Toothless Lokpal Bill
This is no way to clean political dirt : Justice Rajindar Sachar (retd) IN THE TRIBUNE
THE headlines in the media, the constant talk in the market of how deep corruption has sunk in our body politic and how nefarious role is played by the ill-gotten money contributed to all political parties are like a spectre which is haunting the public all the time. Why is it so that, in spite of the CBI investigation in the 2G spectrum scam under the Supreme Court monitoring or the demand for a JPC or PAC probe, it is still not possible to persuade the government to consider seriously to enact effectively genuine Lokpal legislation to deal with the menace of corruption? If the draft of the Lokpal Bill 2010 is any indication, it would appear that the realisation of a grave urgency is still missing with the government.
No one, of course, suggests that an evil like corruption in public life can be eliminated merely by legislation. A clean public life, the standards and character of political parties have to be built on grounds of moral conscience and public pressure. Of course, the ultimate remedy to the various evils like corruption in public life can only be eliminated, as Mahatma Gandhi said, when “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”
We must, however, face the reality. Such spirits are rare to find and we ordinary mortals must make efforts to find some mechanism which may hopefully be able to keep in check the demoralisation and corruption in our public life. One such mechanism that almost all governments since 1996 have been promising but have done nothing about it is the institution of Lokpal, an independent body to enquire into the lapses and complaints against legislators, including members of Parliament.
That corruption in various segments of our public life is eating into the vitals of our nation is freely admitted. The global Corruption Perception Index has put India at the 87th place out of 178 countries, showing the country slipping from the 84th position in 2009. The result is that India has 100,000 billionaires and 8.7 crore families (a minimum of 40 crore people) living below the poverty line.
The Central Government has at last proposed the Lokpal Bill 2010, but unfortunately it fails even to be a cosmetic exercise to fight corruption. It is shamefully toothless and meant just to give a false reassurance to the people that the government is serious in its fight against corruption.
The Lokpal is a three-member body consisting of the chairperson, who is a former Chief Justice or a judge of the Supreme Court and two members who are have been judges of the Supreme Court or High Court Chief Justices. I feel restricting it to judges is too narrow a view. Outstanding social scientists or academicians should also be eligible, and it should be a five-member body.
The jurisdiction of the Lokpal under Section 10 apparently covers the Prime Minister, ministers and members of Parliament. But hypocrisy is exposed when at the same time it nullifies the same by providing that the Lokpal shall not enquire into any allegations of corruption against any member of either House of Parliament unless the recommendation of Speaker or the Chairman of the Council of States, as the case may be, is received by it. One is amazed at the effrontery of such a provision that the Lokpal, having the status of highest judiciary, is powerless to act on its own even when it prima facie finds a strong case for enquiry. Not only that, but insultingly after the enquiry and even when the Lokpal finds that any of the charges have been proved against members of Parliament, all he can do is to send a report of his finding to the Speaker and Chairman of the Council of States, and they alone will determine what action is to be taken — obviously it may include rejecting the report of the Lokpal.
Of course, the presiding officers have to place the report before the two Houses of Parliament. A formal courtesy is to be shown by informing the Lokpal as to what action is taken or proposed to be taken which includes the rejection of the findings of guilt by the Lokpal. What sardonic joke is being played on the public? The government is treating the members of Parliament like sacred idols in a temple who cannot be touched by the Lokpal, but only by the Brahmanical priesthood of co-legislators, who will decide finally. This reduces the authority of the Lokpal to worse than a lower-level magistrate whose order has to be complied with by even the highest in the land, including the President. The sheer effrontery of the Law Ministry in proposing such an insulting provision is a direct negation of the institution of Lokpal, and it amounts to making it toothless. Rather what should have been done was to provide that the finding of guilt by the Lokpal would be treated in the same manner as under Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, considering it as a disqualification for contesting election for a period of six years. Further, the Lokpal should have been authorised to impose a penalty for the recovery of any amount found to have been lost by the action of legislators or ministers.
The Lokpal under Section 11 is forbidden to enquire into any memo of complaint if it is made after the expiry of five years from the date when the offence is alleged to have been committed. Has the government realised the absurdity of providing a limitation period in such complaints, which, if they were to be tried under the Prevention of Corruption Act, would have no limitation bar, because there is no limitation for initiating proceedings under the criminal law where the punishment provided is more than three years. What kind of a skewed provision is this which, instead of making the legislators’ liability more strict, gives them immunity.
Also, has the UPA government considered that if a five-year period were to be provided, then by the same logic, would they not be barred from holding an enquiry into the 2G spectrum scam of 2001-02 during the BJP-led government (which, by all standards, should be held along with the enquiry into the 2G scam against former minister A. Raja) ? Are not people entitled to demand an explanation as by what perverse logic is this high-sounding body called Lokpal, headed by the Chief Justice of India, being reduced to the position of a domestic pet? I am certain that no judge with even a modicum of self-respect will accept such a demeaning, low-grade post and the inevitable result would be that the Lokpal Bill will collapse — an event that legislators have always evidently desired. So, goodbye to cleaning the political dirt, notwithstanding the high-sounding calls by all the governments.
Regrettably, cynics may be right when they say “who cares” if in the process some dedicated Gandhians, fighting for integrity in public life, fast unto death at this unforgivable lapse by the government.
The writer is a former Chief Justice of the High Court of Delhi.
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