Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lokpal Blues

Now that the Lokpal Bill pretty much has been passed, I'm trying to figure out whether I should continue being skeptical of this, or if I should look at the silver lining.

My issues with the bill still persist--

The bill has been drafted unilaterally by a small, unrepresentative panel. That this bill (drafted by common citizens) gained so much eminence is certainly a gross perversion of democracy - what makes Anna Hazare et al. so special to get their bill considered ahead of other citizens? - but let us overlook that for now, as this is not germane to the issue.

The bill has been "passed" by the parliament under duress, under significant emotional manipulation ("Pass it or I starve to death!"). This is also a gross perversion of democracy. But let us overlook this for now as well, as this is also not entirely germane to the issue. (Let me also add that I am proud of the discipline shown by the crowds - there were scant untoward events during the massive gatherings - which is very surprising for a crowd in India.)

The people in charge of the movement certainly do not inspire confidence. Anna Hazare has several Talibanistic tendencies -- he is known to have gotten some "drunkards" flogged in public for drinking in is village. He is known for his association with regressive hindu fundamentalists such as Baba Ramdev, whose views on everything have more in common with Ug the caveman than the average Indian. Just talk to him about homosexuality if you want to get a snapshot of his views.

These three factors made me oppose the bill on principle - and I've been fairly shrill about this. But now that the bill has pretty much passed in the parliament all my whining will be of little consequence. So, let us nitpick the actual bill:

The motivation for this bill is absolutely indisputable. Corruption is crippling the bottom of the economic pyramid in India. It is also irking the urban middle class which compares Indian politicians with Barack Obama (who seems squeaky clean compared to A Raja and Laloo Yadhav) and feels humiliated.

But are the actual provisions smart? Do I think that they will curb corruption? Let me copy the summary of the bill from wikipedia and comment upon it [, my comments are italicized and under-lined in square braces [] ] :

Some important features of the proposed bill are:[11]

  1. To establish a central government anti-corruption institution called Lokpal, supported by Lokayukta at the state level. [No issues with this]
  2. As in the case of the Supreme Court and Cabinet Secretariat, the Lokpal will be supervised by the Cabinet Secretary and the Election Commission. As a result, it will be completely independent of the government and free from ministerial influence in its investigations. [Basically a supercop which is not under the government's control - none of the people who appoint the Lokpal are elected representatives. This means that it will be impossible for the people to vote out an unpopular Lokpal -- this is a massive, existential flaw with the law.]
  3. Members will be appointed by judges, Indian Administrative Service officers with a clean record, private citizens and constitutional authorities through a transparent and participatory process. [ (1) Clean record requirement opens a can of worms, as now there appears and incentive to get people framed (2) Who selects the private citizens who select these Lokpals / Lokayuktas? (3) This whole thing is beginning to look like a scenario from Yes Prime Minister -- like the conversations between Sir Arnold and Sir Appleby and the chairmanship of the commission for the freedom of information]
  4. A selection committee will invite short-listed candidates for interviews, videorecordings of which will thereafter be made public. [I like the videorecordings bit -- but how will it be guaranteed that the the transparency is real and not selective?]
  5. Every month on its website, the Lokayukta will publish a list of cases dealt with, brief details of each, their outcome and any action taken or proposed. It will also publish lists of all cases received by the Lokayukta during the previous month, cases dealt with and those which are pending. [Again, how do we make sure that the facts are not selective? You can frame anyone by doctoring facts. The appearance of transparency is dangerous -- how do you guarantee that the transparency is genuine?]
  6. Investigations of each case must be completed in one year. Any resulting trials should be concluded in the following year, giving a total maximum process time of two years. [Yes. And the moon is made of green cheese. How is this rule going to be implemented in a nation where cases drag on for centuries in the courts?]
  7. Losses caused to the government by a corrupt individual will be recovered at the time of conviction.
  8. Government officework required by a citizen that is not completed within a prescribed time period will result in Lokpal imposing financial penalties on those responsible, which will then be given as compensation to the complainant.
  9. Complaints against any officer of Lokpal will be investigated and completed within a month and, if found to be substantive, will result in the officer being dismissed within two months. [See comment 6]
  10. The existing anti-corruption agencies (CVC, departmental vigilance and the anti-corruption branch of the CBI) will be merged into Lokpal which will have complete power and authority to independently investigate and prosecute any officer, judge or politician. [Don't care about this.]
  11. Whistleblowers who alert the agency to potential corruption cases will also be provided with protection by it.

Bottomline: The bill creates a new non-democratically selected power center. This is a step backwards for democracy. The head lokpal has so many powers that he could very well plot a coup against a government the Lokpal declares "corrupt" .

Futhermore, there is no fool-proof mechanism to keep this person honest (though it is quite clear that the drafters of the Jan-Lokpal bill did try to account for this issue --- but I don't think it is anywhere near foolproof as they would like).

While this law does address some issues (like the political neutrality of the supercop), it raises several more serious questions. The silver lining is being obscured by other clouds :(