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Theatrics of Lokpal

Author: MG Devasahayam
Publication: The Statesman
Date: February 27, 2014
URL: http://thestatesman.net/news/41495-theatrics-of-lokpal.html

The Lokpal Act is testimony to India’s immense   propensity   for   jugaad ~ dramatise things, but achieve nothing. The Act is more of a farce. In the event, the very purpose of setting up the high-profile Ombudsman stands defeated. That probably was the intention behind all the theatrics ~ MG DEVASAHAYAM

After carpet-bombing the airwaves with anti-corruption rhetoric for several months, Arvind Kejriwal, the enfant terrible of the ‘India Against Corruption” (IAC) campaign, openly declared that civil society led by Anna Hazare was impotent and the only way to combat corruption was to capture political power. Accordingly, he and his entourage morphed into a political party and briefly ‘captured’ power in Delhi with him as the Chief Minister. Before his hurried resignation, Kejriwal came out with the ‘rogue’s gallery’ of the most-corrupt politicians who actually run India’s democracy-turned-kleptocracy. Subsequently he went ahead and filed an FIR against a much bigger corporate shark.
The ‘Kejriwal List’ has several ‘big-fish’. The question is: Where have these corrupt kleptocrats gone, now that the Lokpal Act has been enacted? By all accounts they are where they are and in no way afraid of the ‘mighty Ombudsman’. Because the Lokpal as contemplated now is unwieldy, top-heavy, and its focus has been heavily diluted. The way things are and given the possibility of favourite agenda-men filling up
Lokpal positions, this supposedly anti-corruption bulwark could turn out to be a damp squib.
To find out why, one needs to go back to 2009 when UPA-II formed the Government with the Congress in a stronger position. This was when some serious cases of corruption and loot ~ the Satyam scam, 2G scandal, Jharkand mining ~ started surfacing. The big-guns boomed against ‘corruption-in-high places’, creating an impression that eventually the debilitating cancer afflicting India’s governance and society, is meeting its nemesis and aam aadmi can look forward to good and honest governance in the near future.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself led the charge. Addressing a conference of CBI and anti-corruption officials at the state level, he said: “High-level corruption should be pursued aggressively. There is a pervasive feeling that while petty cases get tackled quickly, the big-fish escape punishment. This has to change.”
Then came the Chief Justice of India, KG Balakrishnan, firing on all cylinders. He sought confiscation of assets of persons convicted of offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Speaking at the national seminar on “Fighting Crimes Related to Corruption”, organised jointly by the CBI and the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science, he said: “The rationale behind the same is that if a public official amasses wealth at the cost of the public, then the state is justified in seizing such assets.”
Union Minister for Law and Justice went a step further and called for the amendment of Articles 309, 310 and 311 of the Constitution, thus removing protection and safeguards in prosecuting corrupt public servants. “There is a feeling that the protection given to the public servants under Article 311 of the Constitution is being used to create obstacles for expeditious punitive action.”

As if in response to the cacophony, bigger and worse scandals ~ Commonwealth Games, Coalgate, Isro-Antrax, the aircraft carrier Gorshkov, the Tatra truck, Augusta-Westland, NSEL, Air India purchase, loot of resources ~ surfaced and many more, like the KG Basin loot, were churning under the surface.
As it turned out, the PM, CJI and Law Minister have been hypocritical to the core. The Prime Minister’s charade against corruption was more of an ‘image makeover’ to attract foreign investment; it was not a genuine effort towards honest governance. He made it clear when he said: “Pervasive corruption in our country tarnishes our image. It also discourages investors, who expect fair treatment and transparent dealings”. The higher judiciary, including the then CJI, were themselves enmeshed in controversies over corruption and amassing huge wealth, denying access under the Right to Information Act and attempted elevation to the Supreme Court of people accused of corruption and land-grabbing . The Law minister along with his trusted Attorney-General was working overtime to suppress the scandals; they even went to the extent of filing false affidavits in the courts of law. In the event the ‘corrupt big-fish’ were growing bigger and stronger without any remorse or restraint.
In the Indian context, the ‘big-fish’ is represented by ministers, members of Parliament, judges, top-rung bureaucrats and other constitutional functionaries who wield enormous power and influence without corresponding accountability or rules to regulate their conduct. Institutions of Lokpal and Lokayukta were precisely aimed at reining in and punishing such characters. There are ‘vigilance’ bodies to discipline small fry.
The first Lokpal Bill was introduced and passed in the fourth Lok Sabha in 1968-69. However, while it was pending in the Rajya Sabha, the Lok Sabha was dissolved, resulting in the first death of the Bill. It was revived in 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2005 and 2008. On every occasion, the Bill was referred to some committee or other for ‘improvements’, and before the government could take a final call on the issue the House was dissolved.
Though Lokayuktas have been constituted in 17 states, their power, function and jurisdiction are not uniform. Deliberate lacunae have been left in legislation creating the office, apparently to keep the elected representatives outside the meaningful jurisdiction of the Lokayukta, even when the laws appear to include them. Lokayuktas cannot take suo motu cognisance of even scandalizing corruption; they have no independent investigative machinery and are dependent on the government agencies, thereby making these Ombudsman-type bodies virtually non-functional.
Even 45 years after its initiation, such eminent ‘watchdog institutions’ conceived as the public bulwark against ‘corruption-in-high places’ were either non-existent or non-functional. They didn’t go beyond seminars and speeches. In the event, while the venal and the corrupt strode this land like colossus, dominating its political, administrative, judicial and business spectrum, the conscientious and the honest shrunk and faded away. This has been India’s true tragedy and the harbinger of state kleptocracy.
The recent struggle for the Lokpal was started by the Gandhian Satyagraha Brigade, the rejuvenated version of the Lok Sevak Sangh of Servants of the People Society founded by Lala Lajpat Rai in 1921 and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. The struggle was led by nonagenarian Shambhu Dutt of Quit India vintage, and stalwart of the JP movement of the 1970s. In fact after a frustrating crusade he had decided to offer the ‘supreme sacrifice’ by going on ‘fast-unto-death’ starting from 30 January 2010, Gandhi’s martyrdom day, but was promptly dissuaded. It was this struggle that was taken up by Anna Hazare, Swami Agnivesh, Prashant Bushan, Justice Santosh Hegde, Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal when they released the draft Jan Lokpal Bill in December 2010. The movement of India Against Corruption followed with its quota of theatrics and in full media glare.
The Lokpal Act that has come out of this glare is testimony to India’s immense propensity for jugaad ~ dramatise things, but achieve nothing. The Act is more of a farce. The institution, as contemplated, is unwieldy, top-heavy, and the focus has been heavily diluted by including millions of Class III and Class IV government employees within its ambit though action on their corruption would be the responsibility of CVC. Ironically, the Kejriwal-driven Delhi Jan Lokpal Bill is also in the same league ~ covering all public servants from the Chief Minister to Group D employees, making it as unfocussed as the Central act. This serious aberration will protect the corrupt ‘big-fish’ who actually run India’s kleptocracy while chasing petty bribe-takers. In the event, the very purpose of setting up the high-profile Ombudsman stands defeated. That probably was the intention behind all the theatrics.
There have been desperate efforts to constitute the Lokpal in a tearing hurry by bulldozing decisions to facilitate appointment of ‘favourites’ as Chairman and members. It looks as if the Lokpal will be dismembered even before it is put in place.
It is in this ‘ambience’ that the ‘Kejriwal List’, a la the infamous ‘Schindler’s List’, is floating around. The latter had the ex-Nazis on the run. Will the former put India’s ‘kleptocrats’ on the run too? The jury is out.

The writer is a retired IAS officer
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