A crusade against corruption - Outside View by Sidharth Bhatia

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A crusade against corruption
Apr 9, 2011

It is a safe bet that no one reading this column has not had an experience of being asked for or paying a bribe. It may be a currency note to a policeman, an envelope to get an important document from a government office or even a kickback to a politician for an important licence. In all cases, there was a bribe sought and a bribe given. Some of us did without batting an eyelid but most of us felt unclean afterwards, because no one wants to do something illegal.

In recent times we have also seen the expose of big scams, where the payoffs do not run in a few hundred or thousand rupees but in hundreds of crores. Whether it was the commissions paid during the preparations of the Commonwealth Games or in the granting of 2G spectrum, there is enough prima facie evidence that huge amounts changed hands and the recipients were powerful politicians who still remain the shadows. Corruption, one is sorry to say, is a fact life in India.

This is why the campaign "India Against Corruption" has caught on like wildfire. Youngsters, retired people, men, women, celebrities, ordinary folk, they have all rallied around a frail, old 72-year-old man as he goes on a fast unto death to demand that the government of India immediately set up a group to fasttrack the Jan Lokpal bill to create the office of a Lokpal. A Lokpal is a kind of ombudsman, a higher authority away from the purview of the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary who has immense powers to examine cases of corruption. The multitudes who have reached Jantar Mantar in Delhi, where he is fasting is growing by the minute and those who cannot make it are marching on the streets in their respective cities and towns. It’s being described as a people’s movement, an unstoppable force that is determined to change things in the country though that is a big of an exaggeration because much of the hype is on television; in reality, the scene at Jantar Mantar is much more modest and a lot of the support is on social media sites. Still, it has become a talking point among the middle-classes.

The Lokpal idea per se is an old one. It was suggested years ago and even implemented in many places-18 states have something on those lines. At the central level, however, the plan has been knocked around for 42 years and no government has had the motivation (or courage) to introduce the bill in Parliament. Even now, there is a lot of hesitation on the part of the government to move speedily and show that it is serious about setting up such a body.

Hazare says that the proposed government bill is very weak and will not amount to much. Apart from the relatively mild sentences for corrupt public officials -- just six months or so - the bill also does not give many powers to the Lokpal. His alternative says that the Lokpal should be an all powerful institution with sweeping powers to arrest and prosecute and should not be answerable to either the government, or parliament or even the judiciary. That is the only way the will of the people can be truly expressed, they say. In short, such a body is away and above from existing institutions.

This has troubled many people, and not merely in the government. "In a democracy, one ought to freely express views. But anyone who claims to be the "authentic" voice of the people is treading on very thin ice indeed," wrote political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta in an article in the Indian Express.

What is more, the Lokpal can haul up a bureaucrat or politician not merely for alleged corruption but also for "wasteful expenditure." This means that any decision - even an honest one - that may have led to some loss to the exchequer due to unforeseen circumstances can be questioned by the Lokpal and in extreme conditions the person responsible can be jailed. And no one, including the courts, can overturn this.

This gives enormous power to one group of people. They may be personally clean and incorruptible, but democracy is all about checks and balances and every institution must have some other body that can pull it up if it does something wrong. Besides, as many people have argued, the lack of bodies or laws may not be the real problem; the lack of enforcement and accountability is. Just consider what happened recently with regard to the Central Vigilance Commission, which was set up to ensure there was no corruption in the bureaucracy.

Thus while the crusade has focussed welcome attention on a very crucial issue, it is critical that every citizen fully understand the implications of what is being debated. There cannot be blind opposition or blind support to anything; in today’s information rich society, there is no dearth of well considered opinion and analysis on any subject. Anna Hazare has raised important questions and the government must answer them, but some of the ideas his group is putting forward definitely need closer scrutiny.

This article is written by Sidharth Bhatia. Sidharth is a senior Indian journalist who has worked in print, broadcast and online media. He is a columnist and regular commentator on current affairs for several leading publications and on national television. This article was first posted on Personalfn.

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