Pranab-da, you can pack off the Baba, but what about NAC?
The Finance Minister has sought to reclaim lost ground in law-making that has been usurped by civil society activists. But as several opinion-makers are discovering, the original sin is that of the Congress for outsourcing its powers to Sonia Gandhi's NAC.
Fighting words are now coming from everyone in the UPA. Initially, it seemed as if only Digvijaya Singh was railing against civil society members trying to muscle into the legislature’s turf by setting deadlines for the passage of the anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill.
Now, everyone from P Chidambaram to Kapil Sibal to Pranab Mukherjee is giving Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare this macho message: beat it, this is our domain.
The truth is, it always was. Lawmaking is Parliament’s responsibility and drafting Bills is indeed the government’s job. But it was the UPA’s failure to do its job that caused others to enter the picture.
Hear Pranab-da’s latest rant, which is full of righteous indignation: “Parliament was given the right to formulate laws. But a section of civil society wants to have supremacy over Parliament and, for the purpose, they are organising hunger strikes… to pressure the government. Such moves will not be tolerated.”
Mukherjee also refused to let Anna Hazare dictate when the Lokpal Bill will be passed. He said: "Nobody can give a guarantee as to how long Parliament is going to take to pass the Bill or when it will be passed. Parliament is supreme." In short, Anna can fast again from August 15 if he wants to to press for his time-table.
While public anger over the UPA’s lack of governance and tolerance for corruption has not ended, informed opinion is not too keen to see civil society activists like Anna Hazare and saffron-clad yoga gurus dictate the government's agenda.
Shekhar Gupta, writing in The Indian Express, said:
"Time has also come now to junk all pretences and face the truth. The original blunder of outsourcing lawmaking and governance is the UPA’s or, more precisely, the Congress party’s. It invented a totally subversive and extra-constitutional idea of the NAC consisting of “civil society” activists and functioning as a super cabinet. Just like the Anna Hazare group, this consists of people never elected, and incapable of ever being elected."
But there are right arguments and dubious ones when it comes to attacking civil society. Here’s a list of the arguments used to discredit civil society, and why some are just plain wrong.
• Unelected civil society members should not be dictating to elected representatives on what they should legislate. Quite right. But two questions arise. Which civil society are we talking about? Is Anna Hazare the only one coercing the government or is Sonia Gandhi’s unelected National Advisory Council (NAC) also doing the same?
The other day, the NAC cabal initiated a noisy demonstration in the offices of the Planning Commission about where the official poverty line should be drawn. This same group also drew up a draft Bill to tackle communal violence. Why is sub-contracting to the NAC's civil society activists right and doing the same with Anna Hazare wrong?
• It is wrong to use fasts and suchlike strategies to emotionally blackmail the government. The counter-question is this: is only emotional blackmail wrong or all kinds of blackmail? When workers at the Maruti plant strike to get their demands met, are they not blackmailing the management? When various castes stage rasta-rokos and block highways to seek reservations, is this not blackmail? The truth is various groups use their own brand of power tactics to get what they want. Before declaring Anna Hazare’s tactics illegitimate, we need to think whether all forms of blackmail should be outlawed.
• Drawing up laws is Parliament’s job, not civil society’s. Sure, why hasn't Parliament been doing this? What stopped the government from bringing a Lokpal Bill before Anna Hazare started his first fast? Even assuming the government was arm-twisted to get Hazare & Co onto the bill drafting committee, what’s so wrong? It is only Parliament which can legislate it. The government can co-opt anyone to help it draft the law. What is not acceptable is the repeated arm-twisting by Hazare & Co, not the fact that it is helping draft the law.
• The PM and the judiciary should not be brought under the Lokpal Bill. Let’s examine the reason why this is being said. Apparently, it reduces the PM’s effectiveness if he is hounded by the Lokpal. This may be true, but doesn’t the same logic apply to ministers or government bureaucrats? Why subject them to the Lokpal’s depredations — and reduce their effectiveness — when the PM is not willing to face the same treatment in the interests of probity in public life?
The bottomline is this: Can Pranab-da try to silence one set of civil society activists and not speak out against his own party leader's worthies at NAC? The intelligentsia is clearly saying no. Hear Dorab Sopariwala on this. Writing in Business Standard, he said:
"Our problem currently lies in the fact that for the first time since independence power lies outside Parliament — in the hands of Sonia Gandhi. Her colleagues on the National Advisory Council (NAC) are not elected and, thus, not accountable to the people. In a democracy, once a government takes office, the party almost becomes a cipher....
"Though there may be a wide agreement on a number of NAC’s suggestions, in a parliamentary democracy, it is the government that must initiate policy, draft Bills and pilot them through Parliament. But here are some headlines from national dailies over the past few months: “Communal Violence Bill unlikely to get NAC nod in this session”; “Govt to introduce 3 bills before NAC nod”; “NAC pulls up tribal affairs ministry on Forest Rights Act”; “NAC clears communal riots bill”; “NAC opposes land bill”; and “NAC objections block land bill”. NAC nod? NAC pulls up? Who is running this country?"
Pranab-da, that's a question for you and Manmohan Singh to answer. You can pack off Baba Ramdev to Haridwar, but what about Sonia's cohorts?
He said there was divergence even on the vision of Lokpal and if the government's stand is accepted, Lokpal would be left to investigate the corruption of only 300-odd officers and ministers.
One has only to recount statements from both sides to appreciate that it’s more than an ideological divide which separates the two. Can a deal be struck?