Everybody fights over nobody's bill Crowd-pleasers nurse an unwanted baby

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  • Published 29.12.11

New Delhi, Dec. 28: Rumour has it that leader of the Lok Sabha, Pranab Mukherjee, read out the “sense of the House” wrong in end-August. Rumour has it the sense of the House was never to install a “strong and effective” Lokpal, the sense of the House was always to postpone the prospect, as it has been for more than 40 years.

“And rightly, wouldn’t you think?” wondered one of the scribes of the bill, assured that there were no flies on the wall as he spoke, the door was shut and a sting-cam had not invaded his space.

“Nehru didn’t do it, Indiraji did not, Vajpayee did not and they must have had good reason. And we have now convinced ourselves we have greater wisdom than all of them put together? What travesty!”

It’s a rumour that the noveau advocates of Lokpal, this side and that of the Parliament floor, actually endorse the idea; they’ve been hectored into it.

But that cannot be told as truth because truth, last heard, was still hostage to the dictatorship of political correctness. It has deemed all the institutions of democracy incapable of fighting off corruption and it has decreed that all must agree. It is no rumour that the political class submitted to that decree, against its own will and wisdom.

“The terrible problem is,” one member of Parliament said, again strictly off the record, “we are having to applaud the birth of a demon in our midst, we are having to celebrate a damned charter of no-confidence in ourselves.”

What makes rumour of patent truth is that nobody — or very few — will put their names to the sentiment. Between private conviction and public posturing, between the Central Hall of Parliament and the floor of the House, lies a chasm so deep it balks the collective sense of nearly 900 elected members of the Indian republic.

What is it that has driven them to speak, act, vote against their own sense and creed? A mob moment? A scary siege? An inflamed street? Lack of will — and spine — to meet any of that squarely? “Frankly, I can tell you none of the better-known democracies have anything like the Lokpal we have constructed,” confessed a junior minister. “But somehow we have got pushed into it. Why only us, even the Opposition, frankly, is in terror of what we might end up enacting, but we have become competitive crowd-pleasers, there will be wages to pay, if not today, tomorrow.”

This was a baby nobody seemed to want, but now that it has been forced into fullness, nobody wants to be seen forsaking it. They are competing to wish upon it greater health and vigour, but secretly they are all wishing it dead without, of course, having to take the blame for it; best if it can be blamed on the other.

Witness that no side in Parliament has rushed to embrace the Lokpal; they’ve all only been interested in inoculating it with correctives of their choosing. This is a flawed baby. Nobody’s stepping up to say this is a baby they did not wish in the first place.

Bar a few exceptions like Lalu Prasad, who is himself so politically anaemic he has ceased to effect anything but the odd round of laughter. But give it to Lalu. He stood and said for the record what the rest of Parliament is only able to express in anonymous whispers: “This is a dangerous move, you are signing the death warrant of elected democracy, history will not forgive you for this.”

A stealthy masquerade has unfolded behind the clamorous adoption of the Lokpal bill in the Lok Sabha, a deception play that has distorted both reality and perception.

Well-timed walkouts brokered in the backrooms, mock battles devised by rival political managers, amendments inserted last-hour, deals struck between allies and adversaries alike, a whole choreography of pretexts and subtexts aimed at securing one common end: turn the death of the Lokpal into a bewildering whodunit. Kill it, let no one take the blame.

The Lokpal is, of course, not dead, it has just been born, but let that not take away from the elaborate effort.

Conventional wisdom is that the defeat of the constitutional amendment last night is a huge embarrassment to the Congress, especially to its prince charming, Rahul Gandhi, who floated the idea to begin with. But there may be more convention, less wisdom in reaching that conclusion.

Consider this: close to 10 members of Rahul’s own band were not present to vote the amendment. Many of them may have been attending the wedding of the granddaughter of Dinsha Patel, a Congress MP, in Gujarat. How did that come to be? There was a whip in place. Are we to believe they defied it? Defied Rahul’s own diktat? If they did, they deserve not show-causes and admonishment but bravery awards at the Republic Day parade.

But no, comes the explanation from Congress managers, their absence did not matter because even if they had been there, we did not have the numbers to push the constitutional amendment through.

Cat stepping out of bag and mewing aloud: the Congress always knew Rahul’s effort was headed for defeat, the idea to bring it was merely to put the blame on the BJP and secure scoring points. Banish the thought that Rahul or the Congress were embarrassed — even devastated, as some are suggesting — by that defeat. Don’t be taken by the long faces, the outrage at the BJP’s betrayal. They all knew what was coming, the BJP included.

Does it say something that the petulant midwives of the Lokpal inexplicably suspended the chaotic delivery rituals today, leaving the emaciated entity huffed out of the Lok Sabha on the gurney, waiting to be patted to life by the Upper House?

They were meant to attend to it first thing upon recovering from last night’s exertions this morning. Then word came it had been parcelled off to Hyderabad for presidential approval. Procedures, the due process. Then the afternoon was set as witching hour.

But that too came to pass with an unstated putting off. It’s now meant to happen on the morrow but should you take the midwives aside and ask, you’re likely to get a sense they are keener on a burial than on birth.

Each amendment, they’d tell you, is aimed at making that baby stronger, better, but each has a likeness to the bayonet — send that thing to hell with good intentions!

The BJP has planned a slew in the Rajya Sabha to add to the catalogue of correctives they moved last night in the Lok Sabha. They have now been joined by the Trinamul Congress, rockjawed on securing guarantees for states to fashion Lokayuktas after their own will.

Nobody will say they really do not want a watchdog institution scanning them — that would mean defying correctness — but each is trying to divine a way to delay and defer. Just what happened to reservation for women in legislatures — everybody swears by the idea, nobody will commit to it. That commitment is as well-crafted a rumour as the sense of the House Pranab Mukherjee read out at the end of August.