For, it would have been better if he had given the inputs of his team towards the draft Bill and left the matter there, without dictating to the government or threatening yet another hunger fast from
16th August.

Isn't he misusing the weapon of the 'fast' ad nauseam? Do fasts have any place in a democracy? Can any one else beat Gandhiji as a negotiator?

We can't understand the logic of totally rejecting the demand to videotape the proceedings of the meeting of the members of the Lokpal Committee.

The recent state assembly poll results are ample proof that people want action. The rise of civil society, especially the middle class, is at best a warning!

Worried at the massive turnout in support of the hunger protests by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, the government developed cold feet and tried to foil the agitation.

The intention of the government was dishonest right from day one, and has been exposed by the arrogance of Pranab Mukherjee: "Parliament is supreme and no one can dictate (terms to us). Captain Pranab is now isolated from his team! When will our politicians perform?

 Let's bring in systemic changes.

Corruption is at the heart of the engine which runs government and politics in India. So when we aim at an anti-corruption law, we must be sensible. This is bound to be a long process and there is no quick-fix solution in sight. Let's make a beginning—even if it is a tentative one.
 
The Cabinet will, strangely, receive two drafts from the joint drafting committee! It's sad that this had to happen now, at the culmination of a process that saw a healthy involvement of the middle class in the political process, something it had shunned for over half a century. The public contributes to the decision-making process through general elections, electing its representatives to office. It has only outsourced its right to make laws and policy to the elected representatives. Now, for the first time, it has been directly involved in legislation and policymaking outside the electoral process. Is the time ripe?

The process has gone awry and the public is being cheated of a unique opportunity to participate in governance. This is a new kind of process which is not validated by past practices. 'Praxis' will lay down the outline of future democratic theory. Hence, trust between partners in the process is essential for its success. Trust is based on the ability to make compromises, not on inflexibility.

The drive of the activists comes from an unusually keen awareness that the people have been denied an anti-corruption law for far too long. It is this awareness that has propelled the movement. The contention is on six issues. But is this so nonnegotiable to the point of jeopardising the entire project? Would it not be better to concede to the government to an extent, establish the office of the Lokpal and develop it further as we go along? The law is not etched in stone. It is legislative action that is always open to judicial review.

For that matter, is the democratic process limited to the polls? No. It includes many aspects of valid political activity outside the 'EVM' (electronic voting machine) system, like public debate, protest, even revolutionary movements, so long as they are not seditious. After all, we haven't yet got a 'None of The Above' (NoTA) option.

One thread of political activity that is widely accepted is the tradition of fasting unto death. It's rather surprising that home minister P Chidambaram protests: "I don't think anywhere in the world, fasting is the way to draft a Bill."

Mr PC, it's perfectly acceptable in India, which became independent thanks to political fasting, even though ministers might call this activity "blackmail."
 
Finally, is the threat to the sovereignty of Parliament so real, that it would be eroded? It's curious that politicians should express this fear, as they have done all they could to lower the esteem of the House of the People's representatives. Maybe it's not that surprising. For it is a demand that the Lokpal should have the power to move against members of Parliament and members of the state legislative assemblies who take bribes to raise questions or to vote.

These are secondary issues that can be ironed out over time. Because, if we feel there is a real need for the prime minister to be brought under the purview of the proposed law, and/or that parliamentary privileges should be curtailed, let's press home these demands in a manner that no government could be able to resist.

We've tasted the joy of putting pressure on the government and we will persist, hopefully! Anyway, who can dismiss the need for the direct involvement of the people in governance on the one hand, while celebrating public-private partnerships and privatisation on the other?

It is in the public interest to pass the Bill, even in an imperfect form. Corruption is at the heart of the engine which runs government and politics in India, so when we discuss the anti-corruption law we are talking about systemic change. This is bound to be a long process, not something which can be achieved at one go. The important thing is to make a beginning. Even if it is a tentative step.

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