Dominating Indian news coverage for several weeks now has been a government anti-corruption bill, a piece of legislation that has received an interesting and historic response. The bill seeks to limit political corruption in the world's biggest democracy.
The Jan Lokpal Bill (JLB), seeks to create an independent ombudsman (the "Lokpal") with the power to prosecute corrupt politicians. This bill has been in existence in some form for 42 years, but has never managed to pass through the upper house of parliament. This time, Anna Hazare, a self- appointed leader of the movement to push the bill through, undertook a fast unto death in order to pressurize the government to accept the JLB drafted by him and others. Garnering mass support throughout India, the government finally heeded to Hazare's demands on April 9, and moved to create an effective bill that could move through parliament.
The expedited popularity of this cause may not have marked the coming of an Arab Spring-style democratic revolution in India, but it did mark a political watershed: No single national cause in the last several years has witnessed the kind of nation-wide support as the JLB. Whether Hazare picked up on the pulse of a nation, or whether he was able to appeal to the famous Indian love for melodrama, there is little denying that the JLB received popular support.
While mainstream media outlets continue to prioritize the JLB, a slow and steady backlash from independent media channels has taken over. Having little to say in praise of the JLB, this second wave of media coverage focused on bitter critiques of the bill and of Hazare himself.
Admittedly, legitimate concerns over the JLB have been raised. For example, those people that will constitute the ombudsman will be selected by a committee composed of neither elected officials, nor representatives of the citizens. Indeed, this raises the question of how a committee that isn’t democratically elected will represent the masses.
Controversies surrounding those who drafted the JLB have also emerged. Shanti Bhushan, one of the main proponents of the JLB has been accused of corruption himself. Hazare’s ideologies, beliefs, and support in the aftermath of becoming a household name in this last fortnight have come into serious question. His praise for Narendra Modi (who has been accused of fueling the Gujarat Pogrom religious riots of 2002), caused many to become ever more skeptical of their support for him, and consequently the JLB. Although Hazare later reclaimed his statement, one cannot help but wonder what sort candidates he supports for the Lokpal.
However, engulfed in the massive outburst of cynicism, an important aspect seems to have been overlooked by many critics: Is the current government committee open to changes in JLB? Interviews of the main committee members show that they are open to suggestions by the public (and other experts). In fact, the ‘India Against Corruption’ website (that is run by the same people who drafted the JLB) even provides space for the public to post their suggestions and criticisms of the bill for consideration.
So even though legitimate problems with the JLB exist, one cannot take away from the basic fact that all other tried and tested methods to combat corruption in this country have duly failed. One of the main reasons for this is because the power of prosecution lies with those accused. The first thing that the JLB does is take away these powers from anybody who is/has been part of the bureaucracy. What is most unfortunate is that instead of a united front against corruption, and a comprehensive process with which this bill could have been taken forward, middle class India (the main supporters of the bill) stand divided on the issue - with each side taking turns to accuse the other of supporting the wrong cause.
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