Lokpal Bill in Lok Sabha today, BJP finds deal-breakers

Lokpal Bill in Lok Sabha today, BJP finds deal-breakers
New Delhi:  The government will introduce the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill today at 11 am in the Lok Sabha. A debate and vote on the Bill is likely to be held on December 27 in the three-day extension of the current session of Parliament, which was due to conclude today.

And just before the Bill reaches Parliament, the government is on familiar Lokpal turf - a warzone - taking on both Anna Hazare and the BJP. To ensure it does not need a two-third majority, which would need considerable negotiations, the government for now proposes to make this a statutory act. That means the Lokpal Bill will need a simple majority to go through in both Houses, as opposed to the two-third majority needed for a constitutional amendment. A separate bill to confer constitutional status on the Lokpal may be introduced later. And to ensure it does not trip, the government has at the last minute removed the suggestion to have a quota for minorities among the nine-member Lokpal. 

Activist Anna Hazare and his aides have rejected the Bill; so has the main opposition party, the BJP. 74-year-old Anna returns to familiar stomping ground of a hunger strike and protest camp on December 27. (Read) The BJP has committed its "harsh opposition" and will ask today for amendments to the Bill. The activists and the BJP agree that the government has willfully ignored the need to end its control over the country's premier investigating agency, the CBI.  

On Wenesday, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi made it clear that the government will not be held to ransom. At a meeting of Congress MPs, she defended the Lokpal Bill. "There is no reason to be defeatist," she told the gathering. Later, she told reporters that Team Anna should accept the Bill, and that she is ready to fight for it.  (Read) "I don't know who is advising Sonia Gandhi on the Bill...if she studied it, she would see why we object," said Anna's close aide, Arvind Kejriwal.

Till Wednesday afternoon, the main issue of dispute between the government on one hand, and the activists and the BJP on the other, appeared to be the relationship between the CBI and the Lokpal or nine-member ombudsman. By the evening, the flashpoints had multiplied. Heading that list is the government's refusal to cede administrative control of the CBI to the Lokpal. Anna and the BJP say this signals the government's intent to influence investigations. If he CBI's budget, and the appointments and transfers of its officers are handled by the government, critics say, the agency will have limited autonomy. Team Anna also stresses that if the ombudsman has no investigative wing, its only powers lie in being able to refer complaints of corruption to the CBI, and receiving updates on them. The government has, however, agreed to the BJP's insistence that the chief of the CBI will be selected in the future by a panel that includes the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the Chief Justice of India.

"We are not going to accept it if the CBI appointment mechanism and other suggestions as mentioned in our dissent notes are not incorporated. Then we will not only oppose, but we will be harsh on the government," warned the BJP's Arun Jaitley.

Apart from finding that the CBI will still be controlled by the government, the BJP also finds fault with how the members of the Lokpal will be selected, as well as how they can be removed mid-term. In both cases, the party says, the government's say is overwhelming. The party also says that the Prime Minister has been provided with too many safeguards from investigation by the Lokpal. An inquiry against the PM needs the sanction of three-fourth of the Lokpal members in proceedings that are not public and cannot be accessed through the Right to Information Act. 

Anna and his team of supporters have spent this year fighting for the government to accept their vision of the Lokpal Bill. Anna held two huge fasts - one in April and another in August - that served as a lightning rod for a nation exhausted by ubiquitous graft and official improbity. The government has agreed to some of Anna's demands, mainly because opposition parties sided with the activist. So the Lokpal will have the authority to investigate the Prime Minister, though with safeguards which protect the PM from frivolous complaints and from disclosing matters of national security of foreign policy. And 57 lakh junior bureaucrats will also be indirectly supervised by the Lokpal. Complaints against them will be handled by the existing Central Vigilance Commission, which will update the Lokpal regularly on the progress in these cases.

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