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Lokpal Bill: Will Rahul Gandhi take the final bow?

By Neerja Chowdhury
December 10, 2011 22:11 IST
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Contrary to Anna Hazare's view -- that Rahul Gandhi was behind the Standing Committee's decision to exclude the lower bureaucracy from the purview of Lokpal -- there are indications now that it may be Gandhi who may want their inclusion, says Neerja Chowdhury

A curious aspect  of the Standing Committee's report on Lokpal Bill, submitted to Parliament on Friday, are the dissent notes by three Congress Members of Parliament Meenakshi Natarajan, Deepa Dasmunshi and PT Thomas.

In a move that is not without significance, they have favoured the inclusion of lower bureaucracy within the ambit of the Lokpal.

These three MPs have delinked themselves from the rest of the Congress MPs in the Committee who favoured the exclusion of C and D category officials.  Up to a point, the Congress MPs in the Standing Committee had all supported the inclusion of these officials.

In fact, till its 'last meeting', the Standing Committee was in favour of their inclusion.  But the next day, Congress MPs and some others did a volte-face.  This turnaround came after committee chairman Abhishek Singhvi met with the leaders in Congress' Core Committee and also had a meeting with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

A day later, a group of three -- Natarajan, Munshi and Thomas -- did another turnaround and supported the inclusion of C category officers. 

It goes without saying that MPs are within their rights to record their views. The proposed Lokpal legislation has posed complex and contentious issues, which had defied consensus for 42 years, and it is not unnatural for MPs to dissent on different issues.  But that is not the way the Congress -- or for that matter other parties -- usually function.

The Bharatiya Janata Party suspects that with so many dissenting notes -- there are 17 of them -- the Congress is deliberately trying to create confusion so that the Lokpal Bill does not get passed. But that line of argument does not make sense politically.   

Anna Hazare has accused Rahul Gandhi of getting the Standing Committee to backtrack. 

Contrary to Hazare's view -- that Rahul Gandhi was behind the Standing Committee's decision to exclude the lower bureaucracy from the purview of Lokpal -- there are indications now that it may be Rahul Gandhi who may want their inclusion.

For the Congress's three dissenting MPs are known to be close to Rahul Gandhi. The question being asked now is this: Is the purpose of their dissenting note to put pressure on the Cabinet to agree to bring the lower bureaucracy under the ambit of the Lokpal? If this happens, the credit will then go to Rahul Gandhi.

The Standing Committee's report will go before the Union Cabinet and lead to official amendments before Parliament takes it up for discussion and passage. This is expected to take place on December 19.

There is also a buzz in political circles that the government may also finally accept the inclusion of the prime minister's post within the purview of the Lokpal. As far as the PM is concerned, the Standing Committee has suggested certain options -- that the PM should be excluded from the Lokpal's purview, or included with or without safeguards, or action against him be provided for after he has demitted office.

But the Standing Committee has left it to Parliament to take a final view on the subject. The committee has deliberately chosen not to give its opinion. This too is curious. Again, if Rahul Gandhi's pressure were to get the government to accept the inclusion of the PM's post, the credit would go to him.

In August, Gandhi had gone one step ahead of Anna when he had recommended a constitutional status for the Lokpal, as is the case with the Election Commission, to ensure its autonomy, and the Standing Committee has accepted this suggestion.

Not unexpectedly, the battle-lines are getting drawn between the government and Team Anna, which has declared that it will mobilise public opinion against the Congress if the Jan Lokpal Bill is not passed and if the 'Sense of the House' resolution  is violated.

While the Standing Committee has favoured the constitution of the Lokpal and the state Lokayuktas under one comprehensive central legislation, it has neither accepted the inclusion of the lower bureaucracy nor the citizens charter, and a grievance redressal mechanism under the ambit of the Lokpal -- the three points to which all parties had agreed in the 'Sense of the House' resolution.

The Committee has proposed that C category officials function under the CVC and the introduction of a separate law to address the issue of Citizens Charter.

The strategy of Team Anna has also undergone a change. Giving up their "us vs them" stance, which had the entire political class arraigned against them, it is now trying to engage political parties,  in the hope of dividing their ranks and getting support from a section of political leaders.

With the Congress refusing to share the platform with Team Anna at Jantar Mantar, the battle is becoming more political. It seems to be Team Anna and the Opposition on one side and the Congress on the other. The battle is also about who takes the credit for the passage of the Lokpal Bill.

The BJP clearly hopes to piggyback on Team Anna in its campaign against the Congress in the forthcoming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and other states.   For the BJP, the greater the dissatisfaction with the Congress over its stance on the Lokpal legislation or its failure to pass the Bill, the better it will be for the saffron party.

The Congress knows that not keeping its commitment of passing the Lokpal Bill in the winter session of Parliament will be problematic for the party politically in the coming elections.

In fact, Congress leaders in UP were banking on the passage of several laws to combat corruption, which will help it establish the party's credentials on fighting graft.

Passage of the bill -- even if there are persisting differences with Team Anna on its content -- will take the sting out of the attack that has been mounted against the party on corruption in recent months.

But given the relentless disruptions over one issue after the other, will Parliament be allowed to take up the Lokpal Bill in the winter session?

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