Above: Social activist Anna Hazare with comrades Kiran Bedi and Kumar Vishwas in Delhi in 2011/Photo: Anil Shakya
The government has appointed senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi as an “eminent jurist” on the Lokpal selection panel, but will this make the wait for an anti-graft ombudsman any shorter?
~By India Legal Bureau
Over three months after the Supreme Court rebuked the centre for dragging its feet on appointing a Lokpal, a high-level committee comprising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan and Chief Justice Dipak Misra nominated senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi as an “eminent jurist” to the Lokpal selection panel.
The appointment on May 11 of Rohatgi, a former attorney general and celebrated lawyer with close links to the BJP, as a member of the Lokpal selection panel may give the impression that the centre is finally showing seriousness in appointing the anti-graft ombudsman. But has India’s wait for the Lokpal, an institution that the UPA government was forced to grant legislative sanction following social activist Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption agitation in April 2011, become any shorter? The answer is an unambiguous no.
On April 5, 2011, Hazare began the first of his three indefinite hunger strikes in Delhi demanding that the UPA-II regime get the Lokpal Bill passed by Parliament. Anna’s comrades in the agitation included the likes of Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, Baba Ramdev and former Army chief General VK Singh. The protests finally led to the passage of the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act in 2013. Hazare’s affiliates used the goodwill that the anti-corruption movement generated to launch their own political or quasi-political (in the case of Ramdev) careers and bid adieu to the cause soon after tasting success. Anna’s stir also paved the way for Narendra Modi to be elected prime minister in May 2014, riding high on his poll rhetoric of “na khaoonga, na khane doonga”.
If Hazare hoped that a new government at the centre would promptly implement the Lokpal Act, he was naive. The Modi government began its innings with efforts to dilute the Lokpal Act while holding the process of appointing the ombudsman in abeyance. The centre presented two arguments for the delay in appointing the Lokpal. It said that an amendment to the Lokpal Act, moved in 2016, to change the criteria for constituting the Lokpal selection committee was pending Parliament’s approval. This was, at best, a half-truth. The amendment doesn’t talk about changing the constitution of the selection committee at all and so its pendency for parliamentary approval does not arise. It was Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan’s decision to not acknowledge a Leader of Opposition (LoP) in 2014 that created a scenario wherein the Lokpal selection panel could not be constituted as per the conditions laid out in the Act. She did so on the grounds that the single largest Opposition party—the Congress—had failed to secure 10 percent of the Lower House’s strength.
In March this year, the centre convened a meeting of the selection panel and extended an invite to Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha, to participate as a “special invitee”. The status of a special invitee did not give Kharge powers to make suggestions that were binding on the selection panel. He boycotted the meeting in a huff. The absence of the LoP and also of an eminent jurist on the panel (the committee, according to the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act 2013, must comprise the PM, Chief Justice of India, Lok Sabha Speaker, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and an eminent jurist) meant that the centre was basically playing out a farce.
The second argument, made by the centre’s department of personnel and training through an affidavit filed with the Supreme Court earlier this year, was that the selection panel didn’t have an eminent jurist among its members. The last eminent jurist on the committee was senior advocate PP Rao, who passed away in September 2017. Since Rao’s demise, it took the centre eight months to finally appoint Rohatgi in his place.
Despite Rohatgi’s appointment, the issue of the Lokpal selection panel having no representation from the Opposition remains unresolved. Also, Rohatgi’s appointment is no guarantee of the Lokpal being appointed expeditiously.
The SC bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and R Banumathi which forced the centre to appoint an eminent jurist on the Lokpal selection panel, has said: “The next step (after appointment of Rohatgi) that would be required to be done by the Selection Committee is to constitute a Search Committee. There-after the Search Committee would be required to recommend persons for appointment of Chairperson and Mem-bers of the Lokpal which again will be considered by the Selection Committee.”
The top court hasn’t set out any time-limit for the selection committee to complete the above-mentioned process.
Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, which has been demanding speedy implementation of the Lokpal Act, feels the centre is misleading the country and the Supreme Court. She told India Legal: “If the government is claiming that it wants to follow the Lokpal Act when it comes to convening a meeting of the Lokpal selection committee, then how did it call Kharge as a special invitee when the Act has no such provision? Appointing an eminent jurist, after an eight-month-long wait, still does not complete the selection panel. An Opposition Leader must be on the panel to ensure that the government appoints a Lokpal through broad political consensus and does not indulge in nepotism.”
Meanwhile, Hazare has now been robbed of his sheen. He had to abruptly end his latest “indefinite hunger strike” in Delhi in March within three days after the media that once glorified him as the anti-graft messiah and politicians who courted him shunned him. Asked if he saw any hope of the government appointing a Lokpal in the coming days, he told India Legal: “It has been four years since this government came to power, but it has forgotten its anti-corruption promises. I will wait and see. The government has said that its Lokpal selection panel will meet soon. If the Lokpal is not appointed, I will protest again.” Hazare’s words no longer seem to carry the same weight they did when he would roar “Inquilab Zindabad!” at his Jantar Mantar protests five years ago.
Hazare may be disenchanted with the BJP. But does it matter? With one year to go before the general election and five years since the Lokpal agitation plunged the Congress in a quest for political revival, corruption in the government and the demand for a Lokpal are issues that no longer make national headlines. They don’t draw any traction from the masses that still seem to believe that Modi, not Hazare, is their anti-graft messiah. They possibly don’t even feel the need for a Lokpal anymore.