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Friday, January 22, 2021

Seize the Right

A comprehensive account tracing the history of the Lokpal movement, and locating its relevance in contemporary times.

Written by Shyamlal Yadav | Updated: January 26, 2020 7:49:58 am
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Title: Anna and the Lokpal Bill : 2010-2018
Author: Rajeev Dhavan
Publication: Orient Blackswan
Pages: 624
Price: Rs 1350

Title: The Lokpal Idea: 1963-2010
Author: Rajeev Dhavan
Publication: Orient Blackswan
Pages: 436
Price: Rs 1095

The years 2011-13 saw unprecedented turbulence in India’s social and political life. A slew of allegations of corruption were levelled at those in power, involving the 2G spectrum sale, the Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Housing, the allocation of coal mines and others, under the aegis of a mismanaged Union government. The septuagenarian Gandhian Anna Hazare, who was until then known only for his developmental work in the village of Ralegan Siddhi, came to Delhi to press for the Jan Lokpal Bill to address maladministration and corruption in public life. He found associates like Santosh Hegde, Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, Baba Ramdev, Prashant Bhushan and many other activists, and for some time, the masses were chanting, “Main bhi Anna”.

There was a lot of manoeuvring, politics, debate and discussion in and outside the government from 2011 till the end of 2013, when a Lokpal (not Jan Lokpal) Bill was passed. Hazare’s protest forced Parliament to adopt a ‘Sense of the House’ resolution in a special session. Many who led the movement to cleanse the political system now seek room within it. Arvind Kejriwal formed the Aam Aadmi Party which now rules Delhi, Kiran Bedi joined the BJP to lead it in the Delhi assembly polls in 2015, Baba Ramdev abandoned his dream of forming a political outfit and stood with the BJP, and Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav first went with Kejriwal but were later sacked, and formed the Swaraj Abhiyan party. Former Army chief General VK Singh went to Hazare’s village in December 2013 and talked of “some people who made political gains from Hazare and then deserted him”, but later he himself joined the BJP and successfully contested two Lok Sabha elections from Ghaziabad.

The movement showed the power of civil society, but the quest for a Lokpal dates back to the Sixties. In two volumes, Rajeev Dhavan, senior advocate in the Supreme Court and dedicated human rights activist, answers every question related to the anti-corruption ombudsman and the Anna movement that forced the Union government to enact the law. The first volume, The Lokpal Idea: 1963-2010, looks at ombudsmen across the world, while the second volume follows the story of Hazare and the Lokpal Bill from 2010 — contemporary history that is unputdownable.

Most of the earlier Lokpal versions fell through because they were drafted by the ruling party on what Dhavan terms a “regime-revenge” model, to target political adversaries. Fulfilling an old demand, the new Act covers the prime minister, ministers, MPs, and all bureaucrats, as well as chairpersons, members, officers or employees of boards, corporations, authorities, companies, societies, trusts, and autonomous bodies established by Parliament, or wholly or partly financed by the central government or controlled by it. The prime minister enjoys special protections — an inquiry against him must be approved by two-thirds (or six out of nine) of the full bench and all members of the Lokpal. Inquiries will be in camera and if the charges are dismissed, the report cannot be made public.

Dhavan questions the subordination of civil society to political society. He writes, “Where political society consists of arbitrary rulers who claim divine right or defend totalitarian rule as necessitous, civil society is oppressed and suppressed with savagery — no less in our time than in any other.” Showing how easily secular democracy can be destroyed, he continues, “It is civil society that has risen to challenge autocracy and the suppression of free speech … The purpose of dissent, disobedience and activism is not only to enable electoral democracy to work, but also to enable people to confront those in power in civil and political society, and thereby profoundly affect the very structure of power.” Minutely detailed chapters like ‘August of Kranti’, ‘Come September and Beyond’, ‘The Denouncement’, ‘Parting of Ways’ and ‘Anna’s Legacies’ are of great interest for students of this civil society initiative.

It is easy to dismiss the event in hindsight, but Dhavan advises, “Anna will be remembered as one who threatened the rulers of Delhi and then faded away from glory … Like JP, Anna did not challenge the autocracy of the government, he challenged the system of governance itself … Anna-style campaigns have their own place in India, reminding all that the ultimate power lies in the vigilance of the people.” About the new Act, Dhavan writes, “The Act has a lot of authorities, processes and decision-makers clubbed together to achieve the ambitions for which it had been created, under intense pressure from all sides.”

This is in fact the history of whatever has happened in the name of curtailing corruption and punishing the corrupt since independence. It is also a concise history of a government system which has failed to deliver, making corruption and maladministration the biggest challenges after poverty. Dhavan follows the Lokpal journey from the Sixties, analysing the role of each of its players — governments, ministers, protesters, political parties — and sparing none, from Anna to Shanti and Prashant Bhushan, Arvind Kejriwal and Ramdev. While the Act specifies that not less than 50 per cent of the members of Lokpal shall be from the scheduled castes and tribes, Other Backward Classes, minorities and women, Dhavan terms this reservation as “cumbersome”.

The Lokpal and Lokayukta Act 2013 got presidential assent in early 2014, but the Lokpal chairperson and members were only appointed in March 2019, after intervention by the Supreme Court and contempt of court proceedings filed by the NGO Common Cause. Now functioning from rented space in the Hotel Ashok in the capital, the Lokpal is yet to start work because rules must be finalised. The significant work done by the Lokpal in over nine months has been to purchase vehicles for its officials according to protocol. One member, former Allahabad High Court Chief Justice Dilip B Bhonsale, resigned on January 9, for “personal reasons”. Draft rules of the Lokpal are travelling between the Department of Personnel and Training and the Ministry of Law and Justice.

Dhavan’s optimism about civil society makes his book relevant at a time when it is voicing its opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act, and when the Aam Aadmi Party, one of the legacies of Anna’s protest, faces a life-and-death election in Delhi.

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