By now it is fair to characterise the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption campaign as the ‘in-between’ movement.
In-between because of its curious timing between the World Cup and the IPL, because the particular version of the Lokpal Bill it is rooting for has led to discord even among its most ardent supporters, because the wide coalition of social leaders who were championing it started splintering apart even with the first flush of victory.
And also because, whether through dirty tricks of the Amar Singh kind or not, there are now question marks over the motivations of the core group itself. Having struck an angry nerve in middle-class India, the movement now seems to be stuck in limbo, pinned down by its own contradictions.
Whether you believe that the Bhushans are being framed for taking on the powers-that-be or not, there are legitimate doubts about a movement that campaigned in the name of India under a picturesque backdrop of Bharat Mata, only to nominate a civil society group with two people from one family, hardly any regional diversity, no lower caste representation and no women.
There has never been any doubt that a Lokpal Bill is required. The question has always been what kind of a Bill will be effective.
As this column argued two weeks ago, the problem with the current version of the Bill being pushed forward so religiously by the Hazare people is that it seeks to create an unworkable super entity.
By centralising tremendous power while relying almost entirely on the good intentions of a few, it risks making the cure worse than the disease.
When I last wrote about the pitfalls in this version of the Bill, critiques from readers were angry and predictable: nothing has worked so far, so what is wrong with trying a radical option, went the argument. Not doing anything is tantamount to accepting corruption.
Since then, events have shown that relying on personalities alone is a risky business when making policy.
The main protagonists have shown themselves to be too thin-skinned for any kind of criticism, even complaining to Sonia Gandhi to reign in Digvijay Singh’s broadsides; questions have been raised against the shining white knights, the Bhushans; and civil society consensus, never a clear concept at the best of times, has shattered over Hazare’s playing to the gallery, especially on Narendra Modi.
So what can be done? By itself, the Lokpal would be an important intervention but it won’t be a magic bullet. Corruption is only the most odious symptom of a systemic problem, so we need to take a wide-angle view of this, not just a myopic and gung-ho crime-fighting approach.
So here is my take: an effective Lokpal Bill must be accompanied by serious electoral reform to take out money power from politics, long-overdue police reforms to make the law enforcement machinery independent and the liberation of the CBI from political control.
As the Chief Election Commissioner points out, political corruption starts from the very process of elections and the money politicians spend today to get elected.
If we can legislate to stop criminals from getting elected and ensure greater transparency in political funding, it would not only remove one of the prime drivers of political corruption at its base, but also bring in more accountability.
The Election Commission, one of our few institutions that is effective and respected, is an institutional model to follow.
It works in practice partly because once an election process gets underway the enforcing arms of the state come under its control. It can, for instance, suspend or remove errant police officers. There is a salutary lesson in the fact that the same police forces which remain compromised under a partisan political dispensation can act competently under a neutral EC.
For over two decades now, the political class, for obvious reasons, has opposed sensible recommendations to reform the police system and to liberate it from political control. Every commission on this issue has recommended autonomy for law enforcement agencies and every such commission has been ignored.
If we can have autonomous police forces at the state level, responsible only to the legislature, and a CBI at the Centre, responsible only to Parliament, as opposed to the Home Ministry, that itself will do half the Lokpal’s job.
Moreover, though the focus of the current debate has remained on politicians, corruption is the by-product of a wider enabling eco-system that defines the quality of our governance. It is as much about the lowest clerk expecting a bribe to pass a file as it is about bureaucrats in the middle and the A Rajas at the top of the pyramid.
If the deliberations on the Lokpal Bill can create the space for such a wide-ranging discussion about improving our administrative structures themselves, it would make a huge difference. It would be the difference between having a Lokpal in name and a real Lokpal who can truly deliver.