PRASHANT BHUSHAN SR. ADVOCATE IN THE HINDU
All that the government’s Lokpal bill would do is to create an illusion that it has acceded to the public demand for an independent anti-corruption agency.
The Union Cabinet announced on July 28 that in order to honour the commitment it had given to Anna Hazare and the nation at large, it would table a Lokpal bill during the monsoon session of Parliament beginning on August 1. Though the exact contents of the bill as approved by the Cabinet is not known, its basic features as announced by various Ministers show that such a Lokpal as envisaged in the government’s bill will not be able to tackle any significant case of corruption and will in fact be a cruel joke on the nation.
Looking at the major scams that have erupted in recent times, we find that the government’s Lokpal, apart from being sarkari in the sense that it will be selected by a committee dominated by people from the government, would not be able to investigate them. Thus, it would not be able to investigate the Commonwealth Games scam, the Bellary mining scam or the Adarsh Society scam, since it would have no jurisdiction over State government officials. Similarly, it would not be able to investigate the Public Distribution System scam or the scams in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, because it would have no jurisdiction over officials below Group A. For the same reason it would not be able to take up any of the corruption cases that plague the common people. It would not even be able to investigate the cash-for-votes scam, since that involves the acts of MPs in Parliament. It would also not be able to properly investigate the 2G spectrum scam, since it cannot call for papers from the Prime Minister’s Office, which are relevant for a proper investigation.
Quite apart from the severely restricted nature of the sarkari Lokpal’s mandate, the distinction drawn by the government’s bill between the level of the officers to be investigated (with lower-level officials to be investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that is under the government, and higher-level officials by the Lokpal) would create enormous confusion about jurisdiction. Since one often does not know in advance the level of the officers who may be involved in a scam, and usually officials of all levels are involved, one would not know whether to lodge the complaint with the government’s CBI or the sarkari Lokpal. If the CBI started an investigation into the Public Distribution System scam on the basis of the assumption that it involved junior officials, and then found that the money trail goes right up to the top, would the investigation then be transferred to the Lokpal? That would lead to duplication of investigation, apart from the very real possibility of the CBI having already ruined the investigation. That is why different investigative agencies are not designated to investigate offences depending on the identity of the culprits. Thus, normally there is one agency to investigate offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act irrespective of the status of the person involved. There may be a different agency to investigate separate offences under other laws, such as the Enforcement Directorate for offences under the Foreign Exchange Management Act, or the Income Tax Department for offences coming under the Income Tax Act. And will we allow corruption by junior officials to be dealt with by the same agencies that are today sleeping over it?
On UNCAC lines
The Jan Lokpal bill had been framed on the lines suggested by the U.N. Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), which requires all countries to establish independent anti-corruption agencies which would have the jurisdiction to investigate all public officials. The civil society group has therefore tried to set up a comprehensive, independent, empowered but fully accountable Jan Lokpal which would have an adequate investigative machinery under its control (the anti-corruption wing of the CBI to begin with, which would be brought under the administrative and supervisory control of the Jan Lokpal) and would be able to investigate all Central public servants for corruption. The Jan Lokpal bill also provided for Lokayuktas in the States that would be similarly empowered to investigate State public servants. Moreover, the Jan Lokpal would be selected by a broad-based selection committee that would be largely independent of the government, to avoid the kind of farce that has been witnessed in the selection of the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC).
What we have in the government’s bill is an agency that would be essentially selected by the government (five of the nine members of the selection committee would be government nominees), would have jurisdiction over less than half a per cent of the public servants, and would be additionally crippled by the fact of not being able to investigate the Prime Minister, judges or MPs for corruption connected with their acts in Parliament. They say that nine members of the Lokpal cannot handle complaints against 40 lakh Central public servants. But that would be done by the investigating machinery supervised by the Lokpal. It has been estimated that on a ratio of one Lokpal official for every 200 public servants, the Lokpal would have a total of about 20,000 officials working under it. That is a medium-sized department. The Delhi Police alone has 80,000 officials.
On the Prime Minister, judiciary
Some of the provisions of the government’s proposal, such as granting immunity from investigation to the Prime Minister, show illiteracy about the basic features of the Constitution. In 1975, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the Constitution (39th Amendment) Act that sought to put the election of the Prime Minister above challenge, on the ground that such a provision would violate the basic structure of the Constitution. A provision to grant immunity from investigation and prosecution to the Prime Minister would similarly fall foul of several basic features of the Constitution. In no civilised country is the head of the government immune from corruption investigation. Even in India he or she has not been immune. The CBI can, and occasionally under court directions has, investigated the Prime Minister (as in the case involving some leaders of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha). The problem is that the CBI is under the Prime Minister himself and therefore cannot conduct a credible investigation of the Prime Minister. That was the entire rationale for an independent Lokpal — to free the agency investigating corruption from the administrative control of the very people that it may seek to investigate. This is precisely what the UNCAC requires.
Similarly, the rationale for the government’s proposal to remove the judiciary from the Lokpal’s ambit suffers also from conceptual confusion. They say that bringing the judiciary within the investigative ambit of the Lokpal would compromise the independence of the judiciary. The judiciary needs to be independent of the government. Normally the police or the CBI can investigate judges for corruption. However, the Supreme Court in Veeraswami’s case directed that since the police are under the government, which can be used by the government to harass judges by way of investigation, the prior written permission of the Chief Justice of India would be required for such investigation. This, despite the fact there had been no instance of any judge being harassed in such a manner, since the judiciary can always use its power of judicial review to quash any mala fide investigation.
However, if the investigation of judges would be done by a Lokpal that would be independent of the government (with the further safeguard in the Jan Lokpal bill that a bench of seven members of the Lokpal would grant permission for investigation or prosecution of judges), the whole rationale for the permission of the Chief Justice disappears. We have seen that in the past such permissions have often been denied even in deserving cases for reasons of conflict of interest. Yet the government’s bill seeks to exempt judicial corruption from being investigated by an independent Lokpal, and seeks to retain the present system of investigation by a government-controlled agency after obtaining permission from the Chief Justice of India.
India is today plagued by corruption of such enormous breadth and depth and running across all public authorities that it is now at serious risk of becoming a banana republic and a mafia state. It was in recognition of this alarming reality, demanding a comprehensive, independent, empowered though accountable anti-corruption authority, that Anna Hazare went on an indefinite fast on April 5, 2011.
After seeing the extent of public support for this demand, the government agreed to a joint drafting committee for the Lokpal bill. Refusing to meet most of the demands of the civil society group in the Jan Lokpal bill, the government has now come out with its bill, which will not succeed in tackling even one per cent of India’s corruption.
All that the bill will do is to create an illusion that the government has acceded to the public demand for an independent anti-corruption agency. But the government will have to pay a heavy price for again having underestimated the ability of the people to see through such a charade. The long suffering people have had enough. Come August 16, they will get a glimpse of public anger.
(Prashant Bhushan is a Senior Advocate and member of the civil society team that drafted the Jan Lokpal Bill.)