We have creatively redefined national interest, representation, democracy and corruption to the benefit of vested interests.
If bribe-giving is legalised, some have suggested, the vexed problem of corruption facing the government would be less severe. Some powerful voices from within and outside the government have even argued for this. The argument is in line with the theoretical case that corruption and smuggling improve economic efficiency. Such redefining of words is not an isolated activity today.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indulged in it at a recent meeting with newspaper editors. On the Lokpal bill, he said he personally favoured the Prime Minister coming under its purview but added that his Cabinet colleagues were against it — prevarication at its best.
Dr. Singh has acted decisively on issues close to his heart like the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal, which he pushed through in spite of the threat to his government and disquiet among many. Clearly, for him, the Prime Minister coming within the Lokpal's purview is not of much importance. It is consistent with his view that corruption is not as endemic as is being made out by the media and the Opposition, and that it is largely their creation. He also pleaded for moderating the campaign against corruption on the plea that it is spoiling our international image.
His argument that decision-makers act ex-ante, in uncertainty and without full information, must be music to the ears of wrong-doers. He clarified that in hindsight, one can be wiser about the mistakes committed. The sub-text is that inappropriate decisions are not deliberate, but genuine errors of judgment — an alibi for corrupt elements.
As a general proposition, the argument can hardly be faulted. But is it also true in specific cases? In the 2G spectrum allocation case, the CBI, under the Supreme Court's directions, has unearthed blatant wrongdoing. Giving a very short notice to file bids and, that too, a few hours, for instance. Without advance knowledge, a bid could not have been filed. Why did some of the licences go to those who had no experience in the field? None of this had anything to do with uncertainty.
Dr. Singh also argued that he could not be expected to look into details pertaining to each Ministry and that he was not an expert on all matters. But he has a string of agencies and experts at his beck and call. Why was their advice not sought? Especially, when the wrongdoings pertaining to the 2G case were immediately pointed to in 2008? The implication is that the system failed. Is someone accountable for the failure? In the Commonwealth Games scam, there was blatant loot in contracts and purchase of exercise machines and toilet paper rolls. None of this had anything to do with uncertainty or ex-ante nature of decisions or lack of expertise. Has the Prime Minister shifted ground — from his ‘coalition compulsions' argument to giving technical explanations for his silence and inaction?
If Dr. Singh's line of argument is to be accepted, from now on, no one need take responsibility or be accountable as mistakes can be said to be unintended or due to a lack of expertise. Further, one ought not refer to widespread wrongdoing lest it spoil the international image. The Prime Minister, a clever academic, has distorted the meaning of words such as “accountability” and “corruption.”
Changing the meaning of words like “accountability” will damage the system. Rule of law, social justice, good governance and building a civilised society depend on it. Similarly, when terms like “democracy,” “people's representation” and “justice” lose much of their content, democratic institutions decline. Thus the nation needs an institution like Lokpal to bring about accountability.
The government has decided to aggressively stall a stricter Lokpal bill. To be fair, arguments for leaving the Prime Minister and the higher judiciary out of the Lokpal's purview have been advanced by other respected persons too. Their argument is that the inclusion of the Prime Minster and the judiciary will undermine their independent functioning and prevent them from taking tough decisions for fear of being incorrect and inviting challenges. Logically, then, they should not come under scrutiny even after they demit office because even that could deter them from taking decisions. In other words, no accountability should be demanded of the Prime Minister.
Further, it is argued that in a democracy, the Prime Minister is accountable to Parliament. So, any wrongdoing by him would automatically be checked by the Opposition (enforcing accountability). It is also stated that the Lokpal, an agency external to the parliamentary system, will undermine Parliament. It is also feared that frivolous charges could be brought against the Prime Minister, given the nature of fractious politics. Every time a charge is levelled, there would be a demand for the Prime Minister's resignation and she/he would be immobilised.
All this begs the question: why is there a strong demand for bringing the Prime Minister within the Lokpal's purview? Why has Parliament failed to make the Prime Minister accountable? In the last 40 years, many Prime Ministers have been suspected of wrongdoing. Same is the case with many Chief Ministers, Ministers, Chief Justices and the higher judiciary. The existing institutional structure has patently failed to make these high functionaries accountable.
Further, due to corruption, justice is either miscarried or delayed (barring a few high-profile cases). There is a widespread feeling of lack of social justice. The political leadership and the top judiciary are seen to have failed the people in spite of the checks and balances a democracy is supposed to provide. Their credibility has been eroded, leading to the demand that they be made accountable in newer ways — outside the present democratic framework.
In brief, ‘democracy' is being given as the reason for not bringing the nation's highest functionaries within the Lokpal's ambit. The counter-argument is: because ‘democracy' has been twisted out of shape, there is a need for newer ways to re-energise it by, say, an independent Lokpal. Of course, it goes without saying that even the Lokpal may eventually get subverted since there can neither be a magic wand nor a perfect law to deal with social problems.
It is also argued that NGOs and civil society groups are not people's representatives — at best, they represent small groups. The legislators, on the other hand, are people's representatives. This view also emerged in the all-party meeting on the Lokpal bill. While formally this is true, the reality is that ‘representation' has lost much of its meaning. Does anyone represent people's interests today? Members of civil society groups and NGOs who have stood for elections have mostly lost. So the politicians are right in saying they represent only small groups. But this is not the whole truth.
The way the government initially caved in to the demands of civil society groups suggests that it panicked because these groups captured the popular sentiment of that section — the middle class — which has provided the government its legitimacy. The media, by playing up the issue, aggravated matters.
The government's flip-flop on the issue in the last few months ought to clarify whose interest it serves — citizens, the elite or vested interests. While workers' movements (big and small) have been routinely ignored by the government or dealt with a heavy hand, it responded to the middle class protests. With a scam a week surfacing in the last few years, the illusion of the middle class that the government represents its interests stood shattered, which is why the government initially reacted the way it did. As soon as it devised ways of confusing the middle class, it backtracked.
Revelations in the phone hacking investigations in the U.K. have brought out the nexus among the power elite and the erosion of accountability in the mother of democracy. In India, we are way ahead and have creatively redefined national interest, representation, democracy and corruption to the benefit of the vested interests.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)