No pals for Lokayukta

No pals for Lokayukta

The Delhi Lokayukta, unlike its ferocious Karnataka counterpart, is not an institution ‘feared’ by politicians who have done wrong. When it comes to giving more power to this anti-graft body, the political class quietly gang up on one side to defend its fortress.

For the third time in the past four years, Lokayukta Justice (retd) Manmohan Sarin on May 22 indicted chief minister Sheila Dikshit in a corruption case related to misuse of power and public money during campaigning for the 2008 Delhi Assembly elections.

The Lokayukta in his order had recommended President Pranab Mukherjee to administer her a “caution” and to tell her to deposit Rs 11 crore with the exchequer.

“Advise the respondent to reimburse, either herself or through her party, a sum of Rs 11 crore. The sum being approximately 50 per cent of the total cost of advertisements in the election year used in government advertisements for party political purposes, or such other sum as the President finds adequate,” Justice Sarin had asked the President.

This was the third time that the Delhi Lokayukta had suggested issuing a “caution” to her, but the suggestion has not been carried out even once. She continues as chief minister. Even lesser mortals, like her public works department minister Raj Kumar Chauhan, who was held guilty by the Lokayukta of trying to obstruct a government official from carrying out his duty during an income tax raid, continues unaffected.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party even met the President over the latest indictment against Dikshit, but the matter is pending.

In all probability, it would remain pending till the Delhi Assembly elections scheduled for November this year. If Dikshit returns to power, some junior officials in her office will be held accountable and admonished, and if she does not, the purpose of the whole exercise will be lost since she will be no longer in office. It was exactly what Lieutenant Governor Tejendra Khanna had said when the Lokayukta recommended him to “caution” some former councillors.

In the latest case against the chief minister, the Lokayukta also requested the President to directly frame guidelines for publication of government advertisements so that misuse of public money by those in power could be stopped. As in the past, this too shall remain ignored.

The Lokayukta continues to find public servants — ministers, MLAs, municipal councillors — guilty of misdemeanour on fairly regular basis. Not to forget, it takes crores of rupees per annum for the government to maintain his office. Yet, it seems that no one wants to hear him and no one wants to pay heed to what he says. Compare him with his counterpart in Karnataka, where Lokayukta Justice (retd) Santosh Hegde was instrumental in not only forcing the Karnataka chief minister to demit office, but also has vast financial resources and manpower to carry out independent investigations and projects.

In comparison, the office of the Delhi Lokayukta looks like one big farce.

An anti-corruption institution like the Lokayukta is considered the watchdog of the administration as well as the protector of the common man. It traces its origin to the ombudsmanic institutions in Scandinavian countries for redressal of citizens’ grievances based on justice and equity.

In India, the First Administrative Reforms Commission had recommended the setting up of a Lokpal at the Centre and Lokayuktas in states. While the Lokpal at the Centre is yet to be set up, 19 states have so far created an office of the Lokayukta, and 16 Lokayuktas, including Delhi’s, are in position currently.

The Delhi Lokayukta and Upalokayukta Act was enacted in 1995, with the first Lokaykta appointed on December 1, 1997. Until Justice (retd) Manmohan Sarin took over the office in 2009, this institution remained in an abyss of anonymity. Ever since he took over, there has been a manifold increase in the number of complaints received and inquires conducted by the Lokayukta.

The effectiveness of Justice Sarin can be gauged from the fact that his tenure has seen three times more complaints than the total number of complaints received in the past 10 years. This, despite the office remaining virtually toothless.

One against the rest

There are several roadblocks in making the institution of the Lokayukta effective. Each state has its own Act and Rules for setting up the office of the Lokayukta with varying jurisdiction and power to search, seize and prosecute. It will be desirable to have uniformity in the provisions to the extent possible all over the country. But it will only come when the executive changes its mindset to accept the Lokayukta as an ally in good governance. Often, inquiry by the Lokayukta is perceived as motivated or at the behest of the opposition, or seen as an attempt to find fault with the government and public functionaries.

For example, in Delhi, the opinion that several ministers and MLAs have about Lokayukta is that he is a “BJP agent” out to defame Congress. No wonder, they will never want him to pass a judgement on their conduct and attitude.

“Take this recent case. It is related to the 2008 elections and suddenly the Lokayukta finds time and comes up with a decision against the CM right before the Assembly elections. Why should we not believe that he has ulterior motives to defame the CM?” says a Congress MLA, who does not wish to be named. “Does he even have the authority to look into such election-related matter?”

A similar opinion was voiced by Dikshit when she said that only the Election Commission has the authority to investigate election-related complaints.

But the fact remains that BJP MLAs and councillors have equally borne the burnt of the Lokayukta’s ire. So much so, Justice Sarin did not mind passing a stricture against a media organisation accused of illegal construction at its office.

“Let us not forget that the Lokayukta is also a fallible human being, and not necessarily always right. If his scrutiny and observations are well founded, coercive measures can be taken in a due democratic process,” Justice Sarin had observed at the All India Lokayuktas’ Conference in New Delhi some months ago. “If not, no harm can be done by looking at that which is good,” he had said.

The theme of the conference was ‘Strengthening of institutions meant to check corruption in public life’, where Lokayuktas from across the country mulled  for three days on how to make their office more powerful. On conclusion of the conference, the 16 Lokayuktas had sent a number of recommendations to the Centre to enhance their effectiveness, which included making the anti-corruption body the nodal agency for receiving all corruption-related complaints and giving it jurisdiction over probe agencies at the state level.

The Delhi government turned down almost all the recommendations made by the office of the Delhi Lokayukta in its latest annual report, finding no merit even in the ombudsman’s suggestion that its existence should be better publicised. The outcome of the latest recommendation is expected to be no different. The executive can only surprise people by accepting them.

Coming back to the conference, even organising it has a history of struggle between the Lokayukta’s office and the Delhi government. It took close to three years for the Delhi Lokayukta to finally hold this conference with his own limited resources as the city government refused to give financial aid on one pretext or another.

It took three years for the Lokayukta to be allotted a police inspector to carry out investigation in cases coming to him. A similar struggle was seen when the Lokayukta’s office demanded allocation of a sweeper. “Without funds and publicity, he is always creating a ruckus and organising conferences. Imagine what will happen when he is given funds and publicity. He has taken the office of the Lokayukta very seriously. I suggest he should not because then there will be no use of courts,” says a senior IAS officer working with Delhi government.

The officer says the Lokayukta’s “anti-government attitude” is exactly the reason why this office should not be given absolute and independent powers. “People have elected the chief minister. Courts are there to punish wrongdoers. What sense does it make for the Lokayukta to boss over her?”

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