Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lokpal, Corruption, the Left's struggles

One has, in the last few weeks, been asked this question often: "what prevented the Left parties from bringing in a Lokpal Bill earlier?" This was particularly after I sent across an interview with Prakash Karat on the subject. Some thoughts on that here.

Lokpal makes only a small, though important, difference to corruption in India. While the idea of Lokpal, and many versions of it, has been in circulation for many years, it has not been passed by the Parliament till today. If the passing of Lokpal is the only criterion chosen to judge the efforts to end corruption, then there is indeed a collective failure of the political system, that includes the Left. However, the choice of that criterion begins with the assumption that Lokpal is a complete, and adequate, answer to corruption in India. I dont think so. The Left also has never said that anywhere. It is Anna Hazare who says it now.

The core long-term political question I am interested in is not whether Lokpal was passed or not, and who made the shrillest noise about it, but who has made the best effort to fight corruption in its multiple varieties. Certainly from the 1980s, at least, when large-sum corruption started showing up in India, it is the Left that has fought it tooth and nail. Take Bofors, take the Jain diaries in the hawala case, take the JMM bribery case, take the St Kitts case, take the Sheila Kaul case, take the Shiv Shanker all these cases, it was only the Left that fought the Congress and its corruption on the streets, as well as in the Parliament. Yes, many of these struggles did not acquire the stature of the Anna Hazare agitation. Partly, I believe, it was because the starkness of corruption had not, probably, stared at the Indian people (particularly the middle class) more before. An idea, ultimately, has to grip the masses!

But today, corruption has expanded most widely to many more spheres, has exceeded imaginations in scale and size, and the growing midde class has gotten restless about the frequency with which it has hit the stands. This was never the case before. This is why the idea of Jan Lokpal, put forward so dramatically by Anna Hazare, has become popular. I am sure that more than 95 per cent of the people with Anna have never read the Jan Lokpal Bill. They dont know the difference between the government's Lokpal Bill and Jan Lokpal Bill, other than that the Prime Minister is not included in the government's Lokpal Bill.At the same time, the credibility of the UPA-II government is so low that people are not ready to believe that they can ever bring in a genuine legislation on corruption. So, they believe that anything other than the government's bill has to be a "good" and "strong" bill. The media (eager to raise money and TRPs
) is publicising only the Jan Lokpal Bill. They do not even discuss or publicise the alternatives put forward either by the CPI (M) or the NCPRI. So, people think that parties like the CPI (M) are sitting silent on the present Lokpal controversy.

Goign back to history, it was never thought in the Indian political discourse that a Lokpal can end corruption on its own. This was not just the Left's view. Reviewing the Lokpal Bill of 1986, L. C. Jain (noted Gandhian, economist and Magsaysay award winner) wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) in 1986 that: "in any case, even with a vastly broadened scope, Lokpal will always be a moral censor and no more". In this short piece, Jain refers to the report of the Santhanam Committee on Prevention of Corruption of the 1960s, which had put much emphasis on "an example being set by the top" as crucial to end corruption. He quotes the Committee report thus: 

There is a large consensus of opinion that a new tradition of integrity can be established only if the example is set by those who have the ultimate responsibility for the governance of India.

Jain further wrote that:

The Committee also reported that "the public belief in the prevalence of corruption at high levels has been strengthened by the manner in which funds are collected by political parties, especially at the time of elections" and suggested that all political parties be required to publish audited accounts annually and "failure to conform to such obligation should debar a political party from recognition by the Election Commission".

Furthermore, the Committee held that to generate "a favourable social climate" against corruption, the integrity of not only Ministers at the Centre and the states but also the Members of Parliament and of the State Legislatures will be a great  factor and suggested that they should therefore submit an annual statement of assets to Parliament and the State Assemblies and disclose whether they were in the employ of any business firms.

The Santhanam Committee's recommendation "to set an example from the top" was to create a CVC, which was actually set up. MPs do submit asset returns to the Parliament now. And Santhanam's Committee's most fundamental recommendations regarding prevention of corruption were related to "administrative reforms". Thus, the first Administrative Reforms Commission was formed in 1966 (however, in a State like Kerala, the Left had instituted an Administrative Reforms Commission in 1957 itself; EMS Namboodiripad, the then Chief Minister of Kerala, was the Chairman himself). The point is that while the Santhanam Committee also saw the institution of Lokpal and Lokayuktas as important, it never stopped anywhere there. It went far beyond it to recommend wide-ranging and comprehensive measures to end corruption.

And Jain concludes thus:

Thus no matter what teeth we put into the Lokpal Bill or what coverage it is allowed in terms of the range of dignitaries who can be arraigned before the Lokpal, it would make little impact on cleansing public life of corruption if in the hearts of our public men it is inscribed: 'dharma does not live here any more'.

I refer to Jain's piece here only to make the point that Lokpal was never thought of in the Indian public and political discourse as a panacea to corruption, as Anna Hazare is making it out to be now. There were a series of measures that were discussed. Lokpal was just one of them. So, to say that the Left parties did not fight for Lokpal earlier is to look at history in a distorted manner, and to see political debates out of their historical context.

As I said, it was only in the 1990s that big ticket corruption, and that too in short frequencies, began to hit India. The long list of corruption cases that I mentioned in the beginning of this post is evidence. Even here, the Left parties did bring attention to the Lokpal, but they had a different view on it. I will draw attention to the Frontline article of EMS Namboodiripad dated May 18th, 1996. It was titled "VIPs and Prosecutions: An Alternative to Lokpal". Interesting title, is it not? Here, EMS is forthright in his view. He writes:

The appointment of a Lokpal and bringing the office of the Prime Minister within the jurisdiction of the Lokpal is no solution for the widespread corruption from which no VIP is free. The real solution is the equal application of the law to VIPs and others. Fear of the law, the fear that one may be caught by the investigating and prosecuting agencies, is the only deterrent that will prevent VIPs from doing what they are now doing...

After all, even if the Lokpal goes into the cases, the conclusion that he arrives at would only be the basis on which prosecutions will start. Why should, therefore, prosecutions wait for an enquiry by the Lokpal? Investigation and prosecution by the agencies concerned constitute the proper way to deal with VIPs as well as ordinary citizens...

This is the alternative that is proposed here to the Congress proposal for a Lokpal Bill...

The heart of the suggestion made here is that VIPs should not be placed on a high pedestal, enjoying exemption from investigation and prosecution. Fear of ordinary investigating and prosecuting agencies will alone deter VIPs from what they have been and are continuing to do.

As you can see, EMS did not put undue faith in the supposed infallibility of the Lokpal to end corruption. He, and the CPI (M), put much more emphasis on much more real, feasible and effective ways of tackling corruption. There was no magic bullet to end corruption; that happens to be Anna's view. Anna appears sure that Jan Lokpal Bill will end 65 per cent of corruption in India, neither 64 nor 66!

The above continues to be the CPI(M)'s view even today. That is why the opening statement of the note that the CPI (M) has released on Lokpal Bill, dated 2nd July, reads:

The battle against corruption, in order to be effective today, can be achieved only through a comprehensive reform of our political, legal, administrative and judicial systems and not through one-off or piece-meal measures. The establishment of an effective Lokpal institution is one such measure. This needs to be complemented by other measures.

I believe that the CPI (M)'s is a better, and more workable, version of the Bill than the 2 main versions of the Bill in circulation (so is the NCPRI version, which is closer to the position of the CPI (M)). It based on the following basic premise:

The separation of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution. The institution of Lokpal should conform to this basic structure.

But who has the time to discuss all that? Everybody is behind magic bullets, which have "popular appeal"! Populism is the king!!