It's war again. Sonia Gandhi has set the tone for the government's next steps on the Lokpal Bill that it plans to table in Parliament tomorrow. After a meeting of party MPs today, the Congress president said she was "always ready for a fight.".
At that meeting of MPs, Mrs Gandhi reportedly said the Lokpal Bill is "path-breaking" and "Team Anna must accept it." On the other side, Team Anna has already donned battle gear. On Twitter, activist Kiran Bedi retorted, "The bill is not path-breaking but breaking the path. Thank you Sonia G."
It is indeed battle that the government seems headed into, a day after it seemed to have it all tied up. And it is not just with Team Anna. The opposition, particularly the BJP, too has made it clear that it is not ok with all the provisions in the final draft of the Bill that the Cabinet approved last night.
So even as senior Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee discusses an extension of the Winter Session and the passage of pending legislation, including the Lokpal Bill, with senior BJP leaders LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley at a meeting right now, the government is ready with a new strategy that will ensure it does not have to rely on the opposition at all to pass its Lokpal Bill.
Sources said the government plans to make it a statutory bill. In that form the Lokpal Bill will only need a simple majority to go through in both Houses. The UPA constituents add up to give the government a slender majority in the Lok Sabha. As a constitutional bill it would need a two-thirds majority, and for that the government would need the Opposition on board, which would mean more consultation and amendments to the bill. A separate bill to grant constitutional status to Lokpal is thus unlikely in this session.
For the BJP, sources say, party leader Arun Jaitley's formula on the CBI not being accepted seems to be a deal breaker. The BJP has demanded less government control over the administration of the CBI and is reportedly unhappy also about the structure of the committee to select the Lokpal that the government has reportedly proposed. It says the panel would be dominated by the government. The BJP is also opposed to the government's proposed panel for the selection of the CBI chief - the final draft reportedly says the PM, leader of Opposition and the Chief Justice of India would select the head of the CBI .
Party spokesman Niramla Sitraman said today, "First of all, the sense of the House which was passed as a resolution has to be respected .On the CBI, we had very clearly suggested that discussions will have to happen and we had suggested a formula which would have entailed clear independence and autonomy for the CBI." But, she said, the final draft seemed to address none of the BJP's concerns on the CBI's role. The independence of the Lokpal too would be dubitable with such provisions as the government had laid out, she said.
"We will press for amendments in the bill," the BJP spokesperson emphasised. The government's challenge thus lies not just in managing Team Anna's expectations, but in getting the Lokpal Bill passed in Parliament as soon as possible. Its plan to extend this Parliament session by three days (Dec 27-29) has been vetoed by parties like Mayawati's BSP and the Shiv Sena.
The government's final Lokpal draft has already been rejected by anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare, also mainly on the CBI issue - he wants the new Lokpal or ombudsman agency to have control over the CBI. The Gandhian activist has announced a three-day fast in Mumbai beginning December 27, followed by a three-day jail-bharo agitation.
"The government has gone blind....it can't see the problems and worries of the people. Crores of people have asked them to bring the Lokpal Bill....it can't hear them also because they have gone deaf. So let the government go its way and I will go my way. I have decided that for three days I will fast along with my fellow mates and after three days I will go on jail bharo (court arrest) for three days and following that I will go to the 5 poll-bound states and campaign there," Anna said on Tuesday evening.
Ms Bedi said today, "The government cannot keep administrative control over the CBI. That allows the government a say over the budget, transfers, postings, appointments of the CBI."
Like the BJP, Team Anna is also opposed to how the CBI's most senior officer will be chosen - an earlier plan to include the Chairman of the Lokpal in the process has been abandoned. His associate Prashant Bhushan said that two politicians ("the Prime Minister and someone who hopes to someday be Prime Minister") and the Chief Justice cannot be counted upon to find a CBI chief who is not "weak or pliable."
Through two major fasts this year, and another "token one" earlier this month, Anna, flanked by thousands of supporters has made the point that the government seems intent on creating an ineffective ombudsman. Through the last few weeks, some of the contentious issues that divided activists and the Opposition from the government have been resolved. Anna said the Prime Minister could not be exempt from the ombudsman's review. He also said that unless lakhs of junior bureaucrats are held accountable, the malignant grasp of corruption on everyday life will not be defeated.
After deliberations with other parties, the government has suggested a few safeguards that would protect the PM from frivolous complaints, and from the disclosure of details of national security. The draft proposes that complaints against Group C and D employees - the junior bureaucrats - can be filed with the Lokpal, and will be investigated by the existing Central Vigilance Commission or CVC, which will provide the Lokpal with regular updates on its inquiries.
Sources say an amendment will be made to the bill to ensure no existing cases will be covered. Also, prosecution in the corruption cases will be time-bound. Complaints can be filed in cases which are less than seven years old.