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Lokpal (Complaint) Rules 2020–Just an Eyewash?

This watchdog institution conceived as a public bulwark against corruption in high places seems a charade. It is unwieldy and top-heavy and chases petty bribe-takers while ignoring the big fish -MG Devasahayam

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A year after the Lokpal was formed, the government notified the Lokpal (Complaint) Rules 2020, finally enabling the anti-corruption ombudsman to act on the pleas made before it. According to the rules, a complaint filed against a sitting or a former prime minister will be considered at the admission stage itself by a full bench of the Lokpal, consisting of its chairperson and all members, for assessing whether an inquiry can be initiated. At least two-thirds of the members have to approve of the inquiry.

If there are complaints against a current or former minister in the Union cabinet or an MP of either House, a bench consisting of not less than three members of the Lokpal shall consider every report that is received from the inquiry wing of the ombudsman or any agency. The bench will decide whether there exists a prima facie case after giving the public servant an opportunity to be heard. As per the rules, complaints can be filed either electronically, by post or in person.

The complaint has to be within seven years of the alleged offence taking place as per Section 53 of the Lokpal Act. It has to be accompanied by an affidavit on a non-judicial stamp paper. Complaints whose contents are illegible, vague or ambiguous, trivial or frivolous, do not contain any allegation, are not filed with­in the limitation period of seven years or are pending before any other court, tribunal or authority will have to be disposed of within 30 days.

So far, so good. But the big question is whether the Lokpal will ever function effectively or be one more drain on the public exchequer? To find out, we need 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 would meet its nemesis and the aam aadmi could look forward to good and honest governance in the 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. Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan even sought confiscation of assets of persons convicted of offences under the Preven­tion of Corruption Act. The law minister 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. As if in response to the cacophony, big scandals surfaced—Commonwealth Games, Coal-gate, ISRO-Antrax, aircraft carrier Gorshkov, Tatra truck, AgustaWestland, NSEL, Air India purchase, etc. Many more, like the KG Basin loot, were churning too.

In the Indian context, “big fish” means the prime minister, ministers, MPs, judges, top-rung bureaucrats and other constitutional/statutory functionaries who wield enormous power and influence without corresponding accountability or rules to regulate their conduct. The Lokpal was precisely aimed at reining in and punishing such worthies. There are the CBI and CVC to discipline the 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 demise 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 got dissolved.

Even 45 years after its initiation, this eminent “watchdog institution” conceiv­ed as the public bulwark against corruption in high places did not take off. In the event, while the venal and the corrupt strode this land like colossuses, 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 renewed struggle for Lokpal was started by the Gandhian Satyagraha Brigade, part of the 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. He started his “fast unto death” on January 30, 2010, but was promptly dissuaded. This struggle was taken up by civil society led by Anna Hazare, Swami Agnivesh, Justice Santosh Hegde, Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal under the India Against Corruption (IAC) banner. Out of this emerged the draft Jan Lokpal Bill which was released in December 2010.

After carpet-bombing the airwaves with anti-corruption rhetoric in full media glare, Kejriwal declared that civil society 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 he was propelled as the chief minister. Soon after, Kejriwal came out with the “rogues’ gallery” (Kejriwal List) of the most corrupt politicians and oligarchs.

The Lokpal Act that came out of this glare is testimony to India’s immense propensity for jugaad—dramatise things, but achieve little. The Act is more of a charade. 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 the CVC. This serious aberration would protect the corrupt “big fish” 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.

The Lokpal Act received presidential assent on January 1, 2014, and became the law of the land. By the time the process of appointment of the Lokpal was put in place, the UPA government became a lame-duck one and lost power in May 2014. And when the NDA government appointed the Lokpal after five years in March 2019, it had also become lame-duck. From one lame-duck government to another, India’s Lokpal had a chequered history which by no means is edifying. Ironically, the watchdog of India’s governance and integrity was born out of gross impropriety, being appointed by a caretaker government after the general election 2019 was announced. That was not a good omen.

Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose was sworn in as the chairperson, Lokpal. Other judicial members were Justices Dilip B Bhosale, Pradip Kumar Mohan­ty, Abhilasha Kumari and Ajay Kumar Tripathi. Non-judicial members were former IAS officers Dinesh Kumar Jain and Indrajeet Prasad Gautam, former IPS officer Archana Ramasundaram and former IRS officer Mahender Singh. Since then, it has been waiting for the complaint rules to be notified by the gover­nment to start working. In the meantime, it received over 1,100 complaints, most of which have been disposed of without initiation of any inquiry.
Among them was probably included the case of Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa who had allegedly paid bribes to the tune of Rs 1,800 crore to the BJP’s top leadership. The Congress party pushed this, saying it was a fit case to be investigated by the newly appointed Lokpal, thereby setting the stage for its first acid test. Nothing has been heard of this since then.

The fact that the Lokpal was not constituted for over five years after the law was enacted and it took one year to notify the rules, shows the NDA government’s real intentions. During this period, massive scandals in which “big-fish” were invariably involved got swept under the carpet. And courts dealt with such scandals with a “sealed cover”. Rafale and the ever-spiralling banking scams are typical examples. And in the last five to six years, all “institutions of integrity”, including the ones embedded in the Constitution, are under severe assault, rendering them almost impotent. Even the 18 Lokayukts (state-level ombudsmen) are non-functional and ineffective against the “big fish.” The Lokpal, appointed by this government, cannot be any different.

As for combatting corruption, the “Kejriwal List” had several “big fish”. The question is: Where have these corrupt oligarchs and kleptocrats gone and where has Kejriwal vanished? By all accounts, by adopting a “neither-fish-nor-fowl” political philosophy, he is prospering politically. With the rules in place, will the Lokpal at least look at the “Kejriwal List”? Or would it turn out to be just another sinecure at taxpayers’ expense while shadowboxing on corruption continues to play out?

 —The writer is a former Army & IAS officer

Lead picture: UNI

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