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Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Jantar Mantar Sits The Fourth Estate

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty
And 72-year old Gandhian Anna Hazare is the night watchman of India,having completed 3rd day of fast-unto-death demanding a new legislation to curb corruption which is assuming monsterous form. The support he has received from the people is tremendous, though I have come across skeptics speculating a hidden agenda of furthering any of the national political parties' interests. Since the BJP was leading a full-fledged attack on the UPA government for a string of corruption cases, Anna Hazare's people-powered movement can be seen by some cynical Congress supporters as adervtantly or inadvertently strengthening the BJP's campaign. Rightist hardliners on their part have been hinting if this is a Congress ploy to tone down the rage of the people by taking a hugely publicized corrective action.

Ok. Enough politics!


Jantr Mantar (WikiMedia Commons)
Anna Hazare is not targeting any specific instance of corruption case or any political party in particular, the demand that he and the people of India have been making is to put in place a mechanism to check graft. The fundamental disadvantage that we face in our fight against corruption is that the people who are assigned the responsibility and the power to curb  are often the same people who themselves have been accused of committing similar crimes.  In the Judiciary, it would be impossible to find a judge who has a criminal case pending against her/him. Yet, our governments find nothing wrong in appointing a Central Vigilance Commissioner who himself has been charged of corruption during his previous assignment. The sentence," person of impeccable reputation" may have very wide usage in legal parlance but I wonder if the use is even allowed in Legislature and the Executive.

The concept of Lok Pal has been derived from the Scandanavian office of ombudsman whose responsibility is to act as the intermediary between the people and the government, especially look into grievances involving corruption in government offices. The current bill pending in the Parliament cannot be called "Lok Pal" bill in the first place since it will not be able to register complaints from the general public, it can probe into only those complaints that have been forwarded by the Speaker of the  Lok Sabha or by Rajya Sabha Chairman! Talking about the fox guarding the chicken coop;)

After the Karnataka drama, where an honest and upright Lok Ayukta Justice Santosh Hegde crusading against the loot of national wealth by the powerful mining lobby-Karnataka Government nexus, was forced to resign as he felt powerless and insulted, it is further insulting that the government should table even more toothless bill now. The same Justice Hegde was one of the experts of the India Against Corruption who have drafted an alternative version called Jan Lok Pal Bill which seeks to make the agency independent in the same way as the Supreme Court and the Election Commission are. Further, Anna Hazare has also demanded that the committee members include not just politicians and judges but also representatives of the civil society.

This last demand, that members of the panel include representives of the civil society does pose a technical difficulty. As the the Congress governments troubleshooters have been saying, our polity is based on West-Minister model and that there are no precedences of including unelected members into any such body. There is merit in the argument, no parliamentarian would on her own sweet will agree to it. True, the Right and the Left have extended support to Anna Hazare but if they really mean it or just going with the tide, is a question worth pondering. This is especially true for the BJP which just a year back not only undermined the power of but also made a mockery  of the agency just a year back.

Without considerable public support, neither the Right, Left nor the Centre are likely to actually pass the bill or accept civil society,s representatives to it. We will digress here to reflect the origin of the terms, Left,Right and the Centre. They were first used during a Parliament session called by French Monarch Louis XVI in which the liberals sat on the left block of seats, while pro-Monarchists sat on the right side. Soon the terms became popular, Left with communism and Right with neo-conservatives. Centuries have passed and the occupants of these seats in the Legislature may fight amongst themselves but would still unite for causes like massive hike in salaries or preventing outsiders from sharing their responsibilities.

But then I am reminded of Burke's statement in English Parliament, "yonder sit the fourth estate." pointing to the gallery where the press crew were seated. Initially it was the journalists who were called the fourth estate but with the Internet and advancement of communication technology, the fourth estate now refers to the civil society as well as the media. Why can't then the members of the fourth estate, propose a legislation or become members of an agency, primarily established too protect the people from exploitation by politicians and government officials 

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