After months of debate and public agitation in India, including a much-publicised hunger strike by anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, it looks like the much-talked about Jan Lokpal bill may fail at the final hurdle. The bill, which would set-up independent ombudsmen to keep a check on government corruption, is being stymied by the Trinamool Congress, an ally of the ruling Congress Party, in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament. The Trinamool Congress wants many provisions of the bills to be scrapped because it feels they infringe on the rights of the states. Since the government is already in a minority in the Upper House, this could at best delay the passage of the bill by a few months or even kill it altogether.
Many of the bill’s provisions have come under intense criticism by parties across the political spectrum. The main complaint about the bill is that it gives far too much power to unaccountable ombudsmen and thus, is undemocratic. Some also feel that the bill is unconstitutional, since it gives the ombudsmen quasi-judicial powers and so, even if it passes in parliament, could be struck down by the courts. Of course, public sentiment in India seems to think otherwise, with Mr Hazare gaining saint-like status among many ordinary Indians who see the Congress-led government as one riddled with corruption and mismanagement. Of course, opposition parties have also exploited this matter for their own ends and the wall-to-wall media coverage of Mr Hazare’s hunger strike did not help the government either.
The government has also been accused of watering down Mr Hazare’s demands. He wanted that all government functionaries should be made answerable to the jurisdiction of the ombudsmen — but that would clearly put too much power in their hands. This could also create a parallel system of accountability to rival that of the courts and parliament. Furthermore, the judiciary remains exempt in the government’s bill as does the office of the prime minister. The argument here is that the judiciary has a self-governing system, but critics say that this doesn’t work well since an institution, no matter how clean, should not be given the task of investigating itself.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 30th, 2011.