M A I N   N E W S

A lame duck ombudsman won’t do
V. Eshwar Anand/TNS

Chandigarh, April 7
The overwhelming support that Anna Hazare has been receiving ever since he started his indefinite fast in New Delhi on Tuesday demonstrates people’s pent-up anger against corruption and their determination for a stronger Lokpal to root out the menace.

Reports of a breakthrough in the talks between Union Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal and activists Arvind Kejriwal and Swami Agnivesh on Thursday are encouraging. Though Sibal has agreed to their demand for a 50:50 representation for civil rights activists and government representatives on a joint committee for drafting the Lokpal Bill, some minor differences persist. These include the leadership of the joint committee - whether it should be Anna Hazare or Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee - and the feasibility of a formal notification constituting the committee. But these differences can be sorted out amicably if both sides don’t sit on prestige. The ultimate aim should be to save the life of the 73-year-old Gandhian and create a congenial atmosphere for holding talks on the Bill.

The fact that successive governments at the Centre have failed to enact a Lokpal Bill in the past 42 years speaks volumes for the politicians’ concern for probity and rectitude in public life. There has been no consensus among the political parties so far on the issue of having a powerful ombudsman who can tackle corruption in high places.

Strangely, political parties seem to be following a pattern. Whenever the issue comes to the fore, in the name of sorting out differences in the Bill, they refer it to the Joint Select Committee of Parliament. This panel takes its own time to study the issue and when it is about to give its report, the Lok Sabha’s tenure comes to an end and with it, the draft Bill too is buried. Unfortunately, even when the Prime Minister is willing to include himself in the ambit of the Bill, there is no sign of forward movement in Parliament. It may be recalled that this was one of the issues (inclusion of the Prime Minister) that stalled the smooth passage of the Bill in the Eighties.

The draft Lokpal Bill, in its present form, is just a paper tiger. It has no teeth and it will not be able to tackle corruption effectively. It will not have suo motu powers to initiate inquiry or even receive complaints of corruption directly from the public. The complaints will be forwarded to the Lokpal by the presiding officers of either the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha. This implies that if the presiding officers are not satisfied with the complaint, the Lokpal can do little to rectify the miscarriage of justice and uphold the rule of law. What is the use, relevance and legitimacy of the institution of Lokpal if the presiding officers are given overriding powers over the ombudsman?

The Bill also suffers from a narrow focus and scope. The Lokpal will have jurisdiction only over the Prime Minister, ministers and MPs. What about bureaucrats? Why should they be left out of its ambit? The fact that corruption charges are pending against over 25 Secretaries to the Government of India warrants their inclusion in the Lokpal’s jurisdiction. The Bill needs to define clearly the Lokpal’s powers. If the Centre is not inclined to empower him adequately, its campaign against corruption will tend to be ludicrous and farcical.

If the Lokpal is only an advisory and recommendatory body as the draft Bill provides for, it will not be able to do justice and fight corruption. There is merit in the suggestion that it should be given police powers without which it cannot register an FIR on any complaint. If it has the power of conducting only a preliminary enquiry, there is no use of having such an institution.

The Jan Lokpal Bill, though a laudable initiative of Anna Hazare and his activists comprising among others, Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and Swami Agnivesh, cannot challenge the legitimacy of existing institutions like the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the Central Bureau of Investigation. One may differ with the manner in which these institutions are functioning today and suggest remedial measures for appropriate course corrections, but one cannot question their constitutional relevance and legitimacy.

For instance, the provision in the Jan Lokpal Bill that the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the entire vigilance machinery of the Centre, including the corruption branch of the CBI should be merged into the Lokpal is to ask for their abolition. This is not the right way to tackle the issue.

The Jan Lokpal Bill’s other provisions such as a broader selection panel to select the Lokpal, the completion of investigation and trial of a case in two years, and recovery of the loss caused to government due to corruption from all those found guilty need to be considered favourably by the government for inclusion in the draft Bill.

Now that there is a national revulsion against corruption, the Centre would do well to rise to the occasion and address the issue in question with all seriousness and earnestness. Pusillanimity and prevarication won’t do. The people are losing patience. 





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