The year of the Lokpal

This could well be the year of the Lokpal. With the Lokpal Bill having passed both houses of Parliament, all that remains is for the president to sign it before it becomes a law.

Of course, the political class can still have some tricks up its sleeve because the Union Home Ministry is the one that will write the rules of the Act and sometimes these are so cunningly crafted that they undermine the intent of the legislation.

Even so, the Lokpal Bill will be a new mechanism to fast-track probes against allegedly corrupt government officials — the prime minister, cabinet ministers, chief ministers, MPs, and the staff of state-funded outfits.

Crusader: Anna Hazare’s famous fast and the upsurge in favour of the Lokpal Bill compelled the ruling party, as well as the principal Opposition, the BJP, to push the bill

If there was one legislation, which has in recent times, truly come from the people, it is the Lokpal Bill.

For decades, the ruling elite has sought to make anti-corruption legislation toothless. But Anna Hazare’s famous fast and the upsurge in favour of the Lokpal Bill compelled the ruling party, as well as the principal Opposition, the BJP, to push the bill.

In that sense, the main thrust of the legislation is to have some means of dealing with the soaring levels of corruption in a country where the existing mechanisms have been ineffective. Complaints registered under the Lokpal will have to be acted on within 60 days and would be prosecuted in special courts.

The arrival of the Lokpal will be an important development in the Indian polity. Of course, the Aam Aadmi Party insists that only the Jan Lokpal Bill will satisfactorily curb corruption. However, critics are right when they say that the Jan Lokpal idea is a bit over the top. We need to ensure that the Lokpal remedy does not become worse that the disease.

In recent years, at various points in time, we have seen how certain constitutional bodies — the Supreme Court and the Comptroller and Auditor General being two examples — have tended to assume powers that actually belong only to the executive. But such was the public mood against the government, that no one gave heed to the serious damage that was done to the constitutional system.

Maintaining the constitutional balance is an important part of our democracy.

There has been a tendency, especially in the Congress party, to believe that legislating a promise is tantamount to actually delivering on it. The reality is otherwise. In its two tenures, the UPA government has passed the Right to Information (2005); Right to Work (2005); Forest Rights Act (2006), Right to Education (2009); Right to Food (2013) and the Prohibition of Manual Scavenging Act (2013). But in all these areas, there is a long way to go in the effective implementation of the acts.

What India needs to understand is that legislation or institutions by themselves do not bring about social change. Countries of Europe or the United States, too, had a history of political corruption. But over the years they have cleaned up their act considerably because of popular sentiment, as well as institutions and laws.

It is not as though corruption does not still occur there. But it is not as all-pervasive as corruption has become in India and the penalty for getting caught is heavy and the guilty are more effectively prosecuted.

Corruption weighs heavily in India. Virtually every major and minor deal, be it for an entrepreneur to set up a steel plant, or a rehri-wallah selling vegetables on the street corner, money must be paid.

Corruption in the area of defence purchases is in a class of its own. This is evident from even the minor deal for the purchase of 12 Augusta Westland helicopters which the government recently terminated. A collateral casualty of the case could well be an army brigadier who offered to fudge the trial records of the competition relating to the acquisition of 197 light utility and surveillance helicopters in exchange for five million euros.

The big areas of corruption are well known — sale and purchase of land and real estate development (Adarsh), in the award of contracts, income tax assessments, mineral allotments (think of the Coal allocation scam), transfers and sale of positions, purchase and sale of medicines (think of the National Rural Health Mission scam) and so on.

Clearly, the first target of the Lokpal system will have to be the police. There is a Latin saying, Quis custodiet insos custodies (Who will guard the guards themselves?) India’s police is rotten to the core and this is evident to every aware citizen. Most people believe that the police are hand-in-glove with the criminals on one hand, and the politicians on the other.

It was through targeting the police in Hong Kong that the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) cut its teeth and enabled the emergence of the modern city which is considered one of the cleanest in the world. But it was not an easy task and the process also revealed the problems that arise when you give so much power to one body.

However, at the end of the day, what matters is the quality of political leadership that is provided to the anti-corruption crusade.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi


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