Social activist Anna Hazare wants an equal number of self-proclaimed civil society activists to be part of an official committee drafting a new Lok Pal Bill. “There should be as many representatives of government as there are of the people” is his submission. Hello? What is a government in a democracy if not an extension of the will of the people? Can self-appointed do-gooders, however well meaning, usurp the role of “representatives of the people” without due process of election? Mr Hazare is a good man. Unfortunately, he is “fasting unto death” for a wrong cause. The idea of a Lok Pal, an anti-corruption ombudsman, based on a Scandinavian model, was a bad one when it was first mooted in the mid-1960s and remains a bad one 40-odd years later. The creation of the institution of a Lok Ayukta at the state level has not helped reduce corruption in state governments, so a new Lok Pal at the national level is unlikely to do a better job at the central government level. The recent experience with the nomination of the Central Vigilance Commissioner shows that it is individuals rather than institutions that matter and there is no guarantee that a Lok Pal will necessarily inspire confidence and be effective. No one will deny that the problem of corruption in high places needs to be dealt with. There is no better way of doing this than strengthening existing institutions of democracy, including the legislature, the judiciary, the executive and even the media. Greater transparency in the functioning of these institutions will reduce corruption in public life. No Lok Pal can do what members of the four estates of the nation cannot and will not do.
It is a pity that despite the obvious shortcomings of this idea, it has been floated repeatedly. Bills have been repeatedly tabled in Parliament and successive governments, comprising almost all political parties in India today, have repeatedly spoken in favour of it, without doing anything about it. Somebody must call a spade a spade. The Lok Pal Bill should be buried, not kept alive by a threat of a fast unto death, even by a well-intentioned person like Mr Hazare.
It is tragic that an assortment of non-accountable activists, publicity-seeking busybodies and an assortment of do-gooders have all managed to push the gentle Mr Hazare into going on a fast unto death. No government in a democracy can approve of such blackmail. Merely because Mahatma Gandhi used a fast unto death as a means of exerting pressure on an alien, colonial government does not mean that in a democracy such tactics can be tolerated, much less eulogised. The situation in which the government finds itself is partly of the ruling party’s own making. By elevating the status of non-government organisations (NGOs) that are not accountable to anyone, and by not activating its own cadres on development and other issues of public concern, the Congress party has given a larger-than-life role to NGO leaders. Nothing should be done, even in the name of fighting corruption, that can weaken the Indian state and the office of the head of government, who is the embodiment of national sovereignty and answerable only to Parliament. If necessary, Mr Hazare should be force-fed and hospitalised, but not allowed to browbeat an elected government of the people.