Arguably, this is the hottest political summer for Delhi. Reason: friction between anti-corruption activists and the Union government over the anti-graft Lokpal Bill. It has been more than three months, but there is no sign of ebb in the confrontation. Rather, it has metamorphosed into an all-out war between the government and non- government groups. The polarisation is getting sharper. Most political parties have joined hands with the ruling alliance to oppose the “legitimacy” of non- government groups in taking part in legislative affairs. The confrontation has left many questions in its trail.
Does this reset the relationship between government and non-government organisations? Is it a battle for space between government and non-government? Why is the government adopting such an aggressive approach towards the other side? Or, have the non-government organisations strayed into the political arena?
There are no yeses or noes. The crisis is an outcome of a post-liberalisation churning taking place. In the past 20 years, the state has undergone changes and comfortably settled its relationship with the market. Government is shrinking its role in development works leaving space for non-government players. The private, for-profit companies are entering the health and education sectors through private-public partnerships. Non-government not-for-profit organisations are also rediscovering their roles.
Subjects that NGOs dealt with as “social contractors” have now gone to the Panchayati raj institutions. That is why NGOs have started reinventing themselves into groups advocating for rights and empowering legislation. But elected representatives see this as a threat to their mandate.
Richard Mahapatra, Arnab Dutta and Ruhi Kandhari analyse this transformation as India marks 20 years of liberalisation
Civil v political
Just over three months ago, Jantar Mantar became the epicentre of a nationwide frenzy against corruption. Social activist Anna Hazare was on a fast-unto-death over his single-point demand of enacting a stringent Lokpal Bill, which would establish an institution to deal with cases of corruption in high offices. Hazare was joined by thousands of supporters at the venue, while millions across the country endorsed his fight. Within four days, the government gave in and announced formation of a 10-member joint drafting committee to script the proposed legislation. Hazare was to nominate five of these members as representatives of civil society. The other five were to be ministers.
In the weeks that followed, the drafting committee held nine meetings but the atmosphere at most of these was far from cordial. Both sides stuck to their guns on contentious issues like bringing the prime minister, senior judges, members of Parliament and the bureaucracy under the ambit of the Lokpal. The situation reached a flashpoint on June 22 when the two sides declared that they had failed to achieve consensus on a single draft of the Bill.
The government said it would convene an all-party meeting to discuss the logjam. This meeting was held on July 3 when the government announced that it had the mandate to draft the Bill, which would be introduced during the monsoon session of Parliament starting from August 1. It is now clear the Bill can be ready for vote only in the winter session towards the end of the year.
The impasse is far from resolved because Hazare has declared he will again go on fast from August 16 in protest against the government’s “betrayal”. His ultimatum covers every political party represented in Parliament. The provocation got a swift rebuttal at the all-party meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The parties disagreed on many aspects of the Lokpal Bill, but were unanimous in asserting that only Parliament has the prerogative to discuss and enact it.
The entire episode has pushed the relationship between civil society and the government into a conflict zone. Asked whether involving non-government groups in drafting the Lokpal Bill was a one-off affair, Union minister for human resource development Kapil Sibal recently said: “I would imagine so.” Sibal, who was also a member of the joint drafting committee, later told a news agency: “I do not say it is a precedent. Given the situation the government was in, it was a decision that we took with open eyes.”
The government has cleverly manipulated the anti-corruption campaign and turned the public debate into a battle between civil society and Parliament. Leaders of almost every political party have questioned the legitimacy of civil society in drafting a bill. “Small groups comprising three or five people cannot claim leadership on such issues,” says Congress media head Janardan Dwivedi.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gone as far as to question the Constitutional and legal mandate of the non-government group, the joint drafting committee and even the National Advisory Council (NAC) appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office and headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar has reservations regarding the term civil society. “Does this mean politicians are not civil? I would rather call them empowered and awakened citizenry,” he says. “Who are the members of civil society?” asks CPI general secretary A B Bardhan. “Can they speak on behalf of the entire country? The five members have an exaggerated notion about themselves. One must be modest,” he says.
“There is a parliamentary process to a bill being passed. We cannot short-circuit it,” says M Veerappa Moily, Union law minister and member of the drafting committee. “Civil society representatives cannot be expected to have the legal skill to draft a complex legislation.”
On the other side of the divide, non-government groups have questioned the coercive ways of their representatives in the drafting panel. But they have been one in asserting their right to dissent and develop policies.
“No one is questioning the role of the legislature. But it is a fact that the legislature is not sanctimonious any more. So many decisions are taken without a debate in Parliament. So why should a citizen not demand the right to be heard?” asks Madhuresh of National Alliance for People Movement, an association of non- government groups.
“The boundary between civil society and political society is porous,” says Amitabh Beher, executive director of the National Foundation of India, a non-profit in Delhi. “In the face of a dwindling governance system, we have the right to dissent. I do not think civil society has crossed the Lakshman rekha,” he says.
The idea that a Lokpal would curb corruption in India is misplaced, says Deep Joshi, member of NAC and social scientist. “But accusing civil society of entering the political sphere is also not right. In a democracy, there is nothing apolitical,” he adds.
Government’s aggressive stand against non-government group’s protests has surprised many. It was belligerent against the protest by popular yoga instructor and alternative medicine manufacturer Ramdev who had a set of demands which included bringing back black money from foreign countries.
In the past seven years, the UPA has tried to create a pro-people image for itself. Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari says that NAC was UPA’s attempt to engage with NGOs. “Many have called NAC the original sin. But the UPA wanted to engage with civil society and get different viewpoints,” he says.
It made a conscious effort to co-opt non-government groups. Setting up the NAC gave a formal and powerful space to them. Some key pieces of legislation like the Right To Information Act, the Forest Rights Act and the MGNREGA have been designed by these members. Drafting of the 11th Five-Year Plan had wide representation from the non-government sector. Its mid-term review also, for the first time, involved members from the non-government.
Political analysts say UPA-II is in a comfortable period in terms of anti-incumbency as it is still in its second year. But there are key differences between the two tenures of the UPA which, analysts say, are the reasons for an aggressive government.
First, UPA-I did not face many corruption cases. The current anti-corruption campaign and popular sentiments against corruption are preceded by a series of high-profile scandals involving hundreds of billion of rupees. Both the ruling and opposition parties were shocked by the swell of support to anti-corruption campaigns by non-political figures like Hazare and Ramdev.
Second, the first tenure of the UPA had a common minimum programme (CMP) with the Left parties as its allies. “CMP was oriented towards rights-based programmes and was constantly under Left scrutiny. As it is known now, the government needed civil society for inputs and advise for this. The second tenure does not have a CMP as the Congress has majority and does not need much help for survival,” says Beher.
“In UPA-I the Congress wanted to strengthen its constituencies by focusing on welfare agenda as it had been out of power for a long period,” says Yamini Aiyar, senior research fellow with the non-profit Centre for Policy Research. Economic reforms have become the main agenda of UPA-II despite the NAC being revived with an agenda similar to CMP. This could explain the visible clashes between the NAC and the government on many issues. The Right To Food Bill is the most notable one.
The government uses think-tanks like NAC to get public comment, thinks Javadekar. The joint drafting committee of the Lokpal Bill should be seen in the same light, he adds. Civil society has three functions— to inform, empower and ensure accountability whenever the government gets distracted. But the government has fooled the people by producing two different drafts of the Bill, says Javadekar.
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