Saturday, April 16, 2011

Right to Corruption-Free Governance

The events of the past week are unprecedented in the annals of independent India. The civil society has forced itself in playing a role in the democratic polity. The Jan Lokpal Bill provided the trigger. And the groundswell of support Anna Hazare’s fast received across the country – from the inelectable couldn’t-care-less youth to the unelected nonchalant non-voting middle class – was the proverbial last straw on the nation’s back.
Unarguably never in 64 years of independent India has any single year witnessed this fusillade and testosterone of scams big time that we have borne in the uber-ignoble year 2010 Anno Domini. It was a year like no other. It was a year riddled with scams that poured forth with mind-boggling regularity. CWG, Adarshgate, 2-G, Sukhna Defence land scam, ISRO-Devas deal, Prasar Bharati scam, Karnataka land scam, the CVC imbroglio, Nira Radia teletape revelations were way too gratuitous for civil society to give it a go-by. We should be eternally grateful to the Rajas and Kalmadis to have woken up the civil society from its deep slumber and united it as never before!
It is about time the civil society asked for Right to Corruption-free Governance as a part of its fundamental right to be enshrined in the Constitution. It is as important and as fundamental as the right to equality or right to freedom of expression or right to religious practices or right to constitutional remedies. It is as basic as right to live and breathe. And to think that this fundamental right has not only been given a short shrift but been torn to shreds with imperious impunity!
How vital the Lokpal Bill is will be clear if we start from the scratch. In a compact that forms society or nation, the basic unit is man. A nation exists for its people, who have decided to come together to form a state or nation through a covenant that is binding on all to govern itself and to benefit all its stakeholders uniformly. There are the necessary checks and balances to preempt malfeasance and misfeasance on those saddled with governance. Let’s start with human instinct. This, since time immemorial, is as kleptocratic as the oldest profession on earth.
So given human beings are epicures, there would forever be the impulse to improve one’s lot in a society that values hedonism – even when transactions are not always licit. So checkmate illicit impulses: by law that are not long-drawn; by transparency that makes even RTI redundant; by e-governance that posits, postulates, and posts transactions that are tamper-proof. And this is why there is a need for a feisty oversight mechanism.
There are many demands in the Jan Lokpal Bill that should be beyond reproach for all honest, right-thinking people. Take for instance the need to merge the CBI with the Lokpal. This would provide necessary independence to CBI from the clutches of governing unit. Similarly there is nothing Mephistophelean about it. The suggestion for minimum punishment of five years and maximum of life imprisonment can’t be flawed.
Nor can one fault the suggestion that there must be deterrence against frivolous complaints in the form of financial penalties. Or to provide protection against physical and professional victimization of whistleblowers. Likewise, loss caused to the government due to corruption must be recovered from all accused. The issue of Lokpal institution embracing everyone – bureaucrats, politicians, judiciary including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – should be welcomed by all honest denizens occupying such exalted offices, though it must be ensured that the Lokpal doesn’t become another Frankenstein.
Much as an oversight body with teeth sends a shudder down the criminal’s spine, it, paradoxically, grants spine and vim to the honest public servant to go that extra mile and outshine himself. Why must then one baulk at the thought of empowering the Lokpal to initiate suo motu investigation in any case without reference or permission from anyone? This is, of course, predicated upon the fact that the Lokpal won’t just be an advisory body but would have powers to register FIR, proceed with criminal investigations and launch prosecution. Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption is a kind of super-body against corruption. It combines investigation, prevention, and popular participation – all rolled in one.
In effect, we are left with just three issues that can be bickered. These are fairly trivial and one would hope, given the maturity, intent, and experience of both sides it shouldn’t pose problem to arrive at unanimity. One relates to the constitution of the Lokpal. The civil society activists want this to consist of one chairperson and ten members, of which four with legal background. The other relates to investigations and trial that must be quick and should be completed within one year. Though it would be hard to lay a timeframe, the fact that investigation should be completed in quick time is indubitable.
            We must force a splash: Catching Big Fish and frying them – deep, long, hard, and crisp. Big Fish have high visibility and the more the frying the more the message roundly conveyed. The public tends to weigh effectiveness by status! Nothing kills public confidence more than the belief that the anti-corruption effort is directed only at the small fishes. It needs remembering that Italy’s unprecedented success in its fight against corruption was largely due to frying a top Mafia official, many top business executives, and several major politicians from the ruling party. This told citizens that if they denounced crime and corruption, they certainly could make a difference.  Yikes.
Today, civil society is livid – beyond words. The media has played its part with pox-on-your-face rebuke to unearth crimes notwithstanding the luminaries, caught in crosshairs, spewing venom on them for being the judge, jury, and the executioner. Let the detritus and scums of earth spend themselves out with their spiels of curses worn on their Teflon-coated shirt-fronts. It’s time for India to awake, phoenix-like, from the ashes that public servants have reduced it to. This is not a clarion call; this is a fervent appeal from one proud Indian to fellow proud citizens who would wish to live an honest and dignified life amid this encircling and unending vista of scams – and swindle of public money.
Am I a cosmic optimist to will the Lokpal Bill to galvanize the nation in its quest for honesty? Or, is it malicious to say it will willy-nilly lead one way – to resigned exasperation, as in the past?

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