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The bill finally cometh


New Delhi, August 21, 2011 21:26
Tags : The bill finally cometh | Draconian Act | Holding the purse | Mugs’ game | Members help thyselves | Rude shock |

The oldest and most familiar bill, was introduced last week in the Lok Sabha amidst protests demanding the inclusion of the Prime Minister also under the ambit of the bill which is expected to probe anti-corruption cases.

Quite the darling of the middle class, it has become the talking point since social activists, Anna Hazare and others hit the anti-corruption road.

Pitched alongside were yoga guru Baba Ramdev who has left no stone unturned to highlight the importance of the Lokpal bill.

Amidst high drama when Ramdev and his supporters were picked up in a midnight swoop in Delhi, the decibel levels over the bill has reached new heights after being introduced for the first time in 1967 leading to a mass-based anti-corruption movement in many years.

While it remains to be seen if the bill will finally become law this time, it has an old and chequered history. But it has come a long way since 1968 when the Jan Lokpal Bill was first introduced by Shanti Bhushan. Though passed in the fourth Lok Sabha in 1969, it could pass muster in the Rajya Sabha.

Subsequently, Lokpal bills were introduced in 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2005 and in 2008, yet they were never passed.

The only difference now is that unlike the days of the old, the UPA government has been under tremendous pressure from the middle class which favours its implementation and backs a strong anti-corruption stand. Will the government oblige or continue to play the old game of buying more time? This and other questions are being debated by people, particularly the middle class.

Moreover, Civil rights activists are not satisfied with the bill introduced in its current form, the basic idea of which came from proposals of the Administrative Reforms Committee. Pressures are being mounted on the government to make the bill more effective.

Draconian Act

The 42nd Constitutional Amendment Bill is the most controversial and debatable piece of constitutional amendment ever undertaken in India since 1947.

It drew nationwide criticism by providing sweeping powers to the Prime Minister’s office, virtually exempting it from any kind of public scrutiny. More importantly, it sparked a debate whether the amendment sought to amend the very basic structure of the Constitution.

Legal experts and political activists attacked the bill over the way it aimed to deprive citizens of direct access to the Supreme Court. Other controversial clauses included giving exclusive jurisdiction to the Supreme Court as regards determination of the constitutional validity of laws passed by the union government.

Famously, Justice Y.V Chandrachud had then exclaimed: “Government and Judges might come and go but democracy; the basic features of the Constitution should remain eternal”. Later amendments, 43rd and 44th, introduced after Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the 1977 general elections undid the more draconian part of the 42nd amendment.

The 42nd Constitutional Amendment was enacted following the recommendations of the Swaran Singh Committee, whose job was “to study the question of amendment of the Constitution in the light of ….experience”.

The four major purposes of the amendment include exclusion of the courts from election disputes, to strengthen the central government vis-à-vis the state governments and its compatibility to rule the country as a unitary, not a federal, system; To give maximum protection from judicial challenge to social revolutionary legislation and ‘to trim’ the judiciary, so as to ``make it difficult for the court to upset parliament’s policy in regard to many matters’’.

Holding the purse

Talking about the controversial Benami Transaction Bill, union minister for information and broadcasting Ambika Soni told reporters after a cabinet meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: “The Bill contains elaborate provisions dealing with the definition of benami transaction and benami property, prohibited benami transactions, consequences of entering into a prohibited benami transaction and the procedure for implementing the benami law.”

Supporters of the bill heaved a sigh of relief after the cabinet cleared the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Bill, 2011. It replaces a 23-year-old Act that could never be brought into force due to its “infirmities”. The Bill is important in the sense that it has come to the fore at a time when the Congress-led UPA is at the receiving end of several corruption cases like 2G scam and Commonwealth Games payoffs.

For long, opposition parties and civil society activists have claimed that an act would help in curbing benami deals, apart from keeping an eye on proliferation and accumulation of black money. Violators of the law will be slapped with not less than a six-month jail term that may even extend to two years and shall be liable fine.

More importantly, the adjudicating authority will be empowered to confiscate a benami property. It was in 1988 when the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act was passed by both Houses of the Parliament. After having being kept in abeyance for over two decades, efforts have been made to plug as many loopholes as is possible.

Mugs’ game

There are many issues that have sparked heated debates and parliamentary walkouts, but it would be difficult to find one as contentious as the Women’s Reservation Bill.

For nearly a decade, many political parties have supported and as many have opposed reservation for women in Parliament. The critics, specially socialist parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad are bitterly opposed to the bill.

Their argument: such a bill would only help elitist women. According to them, the bill would only aggravate the plight of the poor and deprived sections. For backers of the bill, it means empowering women all over the country.

Women politicians are already influential in India with some of them being the country’s leading politicians. Many important states are being governed by women politicians. Most insiders, however, feel that even those parties which support the reservation for women do so as a matter of convenience and there is very little intention to pass the bill making it into an act.

