India ended last year amid political chaos, as the much-awaited “Lokpal Bill,” aimed at creating a strong, independent anti-corruption agency, collapsed amid a welter of recrimination in the parliament’s upper house, after having passed the lower house two days earlier. The episode, which leaves the bill in suspended animation until its possible revival at the next session, raises fundamental issues for Indian politics which will need to be addressed in the new year.
The need for the bill — Lokpal loosely translates as “ombudsman” — was first mooted in 1968, but eight subsequent attempts to create one had never reached a parliamentary vote. The credit for imparting urgency to an issue that had become a hardy perennial of Indian politics goes to the mass campaign that coalesced around a Gandhian leader, Anna Hazare, who insisted that a “Jan Lokpal Bill” (“People’s Ombudsman”) drafted by his followers had to be enacted in toto.
Two well-publicized fasts by Hazare, attended by hundreds of thousands and breathlessly covered by India’s news channels, pushed the government to expedite preparation and consideration of a bill. The draft differed in many respects from Hazare’s, but it retained what most people sought — an independent agency with its own investigative resources and prosecutorial powers.
After parliamentarians were summoned back to work after Christmas in an unprecedented extended winter session, the bill passed the Lok Sabha (the lower house), where the ruling coalition commands a narrow majority. However, the government’s attempts to entrench the law in a constitutional amendment, thereby elevating the authority of the office, failed to command the necessary two-thirds support. Still, the bill’s passage after 43 years of stalemate was little short of historic.
The action then shifted to the Rajya Sabha (the upper house), where the government lacks a majority. After a session lasting until midnight, punctuated by the introduction of 187 amendments (most by the opposition, but some by coalition allies of the ruling Congress Party), the government pleaded incapable of processing all the amendments in time. Agitated members shouted their dissatisfaction (one rather melodramatically tearing up the draft bill), and the Rajya Sabha’s chairman, Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari, halted the proceedings without a vote.
All sides have flung accusations at each other. Some allege that the government’s bill, by requiring a similar ombudsman in each of India’s states, was an assault on Indian federalism. Others claim that the government colluded in the disruptions in the Rajya Sabha, because it knew that it could not win the vote; some, preposterously, suggest that the government did not want the bill to pass; still others claim that it would have created such a “weak” Lokpal that it was not worth passing. The government has grimly suggested that it would go back to the drawing board with a view to reviving the bill during the parliament’s budget session, due in March.
Whatever happens, the need to tackle corruption is undeniable. In a recent survey by the anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International, 54 percent of Indian respondents said that they had paid bribes in the last two years, in interactions with police, bureaucrats and even educational institutions.