Government defeats Modi's 'anti-corruption' plan by not appointing Lokpal

Hiding behind pending amendments regarding definition of the leader of Opposition in the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 is unacceptable.

 |  4-minute read |   28-03-2017
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In what seems to be a mechanism to ensure endless delay, the Centre on March 28 told the Supreme Court that it is unable to appoint the Lokpal - the chief ombudsman who's supposed to oversee government and bureaucracy to check corruption in the corridors of power.

The Centre has cited pending amendments to the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act of 2013, which seek to redefine leader of Opposition in Parliament in case the largest party in Opposition has less than 10 per cent of the House, which is currently the case.

As a result of attorney general Mukul Rohatgi's arguments, which have pegged the Centre's inability to appoint a Lokpal on the pending amendments, the Supreme Court reserved its verdict on a bunch of pleas seeking the expedited appointment of the chief ombudsman.

Rohatgi said: "Unless the proposed amendment making the leader of the largest Opposition party as leader of Opposition is passed by Parliament, the Lokpal cannot be appointed."

However, as both the petitioners and others involved in the Lokpal movement since its inception in 2010, have observed, the Centre's excuse for not doing so is flimsy at best.

lokpal-not-now---cen_032817062435.jpg Centre has cited pending amendments on definition of Leader of Opposition in Parliament to delay appointing a Lokpal at present. [Photo: PTI] 

Senior advocate Shanti Bhushan, who appeared for the NGO Common Cause in favour of the petition, has observed that though the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act was passed in 2013 and came into effect in 2014, the Narendra Modi government at the Centre was deliberately delaying appointing the chief ombudsman.

This flies back in the face of the BJP-led NDA's anti-corruption narrative and its clean governance plank, which was the basic premise of Modi's 2014 election campaign, along with inclusive development.

The Centre versus Supreme Court face-off in the matter of Lokpal appointment has been going on for a while, with the top court pulling up the Union government for failing to do its job multiple times in 2016. As late as November 2016, the SC hauled up the Centre for the unwarranted delay in appointing the country's chief anti-corruption whip, despite harping on "minimum government, maximum governance" for close to three years now.

Former Supreme Court chief justice TS Thakur even scolded the Centre with this admonition: "Don't allow Lokpal to become a dead letter."

"When you say the government is committed to cleansing corruption, then this (Lokpal) is the step in the right direction. Why should there be a feeling government is dragging the feet?" the SC had said.

lokpal-not-now---cen_032817062451.jpg Appointment of an ombudsman is essential given the string of amendments smuggled into Finance Bill as 'money bills'. [Photo: Agencies]

However, the flouting of SC order, overlooking the top court's rebuke or observation has become usual practice. Whether it's about not making Aadhaar mandatory for accessing welfare subsidies, or ignoring the earlier SC ban on Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu, SC order has been violated and how.

But in case of the Lokpal, the Centre's delay is not only problematic, it is also in keeping with the slew of recent legislations and amendments to existing laws that the government has smuggled in via the Finance Bill, 2017. This bulk Bill was just passed in Lok Sabha on March 22, amid uproar from Opposition MPs, while the members of Parliament in the Upper House raising stern objections to the mode and matter of the Bill and its passing.

As it is, the amendments to the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act have been accused of seriously diluting the law's legislative and jurisdictional expanse, with public servants not being liable to disclose their assets unless the central government so deems fit.

Significant voices in the Right to Information movement, such as Anjali Bharadwaj of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), have already branded the dilution of the Lokpal Act via the amendments as a mechanism to rob the ombudsman, if appointed, of real bite.

Bharadwaj had earlier said that the Lokpal and Lokayuktas (Amendmnet) Bill, 2016, which was passed on July 28, 2016, had "fundamentally diluted the Lokpal Act as it has done away with the statutory requirement of public servants to disclose the assets of their spouses and dependent children. The bill has also dispensed with the statutory requirement of public disclosure of these statements."

This, when coupled with the amendment to Income Tax Act that okayed foreign donations for political parties, and the latest "backdoor" provision in Finance Bill, 2017 that allows unlimited anonymous funding from private companies to political parties, makes the Centre's murky position all the more compromised.

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