Saturday, June 25, 2011

UPA Lokpal bill was ready in 2010, Pranab tells CWC

Part of this story appeared in the June 25, 2001 edition of DNA Newspaper in Mumbai

It seemed to have been blown away in the Hazare storm

New Delhi: When Congress president Sonia Gandhi asked finance minister and senior leader Pranab Mukherjee to explain at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on Friday evening, which lasted for 1 hr 38 minutes and was devoted to developments surrounding Lokpal bill, Mukherjee said that the government was ready with its own Lokpal bill in 2010 itself.

This should raise the question as to why the UPA government shelved its own bill and it had agreed to negotiate afresh with Anna Hazare and his team. Government did not even bring its bill to the table when the tussle was on between the civil society agitators and the five ministers. The inference becomes inevitable that the Anna Hazare's April storm at Jantar Mantar blew away the UPA Lokpal bill. The impression that the five ministers gave was that the bill that came out of the drafting commitee negotiation comprising Hazare's Five and the ministers with all its divergences was an outcome of fresh consultations.

It is the convention in a parliamentary democracy that government perpares the legislation and brings it to the parliament, where it is discussed at the commitee level and then voted into law in the two Houses. Though the opposition parties usually suggest amendments in the committee, it is only rarely that government accepts them and acknowledges them gracefully.

In the present instance, convention has been overthrown, and the government sat down with a group of outsiders who barged in and wrote from the scratch a fresh bill. And it will be hard to find a precedence for this in India's independent history.

It is this development that seems to have agitated members of the CWC. The common refrain of the 16 of the members who spoke was that it was not right to yield to the pressure tactics of a bunch of people who claim to be representatives of the people because this would violates traditions and conventions and poses a threat to the democratic system itself.

The party is unhappy with the government, but it cannot distance itself from the acts of omission and commission of the government. A party leader said that Congress will support whatever the decision the government takes after consulting all the political parties. The party will also publish a document after the government's consulation process ends and it will be an endorsement of the government version of the bill, whatever that may be.

Home minister Chidambaram spoke briefly and Manmohan Singh spoke at the end. Countering crticism that the party president the prime minister remained silent when both the party and government were in the line of fire, Sonia Gandhi in her opening remarks had said that she and prime minister Manmohan Singh had spoken out time and against corruption and other issues.

The party-government equation is a tricky one. Government has to respond to a developing situation, and wrong moves can be made under pressure which could hurt the party's interests at the hustings. But the party has no option to hang with the government and hope that the storm will blow over. And there may be an election price to pay for this.

This is not the first time that the Congress is forced to face the music for the government's follies. It had paid for Indira Gandhi's Emergency, for allegations against Rajiv Gandhi about kickbacks in the Bofors gun deal, for P.V.Narasimha Rao's passivity in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and for the wrong message that went out about economic reforms steered by Manmohan Singh.

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