After a two-hour long meeting on Saturday morning, the Congress core group – meeting for the second time in two days – asked the government to call an all-party meeting to discuss the proposed Lokpal Bill, sources said. The Congress wants the contentious issue to be settled soon to ensure it does not cause disruption of the House when Parliament is convened next month.
The decision also follows differences within the Congress on whether the Lokpal Bill should cover the Prime Minister or not: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose personal image has taken a battering in the last few months, has even gone on record to say he has no objection to the office of the Prime Minister being included in the Lokpal Bill. Indeed, in the government's draft of the Bill, the Prime Minister can be scrutinised, unless the issues involve national security and defence.
However, most of Dr. Singh's senior colleagues in the government and the party feel the Bill needs to be drafted, anticipating all contingencies, not merely for the next three years. Including the Prime Minister, they believe, could have grave implications for the constitutional scheme of things, especially if a future Lokpal is less than scrupulous.
Union Minority Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, a member of the Lokpal Bill drafting committee, recently said it was important to first decide whether a new law was being drafted or the Constitution being changed.
On Saturday, senior party leader Mohan Prakash warned against tampering with what he described as “the soul of the Constitution.” “We are not just discussing the Congress' future,” he said, “but the future of Indian democracy and the need to maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and Parliament.”
Not the first time
The decision to elicit the Opposition's views on the Bill is not the first time the government has sought to do so. As recently as May 31, Union Finance Minister and chairperson of the Lokpal Bill Drafting Committee Pranab Mukherjee had written to all political parties and State governments, seeking answers to a questionnaire on the provisions in the proposed Bill.
The Opposition parties had refused to respond to the questionnaire, saying half the joint draft committee's members represented civil society – they would respond, they said, in Parliament. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram seized on the Opposition response, saying it endorsed the government view – that lawmaking was the legislature's task.
On Friday, Congress media chairperson Janardan Dwivedi challenged the Bharatiya Janata Party to state its views on the Bill, rather than “hide behind” Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev. He pointed out that the Congress, as a constituent of the United Progressive Alliance, would endorse the government line, when that emerged.
Meanwhile, BJP chief spokesperson Ravishankar Prasad responded on Saturday from Patna, saying his party was not opposed to participating in an all-party meeting, but it would give its opinion on the inclusion of the Prime Minister in the Bill only after the government circulated its views.
Sources said that most Opposition parties, too, which hope to come to power in the future, are chary of including the Prime Minister in the Bill; but if they were to say so publicly, they would lose their edge against the Congress in this ongoing battle against corruption.