Ombudsman to fight corruption: Why are the states left alone?

After more than 40 years of dithering by governments led by various political parties, differences over an Ombudsman to deal with corruption apparently vanished. Almost all parties across the spectrum bit the bullet and passed the Lokpal bill in both Houses of Parliament on December 17-18.

What had changed between December 27, 2011, when the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha but met stiff resistance in the Rajya Sabha, which was adjourned after witnessing uproarious scenes? How did this newfound unanimity come about at a time when the spectre of the 2014 Lok Sabha election is staring everyone in the face?

 Some have begun attributing this change of heart to the recent Assembly election results in which the Congress got a drubbing. But that is a self-serving story put out by the main opposition party and others. The ‘consensus’ that emerged was that while there should be a strong legislation at the Centre to establish a Lokpal, with the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues all under its jurisdiction, the states, their chief ministers and ministers should be left alone, at least for the moment. The ruling Congress, which had brought a legislation and had it passed in the Lok Sabha mandating the setting up of equally strong Lokayuktas in all states, along the lines of the central legislation, was forced to fall in line. So now we have a strong anti-corruption legislation at the Centre, while states have been left to do pretty much what they please.

 December 2011 witnessed a logjam in the Rajya Sabha. All hell had broken loose. Parties like the Trinamool Congress, which had supported the bill in the Lok Sabha, suddenly changed their mind, goaded on by the BJP. Let there be a Lokpal at the Centre, but why entertain an effective Lokayukta in the states?

 There is no doubt that the bill – the process of enactment of the law is expected to be completed in a few weeks after the President’s assent and gazette notification—is a new and important landmark in India’s fight against corruption, bringing as it does the entire bureaucracy and its masters in the ruling party, including the prime minister, within the jurisdiction of a powerful Lokpal. But what about the states, where most of India lives? What about mining mafia and land sharks that flourish in every state in connivance with the politicians and the bureaucracy?

After the December 2011 Upper House logjam, the bill was sent back to the drawing board of a Rajya Sabha Select Committee that gave its report in November 2012. It recommended dilution of clause 63 and omission of clauses 64 to 97 related to the Lokayuktas that were covered in detail in the bill passed in 2011 by the Lok Sabha. Thirteen pages from page 23 to 35 were to be dropped. And that is exactly what the newly minted bill has done.

Omission of clauses

The final bill has only this to say on the Lokayuktas, with 13 pages from the original bill deleted: “(clause) 63. Every State shall establish a body to be known as the Lokayukta for the state, if not so established, constituted or appointed, by a law made by the State Legislature, to deal with complaints relating to corruption against certain public functionaries, within a period of one year from the date of commencement of this Act.... Omission of Clauses 64-97 … at pages 23 to 35, clauses 64 to 97 be deleted.”

Naturally there is rejoicing all around. Corruption remains safe in the states even if a brand new Lokpal deals effectively with the menace at the Centre. The bill maintains a stunning silence on the jurisdiction of Lokayuktas – whether they must cover chief ministers and ministers -- and an equally significant speechlessness on the issue of an independent probe into any allegation of corruption at the state level. All that states are required to do is to ensure some kind of Lokayukta is established.

Federalism was the flag raised and waved in the Centre’s face by the BJP and several other parties to get what they wanted. As if there was some grand principle involved in allowing each state to decide how it should fight corruption and creating a medley of different laws for different states.

While much has been said about the issue of independence of the Central Bureau of Investigation in television talk shows on the subject, nothing is being said about the near absence of effective Lokayuktas in the new legislation.

What is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. Only the Centre and the Union cabinet ministers and the central bureaucracy are corrupt. In the states, chief ministers, cabinet ministers and the state bureaucrats are paragons of virtue and can be trusted to find their individual solutions to fight corruption. That seems to be the brand new politically correct formulation.

The clearly double standards applied by some parties, including the BJP, were exposed when in December 2011, Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj criticised the bill for its safeguard that an inquiry against the prime minister may be initiated only after a two-thirds majority of the full bench of the Lokpal approves it. In the same breath the BJP lauded the Uttarakhand Lokayukta Bill passed by the then BJP government, which provided for action against the chief minister only if all members of the full bench approve it! That bill, by the way, had the full blessings of the Jan Lokpal bill lobby led by Arvind Kejriwal, who has described the bill passed by Parliament this session as a ‘sarkari Jokepal.’ The correct formulation should have been ‘pradesh sarkari jokepal.’

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