Amidst the various controversies over the ‘Chowkidar‘ (watchman), the government has finally appointed Lokpal (anti-corruption ombudsman) in the dying moments of its five-year-long tenure. A high-level committee on Sunday appointed Former Supreme Court Judge and member of National Human Rights Commission, Pinari Chandra Ghose as India’s first head of Lokpal, a national anti-corruption Ombudsman.
An ombudsman is an official, usually appointed by government, who investigates complaints against government departments or other public entities, and attempts to resolve the conflicts or concerns raised.
What is Lokpal?
A Lokpal is an anti-corruption authority or ombudsman which is dedicated to fighting systemic corruption in the country. The Lokpal has the jurisdiction of all Member of Parliament and employees of Central Government in the cases related to corruption. While the ‘Lokayuktas’ are given responsibility to look after the corruption cases in the state governments, the Lokpal, however, seeks the corruption at the National Level. The appointment of the anti-corruption body that investigates the charges at both state and the national level was a result of The Lokpal and Lokayukta Act-2013 also known as The Lokpal Bill 2013. According to the bill, a person who is or has been the Chief Justice of India or a Supreme Court judge is eligible for appointment as Lokpal.
The long wait of the Lokpal.
The idea of having an anti-corruption body and an ombudsman to look into the allegation started in the early sixties. The idea had struggled the acceptance of it in the Indian Parliamentary system since the past five decades. A Bill to set up an anti-corruption body was put forth as many as eight times between 1968 and 2011.
A Group of Ministers chaired by Pranab Mukherjee proposed the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill 2011, to which the Standing Committee made substantial modifications and called it Lokpal Bill 2013 which was a repercussion of nationwide protests by India Against Corruption which was led by activist Anna Hazare that the idea got a structure with the passing of Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill on 18 December 2013.
How was the Lokpal selected?
It was only after Apex court asked the Attorney General to inform it about the Lokpal Selection Committee Meeting on March 7. The Court had asked Attorney General KK Venugopal to inform it within 10 days about a possible date for a meeting of the selection committee to appoint the Lokpal and its members.
The Committee was comprised of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, and lawyer Mukul Rohatgi. Senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge who was also part of the committee had rejected to be involved. It was the seventh time that the opposition leader wrote a letter to the government, rejecting the offer to be a ‘Special Invitee’ for the selection of the Lokpal, the anti-corruption ombudsman. He said in the letter that,
“A ‘Special Invitee’ would not have any rights of participation in the process of selection of the Lokpal and I cannot accept the Opposition being made voiceless in a critical matter.”
According to the 2013 Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill, the Lokpal should consist of a Chairperson with a maximum members team. Of the members at least 50% should be the members of Judiciary. It also states that not less than 50% of the members of the Lokpal should be from among persons belonging to the SCs, the STs, OBCs, minorities, and women. The Salaries, allowances and service conditions of the Lokpal chairperson will be the same as those for the Chief Justice of India; those for other members will be the same as those for a judge of the Supreme Court. The name of other members of the Lokpal has not been made public yet.
The Chairman of Lokpal.
Sixty-six-year-old, Pinari Chandra Ghose was a former Apex Court Judge. He is a member of National Humann Rights Commission (NHRC), he has previously been the Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh High Court and a judge of Calcutta High Court. Ghosh is well renowned for his judgments, especially against the corruption charges of popular Political leaders.
In Jayalalithaa disproportionate assets case, the judgment was passed after the death of the leader. Ghose overturned the Karnataka High Court’s verdict and restored the earlier trial court verdict which had held Jayalalithaa’s aide V S Sasikala guilty. Ghosh is also known for the order of filing charges against BJP leaders LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Kalyan Singh and others involved in the Babri Masjid demolition case.
Justice Ghose was also a part of a verdict that barred photos of politicians in government advertisements. The verdict had restrained ruling parties from publishing photographs of political leaders or prominent persons in government-funded advertisements. He was also part of the bench which handed out punishment to the then Calcutta High Court judge, CS Karnan. He was also a part of the bench that ruled the practices of Jallikattu and bullock cart races in violation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
The purview of the Lokpal.
The Prime Minister along with the Members of Parliament and Central Government employees from group A to group D, all fall under the purview of the Lokpal. However, the jurisdiction of the Lokpal, which is empowered to bring the Prime Minister under its purview, is bound by several clauses. For example, to indict the PM, Chairman of the Lokpal must have the unanimous support of the full bench of the Lokpal and at least two-thirds of its members, to approve an inquiry.
Even then, a Lokpal-led inquiry does not extend to allegations against the PM in matters of international relations, external and internal security, public order, atomic energy, and space. Furthermore, if the Lokpal comes to the conclusion that the complaint deserves to be dismissed, the records of the inquiry are not to be published or made available to anyone. The Act also includes the members of the Lokpal under the definition of ‘Public Servant’.
How will an inquiry take place?
The Lokpal, after receiving a complaint against any public servant, order a preliminary inquiry that should be completed within 90 days or can order an investigation by any agency. After receiving the report of the preliminary inquiry, the Lokpal may order an investigation by any agency or departmental proceedings or any other appropriate action against the concerned public servants by the competent authority, or it can order the closure of the proceedings.
Some looming questions.
The ‘Demonetization’ which is believed to be a tool to curb corruption did not work out. In fact, rather than curbing corruption, it has cost employment to many people involved in small scale businesses. The political biases in the CBI director’s case also prove how protective the government can become for particular bureaucrats. The Balakot attacks by the Indian Armed forces and a politicization it just ahead of the elections questions the motive of the government. It has taken five years (a complete tenure), for the government to appoint the chairman for Lokpal.
For Narendra Modi, who has previously opposed the appointment of Lokayukta, in his home state Gujrat while he was the Chief Minister, this looks like just another campaign strategy for the upcoming elections.