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Few could have anticipated that Anna Hazare's movement for a stronger Lokpal bill would generate such an extraordinary groundswell of public support, particularly among the urban middle class. By the fourth day of his indefinite fast, the nationwide protests led by 71-year-old social activist have forced the Centre to drop the anti-corruption bill it had drafted, to agree to prepare a new and stronger draft in consultation with civil society activists, and to desperately seek an agreement to end the crisis. It is imperative that the Manmohan Singh government seeks to resolve the remaining differences — on whether the committee must be formally notified and whether a civil society nominee should head it — by forsaking obstinate stances and respecting the popular mood. With the Centre rejecting the positions staked out by Mr. Hazare on these two issues, he has called for a nationwide jail bharo on April 13. It is not certain how long the deadlock will continue. But in the welter of protests and the general anger about corruption, the key details about what this specific crusade is really about must not be lost.
Essentially, the battle is to formulate a Lokpal bill that will allow for impartial and effective inquiries into complaints against public officials. The civil activist camp is correct in pointing out that the official draft is weak and ineffectual. For instance, rather than allow the Lokpal (or ombudsman) to probe all corruption-related complaints against public officials received from the general public, it restricts such inquires to those forwarded by the Lok Sabha Speaker or the Rajya Sabha Chairman. The reluctance of the Centre to draft a tough Lokpal bill has been coupled with a longstanding reluctance to enact it; one or another version of the bill has been introduced in the Lok Sabha eight times since 1968 only to find the House being dissolved before it could be passed. Mr. Hazare and his supporters have demanded that the Jan Lokpal bill drafted by civil society activists be adopted instead. But this piece of legislation, although having much more teeth, is not without its share of serious flaws. For instance, it stipulates that the selection committee for the Lokpal must include Nobel laureates of Indian origin and recent Magsaysay award winners. It also makes drastic changes in the existing criminal justice system by envisaging the Lokpal as something of a supercop, under whose jurisdiction a good portion of the Central Bureau of Investigation will be subsumed. The challenge is to formulate a Lokpal bill that has the teeth lacking in the government draft and is free from the angularities of the civil society version.