With Lokpal Bill delay, a winter of discontent lies ahead

The all-party meeting ended up muddying the waters on the issues relating to the Lokpal Bill. A delay in the Bill's passage seems inevitable, but will it ensure a stronger Lokpal or merely buy time?

Vembu December 15, 2011 06:29:12 IST
With Lokpal Bill delay, a winter of discontent lies ahead

The efficiency of a meeting, goes a derivative of Murphy’s Law, is inversely proportional to the number of participants and the time it spends on discussions.

On that count, yesterday’s all-party meeting, convened to explore the possibility of a consensus on the provisions of the Lokpal Bill, was entirely true to form. It was a veritable Tower of Babel at which parties talked at cross-purposes and peddled their pet themes. It failed to reconcile the differences among the various parties on many of the critical issues that have proved contentious, and in fact added a few more issues that will effectively contribute to obfuscating the issues.

And by the end of the meeting, it became clear that the bill to set up an anti-corruption agency, for which momentum had been building up owing to the very public pressure brought on by Anna Hazare’s campaign, would very possibly be delayed beyond the winter session of parliament.

With Lokpal Bill delay a winter of discontent lies ahead

It now appears certain that the Lokpal Bill will be delayed beyond the winter session of Parliament. AFP Photo

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, the UPA government’s pinch hitter for all political crises, said the government needed more time to study the report of the standing committee (on the Lokpal Bill) and also take on board the views articulated by the various parties at the all-party meeting.

“Give us some reasonable time to consider the views,” Mukherjee said. And while he didn’t say outright that the bill wouldn’t be passed in the winter session, as initially envisaged, it could, he added, spill over.

A delay in itself isn’t a negative outcome for the larger cause of securing a strong Lokpal. It’s more important to get it right than to get it in double-quick time. Yet, it’s not entirely clear that the grace time that the government seeks will result in a stronger Lokpal Bill whose provisions meet the heightened expectations of an awakened citizenry.

And with the movement led by Team Anna waiting like a coiled spring to pounce on any perceived failings or delays, the stage appears to be set for a winter of discontent and a ratcheting up of the political temperature.

The government’s position appears to have been somewhat fortified by the views expressed by many of the parties at the all-party meeting, arguing against proceeding with excessive haste merely to accommodate the sensitivities of Team Anna.

Ram Vilas Paswan, who heads a rump of a party, said the government should not be seen to be being hustled under pressure from anyone. His views were echoed by Samjawadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, BSP leader Satish Mishra and even Sharad Yadav, who had only last Sunday appeared alongside Team Anna at the Jantar Mantar fast and milked it for political mileage. Lalu Prasad Yadav said that it was more important to ensure that parliament’s privilege to pass laws at its own pace was upheld.

Some of the smaller parties at the meeting, like the MIM, distinguished themselves by questioning the very need for an agency like the Lokpal. But in the same breath, its leader also pitched for representation for minorities on the 11-member Lokpal panel. Other parties gave voice to demands for similar quotas for Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes.

The all-party meeting also made no headway on many of the key contentious issues: on bringing the prime minister under the ambit of the Lokpal, whether the investigation wing of the CBI should be brought under Lokpal, and whether the Citizen’s Charter Bill should be incorporated under the Lokpal Bill or outside (in the way the government envisages it).

In other words, far from proceeding towards a consensus, the all-party meeting merely ended up making a pig’s breakfast of the Lokpal Bill proposals and only muddied the waters even more with demands for caste- and community-based reservations on the panel. It’s also not immediately clear how the additional time that the government seeks to evolve a consensus will result in either a congruence of the parties’ views – when they have not come together even months after the issues were crystallised – or, more importantly, how the Lokpal Bill can be given more teeth when in fact most of the smaller parties’ demands appear intended to defang it.

For all the token show of support that Anna’s campaign enjoyed from the political parties that turned up at last Sunday’s fast, when the chips are finally down, the political establishment tends to act in tandem. A “political consensus”, by its very nature, means a search for the lowest common denominator of acceptability among all the various parties. That effectively sets the stage for an emasculated Lokpal Bill that will pass the lowest threshold.

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