It is almost half a century since Indira Gandhi introduced the Lokpal Bill in the Lok Sabha for the first time in May 1968, but the appointment of the Lokpal, the government’s mantra to fight corruption in high places, remains elusive.
The Supreme Court was constrained to send a recent message to the Narendra Modi government that efforts to cleanse the economy of black money must be followed by equally strong measures to cleanse public life of corruption and warned that it will not remain a silent spectator when the office of the anti-corruption institution remains vacant even after three years of the passing of the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act, 2013. Faced with the Anna Hazare movement and mounting pressure from the public, the Congress-led UPA government of Manmohan Singh reintroduced the chequered Lokpal Bill in the Lok Sabha on 4 August 2011.
After it was passed in December 2013, the Rules framed under it have made it almost unworkable and robbed the Act of its raison d’etre. The search committee, for instance, could choose names out of a list submitted by the government only, thereby blocking the selection of any independent nominee. Senior advocate Fali Nariman declined to be on the search committee voicing fear that in the two-stage selection process the most competent, the most independent and the most courageous would be overlooked.
Moreover, the search committee’s recommendations are not binding on the selection committee headed by the Prime Minister. While in the Opposition, the BJP taunted the Congress for its failure to appoint the Lokpal, but it has been in power for more than two-and-a-half years and there is still no sign of the Lokpal.
The reason given by the government for its inability to make the institution of Lokpal operational is the absence of the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha as no party has the required 10 per cent strength to qualify for the post. Under several statutes, the leader of the Opposition is on the committees to select chairpersons and members of the Central Information Commission, the Central Vigilance Commission, the National Human Rights Commission and the Lokpal.
The CVC and the CIC Acts provide for the leader of the largest parliamentary group to take the place of the LoP in selection committees. The Lokpal and Lokayukta Act, 2013, makes it abundantly clear that no appointment will be invalid “merely by reason of any vacancy in the selection committee”.
This Act can be amended to allow the leader of the largest parliamentary group to be in the selection committee as in the case of the CIC and the CVC. A parliamentary committee, in fact, had approved the amendment. The Congress, the single largest Opposition party in Parliament, thinks that democracy will be in peril if its leader in the Lok Sabha is not designated as the LoP.
It suits the Modi government. Starting with Indira Gandhi, eight Prime Ministers have gone through the motions of establishing the institution of Lokpal. The hopes raised by them have turned out to be illusory.