After it failed to come up for vote in a fractious Rajya Sabha last year, the Lokpal Bill — referred to a select committee that is still examining it — seems to have been mothballed for all practical purposes. By declaring another indefinite fast in an attempt to pressure the Centre to reintroduce the Bill in a stronger and more effective form, Anna Hazare and his team of supporters were attempting to take this issue off the back burner and place it where it belongs — on the forefront of the national agenda. With the Centre remaining firm on not engaging Mr. Hazare or his team this time round, however, Team Anna has no option but to call off its fast without gaining any tangible dividend. But this tactical setback does not detract from the importance of the struggle it continues to wage for a strong and independent Lokpal, which remains an important institutional reform to curb political and bureaucratic corruption. It would be a shame if a combination of official reluctance and the lack of political will on the part of other parties continues to stymie the passing of the Lokpal Bill, the first version of which was passed by the Lok Sabha as far back as 1969 only to remain in cold storage for over four decades.
Has Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption lost some of its sheen, or at least the extraordinary groundswell of public support it commanded last year? It was only in April 2011 that, by the fourth day of Anna Hazare’s indefinite hunger strike, the Centre was forced to climb down and drop the draft Lokpal Bill it had prepared and agree to redraft it in consultation with civil society activists. Is the Centre’s refusal to engage Anna now a signal of middle-class disenchantment with the movement, as some sections of the media have assumed? Or has the media itself lost interest in a cause that it took to heart barely a year ago, when it helped mobilise the crowds that rallied around Team Anna and then provided the gathering at the Ram Lila grounds in Delhi breathless, wall-to-wall coverage? The answer to both questions is yes. Team Anna’s image has not benefited from some of the positions its members have staked out, particularly their intemperate attacks on Parliament and parliamentarians. Moreover, the original focus on the Lokpal Bill has been sidetracked by crusades against President Pranab Mukherjee and some UPA ministers, while the decision to campaign against certain political parties in recent elections has robbed the movement of its non-partisan appeal. Whatever the validity of these criticisms, however, they pale in comparison to the political class’s own failings on the corruption front. India needs a strong Lokpal now. We may fault Anna’s tactics but the reason a strong law is not yet in place to deal with corruption is because the government is simply not interested in having one.