In recent weeks, two major institutional developments have taken place, which, over time, are likely to have significant impact on the quality of governance in India. Both have happened not because the government of the day really wanted it, but due to compelling circumstances beyond their control, indeed ‘despite’ government. About a month ago, the Supreme Court had given certain directions relating to management of the civil services; and in the past fortnight, the Lokpal Bill has been cleared in Parliament—these address structural gaps in our system. This article focuses on the latter.
The Santanam Committee, in 1962, called for the creation of an ombudsman—the Lokpal. Despite two attempts, in the 1970s and in 1997, the Lokpal could not get established. Thanks to the Anna movement, and the astonishing performance of the Aam Admi Party in Delhi, the Congress, in desperate self-defence, has been forced to legislate it, having brazenly filibustered its passage for decades. No political party really wanted a Lokpal—who wants an umpire when the players make the rules, break the rules, change the goal posts, do their own fixing and act as their own investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury.Which absolute ruler of a country wants an umpire to sit over him in judgment? That the Lokpal has been thrust on our political establishment is proof that our democracy is alive, is active, and can have decisive impact when the occasion demands.
Apart from the rule of law, theoretically applicable to every citizen and every segment of our society, each group has inbuilt checks and balances to regulate its actions, at least to some extent. Thus the bureaucracy, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, shopkeepers and every other group are all subject to a system of supervision and regulation—this applies to all except our political class. Indeed this has been a gaping flaw in our Constitution—there was no provision to ‘suspend’ a political executive on prima facie evidence; the full process of law had to be applied to take a person out, which could happen only after conviction. Witness how a Lalu Prasad or a Sukhram could continue in office for decades, while delaying legal action against them. Contrast the position of a Durga Nagpal who could be ‘suspended’, without any process, within 20 minutes, on verbal orders. Indeed, the Lokpal will remedy the situation, to provide a prima facie, first-look examination of wrongdoing by the politician (of which there is no shortage). It can be surmised with much justification that if the Santanam recommendation had been implemented decades ago, the quality of governance in India would not have crashed to the lows we have seen in recent times. The great significance of the Lokpal Act has not been comprehended by the general public.
Much of the debate in English channel TV programmes has been on highly superficial lines, speculating as to who will take the ‘credit’ for the Lokpal Bill, and whether this will ‘launch’ the takeoff of Rahul Gandhi in the next elections. The fact that Lokpal was kept at bay for nearly five decades is an indication of the combined knowledge and fear of the potential of this institution to keep a watchful eye on the political class. The real credit has to go to the people of India, triggered by Anna Hazare, to hammer home this development, against the combined might of our rulers.
There need be no celebration yet that the beginning of the end of corruption is with us already. The significant aspect is that the tide is turning. The steep downward slide in the quality of governance is now slowly being reversed. There is so much unfinished business which has not even started. Mechanisms to bring in the Lokayukta, total liberation of the CBI from government control, whistle-blower protection legislation, an effective Citizen’s Charter, a strong and swift grievance settlement mechanism, all of these combined with measures to support the ability of the public servant to take swift, fair, timely and decisive action without fear of being hounded are yet to be brought on to the table.
The RTI has taken a decade to come into its own. The principle that government involves management of public affairs to be conducted transparently, openly and fairly is now getting accepted. The media, with all the chaff, vapid noise and vacuous posturing, is now on the side of the angels—clamouring for reform and change in governance standards; reflecting the mood of a young population. The Supreme Court has stepped in effectively into the gap provided by a non-functioning Parliament and a venal executive to give new direction —clearly reinforcing the fact that we have a robust Constitution which can adjust to the need of the occasion. The coming of age of constitutional and statutory bodies, as well as the new vigour and strength of ‘civil society’, are all pointers that the misery of the citizen has bottomed out and that the quality of governance can only improve. The days of the venal politician and the inept bureaucrat, who hitherto treated the country as their personal playground, will surely end soon; all the signs are there. These developments need a few more years to crystallise and start showing results.