What’s the Deal With the Lok Pal and Anti-Corruption Protests in India?

Hello all!

Was it celebratory fireworks or the British that burned down the White House in the War of 1812? Stay tuned for continuous coverage of the bicentennial to find out (special thanks to Dolly Madison)

Well, it’s 2012! You know what that means…. it’s the bicentennial of the War of 1812! A historian’s dream scenario! (spoiler alert: not in this blog entry)

After a week off celebrating the spirit of giving (read: Capitalism), I have been itching to get back on the blog train.  So step up from the platform and lets go on a ride through history to explain the present!  All Aboo-aaard!

In this week’s edition of “What’s the Deal?”, we’ll discuss the most recent hunger strike, led by the Indian activist Anna Hazare, in response to government political corruption and the inability for the people to seek redress for their public officials misconduct.   We’ll take a quick look at the Indian government’s response to the protests and see how the set up of Indian government is related to the contentious issue and what the big picture is behind the protests.

Like Ghandi was, Hazare is hungry for change

Hazare and others claim that the existing state agencies and the 2011 proposed amendment to create legislation to address the public response are lacking serious teeth and won’t change the existing problems.  Hazare had to abandon his latest hunger strike after 3 days because of serious health troubles that will keep him from fasting for justice for the time being (this latest round of hunger strikes failed to turn up the same crowd as the August protests).  The direct issue that the popular protests have sought to address is the lack of public democratic power to charge public officials of corruption.  In response to Hazare’s 12 day hunger strike and popular protest in August, the Indian government drafted a proposed federal agency called the Lok Pal, to solve the problem of government corruption.   The legislation to create the Lok Pal passed the lower house of Parliament, but stalled in the upper house with insufficient votes on Dec. 29th, and is still stalled until February as the winter session of Parliament came to an end that day.

Wait, so there’s no current mechanism to hold Indian government officials responsible for corruption?

Actually there is:

Side Note:

More pieces of legislation do exist

Under the Indian penal code from 1860 and the 1988 Prevention of Corruption Act, public servants (such as government employees, judges, armed forces, police) can be prosecuted for corruption.  The catch (and the primary reason for the necessity of a Lok Pal) is that the investigating agency must have prior sanction from city or state government before prosecution can begin in court.  So basically, if a high authority official commits an act of corruption, only the high authority can authorize the investigation of himself.  Hmm…  something doesn’t seem right there.

You're saying in India I could have been on the committee to impeach the President?

This is what the 2011 Lok Pal bill sought to address.  In this setting, corruption can essentially persist within an administration free of public reprisal because there is no specific agency in existence to hear and follow through on public complaints.  this situation was recognized as a serious problem and “sacrifice of democracy” by Hazare and other civil service leaders.  August 2011 saw thousands of protesters take to the streets around Mr. Hazare’s message.

Parliament’s response was really a renewal of legislative work that has been 5 decades in the making in the classic political battle of how a democratic republic should work (ie. how much direct power or say do the people have on its government?)

The idea of an Ombudsman (agency to hear public complaints) in independent India first came up in 1963 during a discussion of the law ministry in Parliament.  A method of tackling potential corruption was important for many after more than a century and a half of British colonial rule, and a way to have a public voice in the federal government.  In 1966, a further step was taken by creating a First Administration Reforms Commission that recommended setting up 2 independent authorities, one federal and one at the state level that had as its specific purpose to “look into complaints against public functionaries” that included legislators and executive officials.

If the Lok Pal Bill is a litmus test for Indian politics, then the paper is red for downright acidic (either that or HF)

The recommendation was taken a step further as legislation was introduced for the creation of a Lok Pal 8 different times into Parliament between 1968-2011 but with no bill passed.  In the past decade, a more serious effort has been given to creating this bill.   A Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution in 2002 recommended the creation of both the Lok Pal (federal) and Lokayuktas (state/local) agencies as well as recommending that the Prime Minister be kept out of the authority on these agencies, a recognition that corruption couldn’t be resolved without this step.  In 2005, an Administrative Reforms Committee recommended the immediate creation of the Lok Pal office.  Finally, earlier this year, a Group of Ministers chaired by Pranab Mukherjee responding to public outrage, gathered to suggest measures to combat corruption and examined the bill that is currrently stalled in the Parliament.

Corruption is seen as the main trouble in India, the world’s 2nd fastest growing economy that has a growing middle class and wealthy class, yet some of the largest populations of the poorest of the poor.  A paradox of poverty amidst growing wealth has convinced many social and civil activists that the wealth of the country is solely being used to grow wealth within certain industries and sectors without building solid infrastructure and social programs for the rapidly growing impoverished;  a thought that resonates with our own #Occupy movement.

slums of Mumbai next to a modern airport and buildings behind; India's greatest paradox is the presence of the poorest of the poor next to riches of the modern world

From India’s independence in 1947 and creation of a constitution in 1950, residual power resides ultimately in the Centre or Federal government, a form of federalism similar to Canada’s government.  While the Constitution specifically lists many items that the 26 Indian states are responsible for, there are amendments that allow the federal government to overrule these.  The idea of a Union above state control is the principle behind the Indian constitution and is resonant in the history of the United States and other Constitutional Republics.  This set up may be contributing to the discontent seen now with the people unable to have a direct say through an agency, or intermediary to look into the grievances of the people (Ombudsman).  By having federal officials ultimately responsible for certain legislation and agencies of justice, you have the possibility of corruption persisting to retain power.

Retaining the Union of a country is vital to its existence, but the argument within a Republic (read: Representative Democracy) will always revolve around how much power the people have in electing their representatives.  In the case of India, it’s about holding their representatives accountable for corrupt acts.  The 2011 Lok Pal bill is seriously contested because of its inclusion of members of Parliament and potentially the Prime Minister and other officials in the authority of the office of the Lok Pal.  Anna Hazare began this new hunger strike because he believes that all public officials should be held accountable.  The general public believes this more democratic view especially given the social situations of the majority of the Indian people.

How democratic is India? the Lok Pal bill will be a litmus test

Well, it will be exciting to see what happens regarding this movement; we could end up seeing some serious changes to the Indian constitution if opposition groups in Parliament manage to collaborate under the contentious issue.  Hopefully a piece of legislation that actually has a hand in stopping corruption is passed.

Until next time,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G Prileson






IMF, World Economic Outlook Database 2006.


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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