Everybody fights over nobody’s Bill. That headline sums up the fiasco over the Lokpal Bill. In outraged tones, the Congress accuses the BJP of sabotaging both the Constitutional amendment in the Lok Sabha and the Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha. The BJP expresses equal outrage at the Congress’ ‘phoney’ bill seeking a powerless Lokpal. Smaller parties say they cannot tolerate a Lokpal with jurisdiction over state government matters . Team Anna sulks at the lack of public response to Anna Hazare’s Mumbai fast, and vents anger against the Congress for moving a weak bill.
The danger in this blame game is that politicians will create enough confusion in the public mind to delay action indefinitely, allowing a gradual return to corruption-as-usual. This happened in the celebrated Bofors case of the 1980s.
Public anger against corruption was sky-high when the Rajiv Gandhi government was accused of taking kickbacks after giving an arms contract to the Swedish company Bofors. This public anger translated into a humiliating election loss for Rajiv in 1989. Voters confidently expected that many top Congress functionaries would be nailed for their misdeeds.
Alas, the VP Singh government that followed was soon totally engrossed in agitations over caste-based reservations and the Babri Masjid. Investigations into Bofors were neglected or diluted. The Congress party returned to power in 1991 and, naturally, stalled investigations. Then came the United Front government in 1996-98 , followed by six years of BJP rule, and still nothing happened. Bofors turned out to be just a game played by politicians to come to power, not to crush corruption.
This could happen again. The government has pledged to take up the Lokpal Bill in the next session of Parliament, giving itself time to organize more support in the Rajya Sabha. However , there is no guarantee that both Houses will ultimately pass a meaningful bill. The plain fact is that politicians across all parties hate the idea of an effective Lokpal that can send them to jail for their sins, which is why they have sabotaged nine earlier attempts to enact Lokpal legislation. This time Hazare’s agitation has forced the political class, kicking and screaming, to finally enact something.
What that something will be remains to be seen. The scope for sabotage on one ground or another remains huge. Some parties could scotch Parliamentary approval by insisting on draconian powers for the Lokpal. Others can sabotage it by aiming for a toothless Lokpal. Still others can sabotage it in the holy name of federalism, which they say will be hit by central legislation that provides for Lokayuktas in the states. Every argument is phrased in passionate appeals to morality, yet the combined effect — wittingly or not — could well be to scotch any effective anti-corruption authority.
Hazare failed to draw big crowds in Mumbai to witness his fast, and then gave up the fast after a day, a pathetically un-Gandhian performance. His said he had failed to persuade the government to introduce a strong Lokpal Bill, and so the reason for the fast was over. He castigated the Congress high command, but had nothing to say about other parties that nixed the Constitutional amendment and the Rajya Sabha bill. He walked out of his press conference when pressed on the BJP’s role, leaving the media aghast. He simply said his next act would be to campaign against the corrupt Congress in the coming state elections.
This can only erode his image further. He soared to fame not because of himself but because he represented a Big Idea. He rode the tide of massive pent-up public anger against corruption in all political parties, not the Congress alone. Hazare could harness this anger because he was seen as a Gandhian not affiliated to any party. But by shifting, first in the Hissar by-election and now in the coming state elections, to a firm anti-Congress stance, he is beginning to look like a political player rather than moral referee. In UP, campaigning against Congress will, by implication, mean campaigning for the highly corrupt government of Mayawati . What a fall for a Gandhian!
He will not lose all his clout just because of one poor Mumbai rally. He may once again attract large crowds if politicians are seen to be jointly killing the Lokpal Bill. But his moral stature has been diminished. The biggest loser may be the public. With much less to fear from Anna, politicians may conspire to create a toothless Lokpal , or kill the Bill in Parliament altogether. Public anger needs to stay on the boil to prevent the Lokpal from going the Bofors way.