Saturday, April 13, 2024

Crusaders Cut to Size?

The UP government has moved a bill to reduce the term of Lokayuktas from eight years to five. But in the age of near total surveillance, are such sinecures even needed?

By Vikram L Kilpady

The Uttar Pradesh government recently moved an amendment to clip the term of the state Lokayukta to five years from the existing eight, or up to age 70, because it was proving quite taxing for the incumbents.

The Uttar Pradesh Lokayukta and Upalokayuktas Act 1975 was passed to provide for official machinery to probe allegations against ministers, MLAs and other public servants. Though the initial Act came in with a term of five years for the Lokayukta, it was amended to eight years in 2012 in the interest of work, the UP government said on the floor of the assembly.

The reason the Yogi Adityanath government cited for proposing the reduction in term was that it put excessive strain on the physical and mental health of those holding the office. Most Lokayuktas in states are either retired chief justices of High Courts or judges. Some states have also appointed retired civil servants or those who have held similar offices for a long time. One can imagine the stress a post-retirement job can bring after an already stressful work life.

The demand for a Lokayukta came into being in the mid-1960s when it was found that the system didn’t have the wherewithal to address corruption and malpractices by public servants, which also included politicians. In 1966, the Administrative Reforms Commission, headed by Morarji Desai, who would later become prime minister, submitted an interim report pushing for the creation of the posts of Lok Pal at the national-level and the Lokayukta in states. The government then tried to pass a bill through Parliament and managed to win Lok Sabha approval, but couldn’t get past the Rajya Sabha. The bill, however, was the base on which Lokayuktas were set up in states.

The premise of the Lokayukta was that a citizen could complain that a public servant had either taken a bribe or done some shoddy work at the cost of the exchequer or had favoured his or her relatives in the course of discharging official duties. The whistleblower was central to the functioning of the Lokayukta. So, it is possible it became a convenient tool in the hands of those who could harm someone influential by charging them with corruption, for example.

The institution itself has been functioning at its usual pace and, to the public, is nearly invisible in its workings. The one case that got eyeballs was when former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa had to surrender before a Lokayukta court over a land scam in 2011.

While the case against Yeddyurappa, now Yediyurappa, was gaining ground, another movement found a groundswell of support in Delhi. That movement was not occupied with the trivialities of the existing Lokayukta, but had a grander plan, a Jan Lok Pal who could probe charges of corruption against the sitting prime minister or former prime ministers or Union ministers or MPs or government officials across the board. Not to be left out, members, chairpersons, directors and officers of any board, corporation, society, autonomous body and even trusts wholly or partly funded by either the centre or the state or by parliamentary statute were also brought within its ambit.

Similarly, any organisation that draws foreign funding above Rs 10 lakh would also come under the Lok Pal lens. Today, the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act is doing the same job quite ably with several funds-debarred NGOs being unable to operate in India and having to close shop.

The Jan Lok Pal would have been the Damocles’ Sword hanging atop India’s parliamentary system if it had ever come about. Though it reads like a call for the rise of a Napoleon, a Stalin or, in worst case, a Hitler, the Jan of the Jan Lok Pal was the brain child of a svelte mob. In conception, it aimed to draw on the heady feeling of the successful revolutions that replaced the dogmatic State after the fall of the USSR.

It was a salve to the hurt caused by the people of India not mobilising en masse against their rulers, but instead, moving away from the spirit imbued by the republic’s founding fathers. 

The case in point was the Emergency, the jails were filled with rival political leaders and the intelligentsia, but the aam aadmi then was happy the trains ran on time and the streets were clean. In this aspect, the Anna movement was the people of the middle class patting themselves on the back that they had done what revolutionaries had done elsewhere. The words “revolution” and “revolutionary” hold different meanings to different people, and the Anna movement arrived at a consensus on that.

This “peoples” movement could be summed up by its popular slogan, “Anything but the Congress”. The two terms of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had seen an outpouring of reported scams running into lakhs of crores, especially in its second term when the Congress was in a minority. Most of the celebrated, headline-defying scams spotted then fell through under court scrutiny later as the grandest of them all was over a sense of notional loss.

Like the adulation of Sachin Tendulkar or Sunil Gavaskar/Kapil Dev before him, who admirably shouldered greater responsibilities for the rest of the cricket team, the yearning was intense at the close of UPA II for a strong leader who could make up for the citizen’s lack of heroism and honesty. Given that these were the times of coalition dharma, the media looked helter-skelter for a man who could beat some sense into the people ruling the country. They found him in the Gandhi topi-wearing Anna Hazare of Ralegan-Siddhi in Maharashtra, where he was holding one protest or the other.

This former Army man and the coterie surrounding him appropriated the Gandhi topi directly and, without expressly stating it, the Mahatma himself. The entourage Anna Hazare attracted was disparate and more vociferous in its stand against the Congress. But Hazare wasn’t the man behind the Hellenistic democracy advocated by the Jan Lok Pal concept; the idea harks back to the age of kings and dictators. Despite active support from some of the country’s finest legal brains, the movement was infantile in its eagerness to embrace dictatorship as a means to ridding the country of the corrupt, which in its book essentially meant just one party.

But the craving for a strongman who would set everything right and herald India’s progress into the comity of developed nations has been fulfilled since then. 

The splintering of the movement led by Anna Hazare and the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party nailed the future of the Congress in Delhi and now in Punjab. The continuing cases against AAP leaders in either the liquor policy or money laundering cases make one wonder about the proposers of the Jan Lok Pal and the changes brought by times when power is well within grasp.

In parallel, a PIL had brought about the setting up of special courts to try MPs and MLAs. The success of this venture through the existing justice system showed the futility of an instant-justice, one-man force. Yes, the cases in court did take time, but are free from instances of political vendetta, though the “victims” regularly claim a witch-hunt.

Given the success of bringing MPs and MLAs to book for misdemeanours, impropriety and corruption via the courts, the Lokayukta is at best a measure to keep a check on bureaucrats. Retired judges have better options in arbitration and command astronomical sums by the hour.

The singling out of 70 years as the age limit for Lokayuktas brings to mind another episode when senior politicians were parceled out to the advisory council. What’s 70 years when 60s today is the new 40s with the skyrocketing demand for skilled personnel in the face of a younger generation that is unable to take the strains and stresses of a normal work day?  

Other countries may be making room for the young with the four-day week, a shorter work day and work from home, that survival trick businesses thought up when Covid-19 came sneezing across the world. Recently, Indian software majors were issuing dire warnings to their employees to return to office or face the sack.

With the times a-changin’ faster than a Ferris wheel, the Lokayukta may just be the vestige of a bygone era.

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