Civil Society and government are seldom on the same page. The reason is not because their interests clash, but because their adversarial role does not allow them to concur. India is in the midst of an experiment which brings the two on the same side.

This is on the Lokpal bill which has already prefixed the word of Jan (popular) to it. Both government ministers and the activists, five from each, have been sitting across the table for almost a month. They are drafting legislation to list steps to fight corruption in high places.

An ombudsman (Lokpal) institution is sought to be set up that will supervise over the entire official machinery engaged in taking action against the dishonest. Whether the Prime Minister, high court and Supreme Court judges and MPs should come within the ambit of the Lokpal bill, which will initiate action against the delinquent, is the point at issue.

The bill has made a substantial progress. That the Lokpal will be independent and scrutinize the complaints relating to corruption in high places goes without saying. It is a good thing that its decision is subject to judicial review.

One criticism against the bill that the Lokpal should be answerable to the people is faulty. This argument sounds good on paper. But the impeachment of the Lokpal should depend on the verdict of parliament will tell upon the Lokpal’s independence. Political parties can join hands to “punish” the Lokpal for having taken action against a delinquent MP. Like the Central Election Commission, the Lokpal will be a creature of parliament but independent to take action against MPs and ministers.

Both sides have more or less reached a consensus except on the Prime Minister and judges. Government representatives feel that the inclusion of Prime Minister exposes the office to frivolous charges and political vendetta. Activists argue that the Prime Minister would be tried on charges of corruption, which will be first screened by a high-power committee. As for the judges, New Delhi wants to set up a judicial commission to process the allegations against them and to pronounce judgment. The argument emerging is that the judges will be out of the ambit of Lokpal once the commission comes into being.

Differences are minor and agreements major. The government has accepted the demand of activists to place under the Lokpal the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate and other inquiry agencies. This is a welcome step because the CBI and other agencies are only at the beck and call of those in power at Delhi. The vigilance commission appointed by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri has been non-functional. It is better to abolish it. The vigilance officers can be part of the investigation force under the Lokpal.

After five meetings, which were constructive according to Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal, one got the impression that the government was forthcoming to take steps against the corrupt. Activists were happy that their demands were being met. It was too good to be true. Now the government has shown its hand. It does not want the Lokpal to have the authority to conduct a probe against the Prime Minister on the matter of his probity. Nor does the government want the judiciary to be scrutinized by the Lokpal. And MPs, even caught with their hands in the jam jar, are not under the Lokpal purview. Justice Santosh Hegde, one of the activists in the dialogue, rightly asked at the last meeting that the government should tell what the Lokpal is supposed to do if practically everybody who counts is going to be out of its reach.

Home Minister P Chidambaram, also on the ministerial committee of the dialogue, says that civil society is itself divided. That is a good thing, not something detestable in a democracy. The problem before the nation is not how to correct the ills of civil society, but how to eliminate corruption in high places. Probably, this question would not have assumed the shape it took—spontaneous demonstrations in response to Gandhian Anna Hazare’s fast—if one scam after another had not tumbled out of the government’s closet.

Nobody has ever doubted the personal honesty of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But one was horrified to see that he knew about the corruption of at least Telecom Minister A. Raja and did not do anything till the media uncovered the scandal. Even now the media had to do the exposure job in the case of Textiles Minister Dayanidhi Maran. He made favours to a company which invested in turn in Maran’s television network. The Prime Minister has not till today asked him to quit the cabinet. The government may need the support of the DMK, Maran’s party, to survive. Must the nation suffer for what the Prime Minister once rationalized as a “coalition dharma”?

Today, the government faces a crisis of credibility. People are not sure whether what it says is correct and whether what is explained, when exposed by the media, is the right explanation. The constitution of Lokpal may retrieve the confidence of people in the Manmohan Singh government. When he himself has said that he, as Prime Minister, is willing to be scrutinized by the Lokpal, why should the ministerial team raise this question?

The Lokpal was first suggested by Santhanam Committee when Shastri was the Home Minister. Topics like the Prime Minister’s office were not raised. The matter was left at that. The ruling Congress party has been discussing Lokpal off and on but never went beyond having it in its election manifesto. The government cannot now face the reality because at least two of its Prime Ministers have been found lacking integrity.

The judiciary is 15 per cent corrupt, according to a statement made by a retired Chief Justice of India some years ago. The government has done nothing. The judicial commission to which the high court and Supreme Court judges would be answerable is not even on the horizon. What do the people do when they see judgments palpably favouring the rich and the powerful?

In the face of government’s volte face, what does the civil society do? It would be foolhardy to walk out of the talks until the government is fully exposed on its duplicity. Since the entire talks have been tape-recorded, if not video-taped, the activists should reproduce what the ministerial team said in the beginning and how it has changed from its earlier position.

Had there been a constitutional way to hold a referendum, it should have been conducted to find out how the public is reacting. Maybe, the government should go back to the people to get a verdict on its steps to dilute the Lokpal.

(The Writer is a renowned columnist)