Thursday, February 29, 2024

Corruption, Lok Pal and Citzens' Concerns

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By Toki Blah

At pre school, kids are expected to by heart the popular nursery rhyme Jack and Jill. It goes something like this ‘Jack and Jill went Up the Hill, To fetch a pail of water—‘ but now that we are grown up, don’t you think there is something intrinsically wrong with the story? I mean who in real life actually expects to find water on top of a hill? Silly isn’t it? Down the Hill would have been more logical but apparently Jack and Jill had problems in associating logic and reality with the purpose they had in mind. One therefore can’t help comparing the nursery rhyme with the current Indian thirst for a panacea for corruption. Are we too like the couple in the nursery rhyme heading up the wrong direction? Are we also like Jack and Jill being led up the garden path? Is the Jan Lok Pal, the much touted cure for corruption, the real McCoy? Everyone, I mean everyone, is totally concerned at what is gnawing at the innards of our nation. We all want to eliminate corruption. No dispute on this issue but are we going about it the right way? We brought in the RTI Act expecting it to scare away the demon of graft. Graft refused to play ball! Now we are baying for an all pervasive and powerful Jan Lok Pal Bill in the hope that this will be the ultimate exorcist to drive away this demon called corruption. Question is, will it really? What if, as someone said, it doesn’t dispel the mist of corruption? What then?

The Shillong Times on the 15th of July held a Panel Discussion on “The Lok Pal – A Panacea for Corruption?” A lot of meaningful things were said but sadly the why and wherefore of corruption were not exactly given the priority they deserved. We have to understand the causes of corruption before we attempt to tackle the problem. Corruption exists because of a grubby human desire- to get an unfair advantage over others – be it in getting employment, winning a contract, getting a job done more quickly or simply to avoid a fine or a penalty. Greed and opportunity also play a big role in perpetuating bribery and graft. Politics is also primarily responsible for sustaining and promoting corruption. We follow a parliamentary form of democracy where representation is through the process of elections, where “the first past the post” is declared the winner. The purchase of votes to ensure unfair victory over others is a common electoral practice in India. Money is also used to ensure “Political stability”! Corruption is thus legitimised and condoned from the outset by the very people mandated to ensure equitable governance. No wonder the cynics are convinced more than ever, that corruption is an inbuilt Indian political trait.

Today India is thus confronted with the first major challenge on the proposed Jan Lok Pal Bill. Who has the last and final say in what the Bill is to be like? Calling a spade a spade, let’s admit that most Indians have lost faith in their elected representatives. Politicians have contributed most to the mess we find ourselves in today. Having said that lets not confuse between individuals, parties they belong to with the institution they represent. There is nothing wrong with the institution called Parliament or with the State Legislatures. There is nothing wrong with our constitution and its provisions. Nothing wrong with the law of the land. The problem lies in the flawed interpretation and execution of the law and in our refusal to acknowledge the existence of the Rule of Law. The Jan Lok Pal has to be passed by Parliament. That is procedure. That is the law. Any attempt to intimidate and threaten Parliament, by any third party, irrespective of its composition, popularity or integrity, is corruption at its worst. What else can it be? If our representatives are deemed incapable or incompetent, devise or demand for a method to bring in better representation. Thwarting Parliament and its process is to by- pass the rule of law. Definitely not the best of ways to curb corruption!

The panel discussion mentioned above also gave due recognition to the fact that corruption in public life exists because of the existence of a buyer’s and seller’s market. His Excellency the Governor termed it as a low risk, high return venture. There was however general consensus that corruption in our society exists more because of a systems failure than anything else. The system once shunned, despised, rebuffed and held in contempt those suspected of or tainted with the brush of sleaze. Not so anymore. Social values that once upheld honesty, that valued justice, that espoused rule of law now lie discarded and forgotten. Wealth and power are now esteemed over everything else and more so for the patronage they dispense. How one attains wealth and power is not an issue any more. Ends justify the means. The system has collapsed and the corruption we speak of is the outcome of this collapse. Corruption is therefore a symptom of a greater malaise, the disease of Mal Governance. Focusing on a symptom will not eradicate the main disease. The malady of bad governance will have to be tackled on a priority basis, if we wish to rid ourselves of its symptom- corruption.

Flawed, deficient and substandard political representation is definitely one of the prime factors contributing towards mal-governance. As Indians, we are acutely conscious of this embarrassment but continue to remain helpless hostages to a decadent electoral process. It is a process that has encouraged the return of the bad over the good. It is a process where money power has taken precedence over ability. A practice that has spawned and weaned the monster called corruption. A political abhorrence we in Meghalaya are well acquainted with. Electoral reforms with an aim to provide the electorate of India with quality and better political representation is therefore the crying need of the hour. It must be made mandatory for politicians and their political parties to set up candidates who can deliver on governance. The frivolous ability to invest money to win elections and capture power can no longer be the litmus test of representative democracy. According to his Excellency the Governor, RS Mooshahary, politicians have a higher social commitment than others. If this is so, then this trait has to be honed to perfection, rather than suppressed. It demands encouragement from both the political parties as well as the public. It is a trait worth cultivating to bring back good governance to curb corruption.

If the Legislature, one of the pillars of Indian Democracy needs repair and renovation, so as to ensure good governance, the same can be said of the other two pillars, the Administrative Executive and the Judiciary. Capability may not be the problem area since the incumbents to both wings share a common portal entry criteria – merit and ability. The crisis lies elsewhere when merit and ability is equated with commitment and loyalty to the Minister or the Political Party in power. Politicising our Administration and Judiciary has systematically deprived the Steel Frame of India of its morale, commitment and impartiality- characteristics that were once the envy of the world. It castrated and made impotent the two most important agencies of Government that were capable of checking graft and corruption. Short sighted political vision and expediency are the culprits. Today, civil society is calling for an independent, autonomous and self regulating Lok Pal. It sounds good but all the same it’s a new concept. It’s ironic, but fact is, we once had an independent and near autonomous Administration and Judiciary. Out of sheer apathy, indifference and ignorance we allowed them to fall victims to political intimidation and to rot. We, the public of India, allowed good governance to deteriorate to bad. Corruption in public life was the result. Let’s revive those aspects of good governance we once enjoyed. Let them then complement a Jan Lok Pal in which ever form it comes. It’s the logical thing to do. It can still be done. No point in throwing the baby along with the bath water.

(The author is President of ICARE an organisation that focuses on issues of Good Governance) .

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