x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

India deadlocked over anti-corruption bill

Move to include prime minister in bill tackling corruption bill hits roadblock.

NEW DELHI // A proposed anti-corruption bill being drafted by a panel of government ministers and civil society activists is deadlocked over whether the proposed law should apply to the prime minister's office.

The drafting process, which has gone on for two months, has produced two significantly different drafts of the bill - one from the government and one from the activists. The draft from the activists would allow corruption complaints to be filed against the prime minister - something the government's draft omits.

The bill, to be introduced in the monsoon session of parliament, has been debated so fractiously that the government has postponed the monsoon session by three weeks and will now run from August 1 to September 8. The session is likely to be dominated by the anti-corruption bill.

The government has convened an all-party meeting today to discuss the two drafts.

The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), attacked the government's draft while being reluctant to confirm its attendance at the meeting.

On Thursday, a BJP spokesman said: "You cannot presume we will or will not attend the meeting."

Later the same day, in a television interview, another spokesman, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, said the BJP may wait and debate the bill in parliament.

The Lokpal Bill - named after the title of the proposed public ombudsman to be charged with tackling corruption - has been bounced around parliament in one form or another over the past six decades. Its first version was introduced in 1969, but on that occasion, and on nine subsequent occasions, the Indian parliament rejected the bill.

The bill attained momentum this year, triggered by the spate of corruption scandals emerging from the Congress Party-led coalition government last year.

The most notable of these scams involved the arrest of the former telecommunications minister, A Raja, who had allegedly subverted the allocation process for spectrum, costing the government an estimated $38 billion (Dh139.5bn) in potential revenue.

In April, Anna Hazare, an independent social reformer went on a hunger strike in New Delhi to pressure the government to reintroduce the Lokpal Bill. Four days into Mr Hazare's hunger strike, the government agreed to set up a committee of ministers and civil society activists to draft a bill that would pass parliament's vote.

After nine committee meetings, drafting the bill has proven to be contentious - with significant differences between the government's and the activists' wish lists. Mr Hazare, who was on the committee, called one meeting "quite disastrous".

Kapil Sibal, the communication minister, called the activists' vision of the bill a "cure worse than the disease" and "a Frankenstein monster without accountability [which can] act as an oppressive institution outside the state".

Mr Sibal, who is also the science and technology minister as well as the human resources minister, said bringing the prime minister's office under the bill's purview could jeopardise a government's stability. He has also said that the degree of independence granted to the bill in the activists' draft would make it an unconstitutional authority.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said he was prepared to adhere to the bill, if it became law. But he also said the prime minister's office, being already covered by the Prevention of Corruption Act from 1988, should be exempted from the bill's jurisdiction.

Anil Bairwal, the national co-ordinator for the Association for Democratic Reforms, a New Delhi-based non-profit organisation, said the bill would be most effective only if it applied to the prime minister along with other bureaucrats and government officials.

Mr Bairwal, whose organisation tracks criminal and corruption cases registered against members of Indian legislatures, said it was important that the Lokpal remained independent of the government.

He said the Central Bureau of Investigation was an example of nominally independent authority. "Really, though, it's controlled by the government of the day," he said. "Whereas the chief election commissioner is able to do a good job only because the office has somehow remained independent.

"If it were up to the government, I'm sure even that office would be brought under their control."

Some commentators have been critical of the draft process, saying that a minority of unelected civil society workers has hijacked the democratic process.

There is a risk "that self-appointed and unaccountable people can take over the agenda. That said, until such time that they receive an elected mandate ... they speak only for themselves or their organisations - not the people at large," said Nitin Pai, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, think-tank in Chennai. But, Mr Bairwal said the activists got involved as a last resort to resurrect the bill and ensure that it passed.

"Ideally the government should have done this on its own, but it hasn't.

"The government has created this situation through its inaction. That's why these activists are getting so much popular support - because the government has failed."