Thursday, December 22, 2011

On Lokpal, Anna asks for the moon. What’s wrong in that? (First Post)

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‘Anna fatigue’ is creeping in among a section of our commentariat. Now that a Lokpal Bill of some sort has been put together by the UPA government, accommodating some of the points advanced by Team Anna while pitching for a maximalist Jan Lokpal Bill, Anna Hazare should fade away quietly into the night, we’re told.
Of course, some commentators make the same point a lot more forcefully – and inelegantly. Mani Shankar Aiyar, whose erudition is matched only by his vanity and who has elevated the art of administering political insults into the stuff of late-night comedy,says he is “fed up” with Team Anna – and its members should now go back to “flogging drunkards” in Anna’s village. Never one to miss the chance to slip in a facetious one-liner, Aiyar says that the government, which had been overly accommodative of Anna’s sensibilities, should give up on dealing with “annas” and instead go on to dealing in rupees.

In reaching for the moon, even if Anna grabs only a fistful of stardust, he will have done India good. PTI
Even well-meaning commentators who had been supportive of Anna’s campaign all along are feeling a bit jaded by his resort to one more round of fill-the-jail agitation and fast to protest the flaws in the proposed Bill, which effectively neuter the Lokpal even before it has been set up.
In their estimation, now thatSonia Gandhi, who had maintained a Sphinx-like silence for much of the year on arguably the most pressing issue on the political agenda, has come out swinging in defence of the Lokpal Bill as drafted by her government, Anna should claim victory and yield ground. Any imperfection in the bill can be addressed later, Anna is being advised.
There is nothing new about these calls for Anna to call off his agitation and give the government a fair chance to come up with a workable bill. Even when he was preparing for the fast in Delhi in August, a section of the media commentaries gave voice to the “Oh no, not again!” sentiment –as if Anna were a late-night comedian who was repeating his jokes.
Thank god Anna didn’t heed such advice.
If the government has today been pressured, even badgered, into coming up with even a halfways decent Lokpal Bill, it owes to the utter mulishness that Anna and his team exhibited while pitching for a maximalist Jan Lokpal Bill. The initial government draft of the Lokpal Bill was a sick joke, and were it not for the obstinacy of Team Anna – and their public demonstration of the popularity of the cause they were advancing – the government would have hustled it through Parliament and claimed that it was serious about combating corruption.
But Anna’s high-intensity campaign, and the informed manner in which his legal team debated the fine details of the bill in public forums, virtually forced the government to up its game. It was a Clash of Ideas in the finest traditions of democracy, and Anna’s campaign was the more honourable for the fact that it steadfastly eschewed violence. There is no shame in the government admitting that its bill is the better for Team Anna’s interjection.
From all accounts, the version of the Lokpal Bill that will be introduced in Parliament today is a vast improvement on the sick joke that the government sought initially to perpetrate. It accommodates some of the points that Team Anna favoured. The government, which had initially refused to contemplate bringing the Prime Minister under the Lokpal’s purview, has been dragged kicking and screaming into yielding ground, albeit with some clauses to prevent the abuse of the provision.
Similarly it has had to concede the merit of making the lower bureaucracy accountable (even if under an alternative mechanism), and has simultaneously been nudged into bringing forward a Citizen’s Charter and a Grievance Redressal Bill. Even if these don’t come under the Lokpal Bill, the credit for keeping up pressure on the government to advance these provisions certainly goes to the popular movement.
Yet, as Team Anna has pointed out, the Lokpal Bill as currently envisaged also has some flaws that go against the very spirit of the establishment of a strong anti-corruption agency. For instance, by denying the Lokpal any investigative powers, it seeks to enfeeble the proposed institution. Similarly, despite the proposal to change the mechanics of appointing the head of the CBI, no meaningful effort has been made to make the investigative agency truly independent of the government.
These are not technical microdetails that can be fixed with minor tweaks during the parliamentary debate. They go to the very core of what a truly independent anti-corruption agency ought to be. It is this that accounts for Anna’s continued distrust of the government’s legislative effort – and underlies his resolve to push one more time for the movement’s demands to be met.
In a recent TEDTalk, behavioral economist Daniel Goldstein argued that the decisions we make everyday have good or bad consequences for our future selves. He then drew up tools that help us imagine ourselves over time, so that we can make smart choices for the future.
In the debate over a Lokpal Bill, we are at one such crossroads. The decisions we make today have the capacity to shape our future selves for better or for worse. A halfways-decent Lokpal Bill that addresses corruption on the margins, in the way that the government bill will, may seem adequate. But it’s only our lack of imagination that cramps us from being more ambitious and asking for a truly independent anti-corruption agency that meaningfully addresses corruption.
Is Anna asking for the moon? Of course, he is. The Jan Lokpal as his team originally conceptualised it was maximalist, envisaging a virtual parallel police state. But here’s the thing: even Team Anna has moved some way away from its initial demands. To that extent, for all its mulishness, it too has been reasonable.
But in reaching for the moon, even if Anna only grabs a fistful of stardust, he will still have done much good by an India that is yearning for some meaningful effort to tame corruption.
The pressure on Anna to end his agitation is ill-advised. It would be far more meaningful to pressure the government to make a few more concessions to empower the Lokpal with investigative powers and make the CBI truly independent of the government.
It will make all the difference between our present and our future selves.

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