The basic task of the joint drafting committee — to prepare a strong and credible Lokpal Bill — seems in danger of subversion by smear campaigns, loose talk, and backroom machinations. It is imperative that the principal objective is not lost sight of in this climate of conspiracy and intrigue: to reach an agreement on a draft legislation that will put in place an effective anti-corruption and grievance redressal mechanism. It is a relief that Justice Santosh Hegde, dismayed by the relentless attacks on himself and other civil society members of the committee, has been persuaded to stay on; had the Karnataka Lokayuta resigned as he threatened to, it would have weakened civil society representation as well as the general resolve to draw up a robust Lokpal Bill. Anna Hazare won a huge victory when his stunningly successful protest movement forced the Centre to agree not only to draft a fresh Bill but to do so with civil society activists as a part of the consultative process. It would be a shame if character assassination and other forms of pressure were allowed to sabotage this spirited initiative.
At the same time, it is important that the civil society activists on the panel do not strike recalcitrant postures and that they show the open-mindedness required for such a consultative process. The Centre's aborted draft Bill defeated its own purpose by severely restricting the Lokpal's discretion to probe corruption complaints received from the general public. But certain features of civil society's proposed alternative, the so-called Jan Lokpal Bill, have been rightly criticised as being unworkable, unnecessary, and excessive. For instance, the Lokpal was originally envisaged as an Ombudsman on the lines of those in the Scandinavian countries, and not — as the civil society draft bill does — as a kind of Supercop who lords it over the Central Bureau of Investigation. Moreover, if the Lokpal is allowed to probe allegations of misconduct against High Court and Supreme Court judges, what becomes of the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill that seeks to achieve this very purpose and is to be presented in Parliament shortly? The Lokpal Bill cannot alter the very structure of the criminal justice system or be allowed to compromise institutions that are integral to our democratic and constitutional order. What India badly needs is a Lokpal Bill with teeth, which fixes the glaring weaknesses in the government draft while staying clear of the eccentricities in the civil society version.