Parliament's unanimous adoption of a resolution agreeing “in principle” with Team Anna's position on the three sticking points that prolonged the standoff on the Lokpal legislation is a triumph for the anti-corruption mood in the country — and for the Gandhian technique of non-violent mass agitation on issues of vital concern to the people. Anna Hazare and his team deserve full credit for recognising and riding this popular mood, which showed plenty of signs of becoming a wave; for giving concrete shape to the inchoate aspirations of the movement against corruption through the provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill; and for working out a strategy and tactics that refused to compromise on the core issues but knew when to raise the stakes and when to settle. As for the political players, the major opposition parties did well to recognise the soundness of the core demands of Team Anna and keep up the pressure on the government. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the politically savvy elements in the United Progressive Alliance regime can also take some credit for the way they finally acted to resolve this crisis.
What is clear to everyone — except the unreconstructed elements within the political system who have long been opposed to a strong, independent, and effective statutory authority to go after corruption at all levels — is that the Lokpal Bill that was introduced in Parliament by the government and is now before a Standing Committee lies thoroughly discredited. The government must not be guided by those in its ranks who advocate some kind of rearguard action in committee or on the floor of the House to go back on commitments made. The fact is that in sum, that is, in the parliamentary resolution and during the preceding rounds of discussion with Team Anna, the government conceded the following key demands. In addition to Ministers, Members of Parliament (subject to Article 105 of the Constitution), and Group ‘A' officers, the Prime Minister at one end and the lower bureaucracy at the other will be brought under the jurisdiction of the Lokpal. Secondly, under the same statute, strong and effective Lokayuktas on the same model as the Lokpal will be established in all States. Team Anna contends that no constitutional problem is involved here since the Lokpal legislation deals with substantive and procedural criminal law, which is covered by Entries 1 and 2 of the Concurrent List in the Constitution. The bottom-line is that it makes no sense to have a strong and effective Lokpal to investigate and prosecute central public servants for corruption while having defunct or no Lokayuktas in States. Thirdly, the Lokpal legislation will provide for a grievance redressal system, requiring all public authorities to prepare a citizen's charter and make commitments to be met within a specified time frame. Constitutionally speaking, these arrangements are covered by Entry 8 of the Concurrent List dealing with actionable wrongs. Whether the Lokpal or another authority established under the same law will oversee this grievance redressal system remains an open question. For its part, Team Anna has agreed that judges need not come under the Lokpal provided a credible and independent Judicial Conduct Commission, free from conflict of interest and empowered to investigate and prosecute charges of corruption against judges, is established by law. Unfortunately, the contentious issue of a selection committee for the Lokpal could not be resolved. But considering that virtually everyone outside the UPA seems opposed to the official Lokpal Bill's provision that the government will nominate five of the nine members of the selection committee, this can probably be regarded as a dead letter.
There are some excellent provisions in the Jan Lokpal Bill that have gone mostly unnoticed. For instance, Section 6(o) provides that the Lokpal can recommend the cancellation or modification of a lease, licence, permission, contract or agreement obtained from a public authority by corrupt means; if the public authority rejects the recommendation, the Lokpal can “approach [the] appropriate High Court for seeking appropriate directions to be given to the public authority.” It can also press for the blacklisting of those involved in acts of corruption. Then there is Section 31(1), which stipulates that “no government official shall be eligible to take up jobs, assignments, consultancies, etc. with any person, company, or organisation that he had dealt with in his official capacity.” Section 31(2) provides that “all contracts, public-private partnerships, transfer by way of sale, lease, and any form of largesse by any public authority shall be done with complete transparency and by calling for public tender/auction/bids unless it is an emergency measure or where it is not possible to do so for reasons to be recorded in writing.” And Section 31(3) requires that “all contracts, agreements or MOUs known by any name related to transfer of natural resources, including land and mines to any private entity by any method like public-private partnerships, sale, lease or any form of largesse by any public authority shall be put on the website within a week of being signed.”
In appraising what has happened over the past fortnight, a red herring needs to be got out of the way — the idea of the ‘supremacy of Parliament' versus everyone who comes up against it. Parliamentarians who assert this need to learn their Constitution. In India, unlike Britain, Parliament is not supreme; the Constitution is. Nor is law-making “the sole prerogative” of Parliament. The significant victory of the anti-corruption campaigners gives political India a rare opportunity to translate fine anti-corruption sentiments into a potent law that can be a game-changer. The challenge before the people of India is to ensure, by keeping up the pressure, that in the tricky business of law making in committee and on the floor of the Houses of Parliament a potentially powerful instrument is not blunted.