According to them, the reality is that if 25 or 38 per cent seats are to be reserved for women, it would mean a body blow for male aspirants even within the same family and that the bill is never likely to become a reality, the light and noise notwithstanding.

The root of the Women’s Reservation Bill goes back to the HD Deve Gowda-led United Front government. Introduced in the Lok Sabha on September 12, 1996, the proposed legislation reserves 33.3 percent seats in Parliament and state legislatures for women.

For a long time it could not be passed because of lack of political consensus. The central government cleared the Bill on February 25, 2010. What next? All eyes will be on the government.

Members help thyselves

Has to go down in history as the most one-sided and self-serving pieces of legislation. One fine morning, members of Parliament decided to give themselves a hefty pay hike, making it by far the smoothest passage of any bill in India’s parliamentary history. MPs raised their salaries by over three times from Rs 16,000 to Rs. 50,000, and doubled two of their key allowances to Rs. 40,000 each.

Astonishingly, the government, despite the hike, said there was need for setting up a mechanism for revision of members’ salary and pension, but indicated that wider discussions would be required. The bill proposed to raise the daily allowance of members from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 2,000 and the constituency and office expense allowances each from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 40,000.

It also sought to enhance pension of former members from Rs. 8,000 to Rs. 20,000 with effect from the constitution of the present Lok Sabha on May 18 last year.

Interestingly, the Joint Committee on Salaries and Allowances of MPs headed by Congress member Charandas Mahant had recommended a hike in salary from Rs. 16,000 to Rs. 80,001 - one rupee more than that of the secretary to the government of India. Unsurprisingly, the only dissenters were Left parties who said that members should not seek such a substantial hike at a time when people were burdened with galloping inflation.

Just how benefited were the members of Parliament? Experts say it can be gauged from the fact that under the rules, even if a person has attended Parliament for one single day in his life, he is entitled to all pension of a lifelong MP.

Rude shock

In India, the Privy Purse was a payment made to the royal families of erstwhile princely states as part of their agreements to first integrate with India in 1947, and later to merge their states in 1949 whereby they lost all ruling rights.

The Privy Purse was continued to the royal families until the Constitutional Amendment of 1971, implemented after a two year legal battle, was passed by which all their privileges and allowances from the central government ceased to exist.

The motion to abolish Privy Purses, and the official recognition of the titles, was originally brought before the Parliament in 1969 and was defeated by one vote.

It was again proposed in 1971 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and was successfully passed as the 26th Amendement to the Constitution of India in 1971. Indira Gandhi argued the case for abolition based on equal rights for all citizens and the need to reduce the government’s revenue deficit.

Many erstwhile royals tried to protest the abolition of the Privy Purse, primarily through campaigns to contest seats in the Lok Sabha elections of 1971. They, however, received a rude shock when many of them were defeated by huge margins.

Countering saffronites

In the days when saffron power was on the rise and the BJP’s graph was on the upswing, the United Front government of HD Deve Gowda introduced a potentially explosive bill which sought to separate religion from politics.

The bill sought to expose the dangers of religious fundamentalism, communalism and religious terrorism. The draft Bill had four main parts. It demands Separation of Religion from Government. The government at all levels, and all of its departments, boards, commissions, establishments, and under takings shall keep no connection with any religion and shall not consider religion in any administrative or developmental issues. State Funds shall not be used or spent for any issues of any religion. It also clarified that secularism is not anti-religious but only non-religious.

The Draft Bill also laid down a ‘Secular Civil Code’ for all citizens of India, irrespective of religion. The second aspect of the Bill proposes separation of religion from politics. “No political party can simultaneously be a religious party”. All communal political parties will be derecognised under the Bill. It also sought to separate religion from the Education System. The fourth aspect of the Bill is that it demanded separation of religion from the legal system.

The Bill also proposes a Judicial Commission which shall be constituted to monitor the implementations.

Lip service so far

One of the most contentious issues has been the proposed bill to debar criminals from contesting elections. While political parties have jointly emphasised the need to rid criminals of politics, when it comes to backing such an initiative in the Parliament, they have been found wanting.

The debate is stuck at a very basic level. Who is a criminal? Does an FIR constitute crime? Obviously it does not because the culpability of the accused is not proved.  India’s Election Commission has instead proposed that a charge-sheet establishes prima facie guilt and that is the yardstick needed to decide the criminality of any accused.

Nonetheless the idea has caught popular imagination. For sometime after Independence things went as scheduled. But with the gradual deterioration in standards, muscle power and criminals have come to play a big role in the country’s electoral process. In the past two decades or so, a number of criminals have won elections and become members of Parliament. The major reform under discussion is debarring criminals from contesting polls. Efforts are also being made to bring transparency in the working of political parties.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017