What Should the Government of India Do?

Written by  //  August 22, 2011  //  National Politics  //  1 Comment

[A guest post by Anup Surendranath, suggesting a prudent path that a hitherto bungling UPA government can now adopt]

This is a response to a thought exercise: in light of the protests led by Anna Hazare, what would your advice to the Government of India be?

The Government is undoubtedly losing the PR battle to Anna Hazare. Before I put forth my views on what the Government can do in this situation – I’d like to state my position on the protests led by Anna Hazare. I believe that Hazare has tapped into the increased alienation many sections of society feel from the state, which was exacerbated by recent instances of corruption at the highest levels. However, I disagree with Hazare and his team’s use of these protests to pressurise the Government to introduce and pass the Jan Lokpal Bill in Parliament by September 8, primarily because it is a horrendous draft and also concerns surrounding parliamentary processes. The people on the streets want a strong response to corruption. But Hazare is adamant that the Jan Lokpal Bill is the only solution. I also believe that critical provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill are unconstitutional and agree with the NCPRI’s critique of the draft.

Coming to the issue of what the Government of India can do right now — the Government’s first step should be to immediately withdraw its Lokpal Bill from Parliament. It must then partially concede to Hazare’s demand and debate the Jan Lokpal Bill in Parliament and call for an extensive debate on it within Parliament. It must refuse to concede to the demand that the Jan Lokpal Bill should necessarily be passed. The Government should then ensure that the debate is conducted with the same rigour, dignity and purpose as we saw in the Rajya Sabha during Justice Soumtira Sen’s impeachment.

If the Government wants to regain control of this situation, it must walk the talk on the critical role of Parliament in Indian democracy. Smart politics, one would assume, demands that Parliament debates the Jan Lokpal Bill rather than the Government’s Lokpal Bill. Reactions from political parties so far make it evident that support for the Jan Lokpal Bill inside Parliament is negligible. Yes, political parties have spoken out strongly against the Government’s response to corruption so far and its arrest of Anna Hazare but there has been hardly any political support for the Jan Lokpal Bill. The Government must seize this narrow window of opportunity to regain some lost ground.

This would also serve as a successful tactic to push the BJP on the defensive. In his response in Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley was careful to avoid any reference to the contents of the Jan Lokpal Bill. The BJP has not revealed its hand and yet there are reports of organisations like the ABVP forcing some colleges to shut down (in Bangalore atleast) to facilitate student participation in the protests. Irrespective of the level of BJP’s support for Hazare’s protest, it is doubtful whether it would translate into support for the Jan Lokpal Bill inside Parliament. Even if the BJP does support it, the numbers will not stack up in favour of the Jan Lokpal Bill but there is a fascinating question to consider: will the BJP vote in favour of the Jan Lokpal to capitalize on the current public mood for electoral gains in 2014? Or is 2014 too far away for such a move to pay dividends?

A critical issue that will have to be considered is whether parties must issue a whip for this vote. The Government must push for a vote without a whip being issued by any of the political parties. Issuing a whip and then defeating the Bill would open it up to further accusations of manipulating Parliament. The Government must rely on a robust debate in Parliament to highlight the controversial and unconstitutional aspects of the Jan Lokpal Bill. This is the only way for the Government to take the focus away from itself and direct it towards the deeply flawed Jan Lokpal Bill.

The risk that the Jan Lokpal might become law is a minute one compared to the control the Government will regain on the issue. And the perceived risk, I would assume, is more in the realm of logic rather than realpolitik.

However, the Government needs to ensure that a simultaneous process of formulating a strong Lokpal Bill is initiated. It must form a non-partisan drafting committee of unquestionable integrity involving representatives from various political parties and different voices from civil society. It must send the message that it does not consider Hazare’s team to be the sole representative of civil society and could perhaps ensure that only one of them is on this new drafting committee. The Government must commit itself to supporting this committee’s draft in Parliament.

Dithering on the creation of a strong Lokpal is no longer an option for the Government and we must thank Anna Hazare for that. If there was ever a time for the Government to surprise its opponents, it is now and it must do it by exceeding expectations.

One Comment on "What Should the Government of India Do?"

  1. Avijit Das August 22, 2011 at 10:00 pm ·

    Do you want a stong Lokpal Bill or do you want congress to continue in the govt. Your writing is not impartial at all… it is full of cheap but nieve tactics on how Congress can take steam out of Jan Lokpal movement and corner opposition parties.
    You have not given logic why do you think Jan Lokpal in “unconstitutional”… have only toed the congress line.
    the only way govt cant still salvage the situation is to be honest and accept public demand for a strong Lokpal. Time for cheap trics have gone past.

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