Wanted, a 'suitable' ombudsman

The Karnataka story...

Karnataka has always boasted of being one of the first states to implement the Lokayukta Act and appoint Lokayuktas or corruption ombudsmen.

Karnataka Upalokayukta Justice Chandrashekariah with Governor Bhardwaj.

However, it was during the tenure of Justice M N Venkatachalaiah that the institution started making news, with a flurry of raids and traps, often led by him, unearthing sleaze at various levels. When Justice Santhosh Hegde took over as the Lokayukta in 2006, he was expected to continue the work of Justice Venkatachalaiah.

What came as a bonus was a damning report on illegal mining submitted by him at the end of his tenure, which forced the resignation of then Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa.

This was followed by a slew of private complaints filed in the designated Special Lokayukta Court charging  Yeddyurappa of illegally denotifying large tracts of land for pecuniary benefit.

Justice Shivaraj V Patil was appointed as the next Lokayukta but he resigned within weeks following media reports that he had acquired a site from a Housing Society flouting rules.

An embittered Justice Patil, who resigned after the accusations gained speed, denied any political pressure and blamed the ‘uncongenial atmosphere’ for his exit. Since then, the government’s apparently credible attempts to fill up the post of the Lokayukta or Upa Lokayuktas has been evaluated from multiple dimensions. The appointment of Lokayukta, in particular, has acquired an intensively political flavour.

Amenable and acceptable

With investigations piling up mostly against the ruling BJP party, the need to find someone amenable and at the same time acceptable to all parties involved in the selection process, have created muddied swirls of opinions.

Ironically, the Lokayukta has no powers to interfere in the complaints received under the Prevention of Corruption Act, which are investigated by the Lokayukta police. Most of the complaints against political leaders come under Prevention of Corruption Act and as such the Lokayukta has no direct involvement in these cases.

Former Lokayukta Santhosh Hegde, however, believes that a proactive Lokayukta could ensure that investigations are conducted properly. “It certainly has its own impact. If we feel that the police officers are not doing their job efficiently, then we can ask the government to take them back,” he says. The same logic in reverse is, perhaps, the crux of the bid to find a Lokayukta who would be responsive to the ruling party’s aspirations.

The influence of Yeddyurappa over the party’s decisions was seen during the three-month tug of war between the government and Governor Hansraj Bhardwaj, who steadfastly refused to approve the name of Justice S R Bannurmath for the post. There has been no love lost between the Governor and the state government and this has been proved in two instances.

One, when the Governor readily sanctioned the prosecution of Yeddyurappa in the wake of private complaints filed against him, and secondly, in his staunch refusal to approve Bannurmath’s name. The Governor has repeatedly stated that he had reasons to believe that Bannurmath was not suited for the post, as there were allegations against him, though he refused to specify what these allegations were.

Renewed bid

The situation threatened to completely spin out of control, until Justice Bannurmath, after months of silence, decided to voluntarily opt out.

In the midst of the political drama has been the nagging issue of judges owning sites in the Judicial Layout meant for judicial employees. More than 80 state judges own one or more sites in this layout. While judges cite the Supreme Court ruling which upheld the dismissal of the case against judges owning sites, related matters which might bear implication on that ruling are still pending in the courts. The only way out of this, many opine is to have a Judge who is from outside the state but worked here.
 
A now wary Chief Minister D V Sadananda Gowda, who is precariously holding on to his chair, has sent out letters to the Chief Justice of the High Court, Chairman of the Legislative Council, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and Leaders of the Opposition in the two houses of the legislature for fresh consultations on the choice of a Lokayukta.

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