A Question of Values

August 26th, 2011

Since 1968, India has been trying to create a lokpal, an independent ombudsman body that would investigate claims of corruption against politicians and bureaucrats without government approval. The idea is that the body would have the government’s power of legitimacy, but enough independence that it would be able to hold corrupt officials accountable. In 1968 India’s lower house passed a bill that would create the lokpal, aptly named the lokpal bill, but it did not reach the upper house. India’s government tried again, and again, and again. Between 1971 and 2008 India’s parliament introduced ten versions of the lokpal bill and not one of them passed.

Now, India is trying one more time. And there is one important difference. And that’s public momentum. Lots of it.

This year a man named Anna Hazare has been using a series of hunger strikes to promote passage of a new bill. While Anna has spoken out on the issue of corruption for decades, it was this year that his voice and ideas began to gain mass-recognition. In April, pressure felt from Anna, along with other activists and demonstrators, compelled the Indian government to form a committee with the intention of creating a lokpal. Soon after, however, police cracked down on supporters of Anna’s ally, Baba Ramdev, who were engaged in a midnight protest, and Anna responded by boycotting the meetings. On August 16th, Anna began another indefinite fast in protest of the government’s failure to pass the bill.

Yesterday, on the eighth day of Anna’s newest fast, the Indian government invited the activist’s aides to talks and called for a meeting of all political parties to try to agree on a bill. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been somewhat warm and cool on Anna, wrote an open letter to the activist expressing concern for his health and affirming his commitment to the passage of a bill.

Now there are two major proposals in the public view (though there are others in the wings) from each of these sides.

The government’s bill has left out many of the components the activists sought – such as jurisdiction over the Prime Minister, lower-level bureaucrats and state entities.” The Wall Street Journal notes the bill also includes “substantial jail time for ‘frivolous’ complaints.” While the reasoning behind this clause is sound—citizens might use complaints as retaliatory against officials they “just don’t like” or there may be a flood of complaints including some illegitimate ones—by creating such a harsh penalty this clause is problematic. With a loose definition of frivolous, those who complain about corruption could be jailed if their claim isn’t proven. Moreover, this clause could provide a powerful dissuasion for those who might otherwise step forward.

Anna Hazare’s bill, promotes a different set of values, namely, principally and strongly fighting corruption. This bill would create superagency that would have the ability to wire-tap and would have jurisdiction over every member of government, including low-level officials, judges, and the Prime Minister. Many worry that giving the ombudsman power over the judiciary would compromise its independence. Others worry that without oversight, the bill will do nothing to reel in corruption amongst Indian judges. Or that the agency would be so strong, with so little accountability, it would be susceptible to corruption itself.

There is no doubt that it is a tricky situation. If the answers were straightforward, we already would have reached them. Like it or not, there are pros and cons in each of these circumstances. It’s a question of values. At their core, most policy decisions represent a set of choices–trade-offs–and each must be made with the nation’s values in mind.  To fully fight corruption, India might have to sacrifice other political goods. It is up to the nation to figure out its priorities and then take it from there.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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