Fate of Lokpal Bill hangs in balance

Opposition parties and ally Trinamool want states to decide on appointing lokayuktas  

By Kailash Koushik, Moyna, Ankur Paliwal
Published: Thursday 29 December 2011

After getting the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill passed in Lok Sabha on Tuesday, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government introduced it in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday. The bill was introduced despite the Congress not having sufficient numbers to ensure the pasage of the bill in the upper house. Many political parties, including certain UPA allies, are opposed to certain provisions of the controversial bill.

V Narayanasamy, minister of state for parliamentary affairs began the discussion, explaining the features of the bill, which provides for appointing a Lokpal at the Centre and lokayuktas in the states. They will have the power to register and investigate corruption cases against public servants. “I hope that everyone will come around. We will have to carry everybody and pass the bill,” said Narayanasamy.

Bharatiya Janata Party's Arun Jaitely, leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, slammed the bill, saying it is weak and hollow. Three of the five people to select the Lokpal panel will be chosen by the government, he pointed out. And who will remove the members of the Lokpal? “You (the Centre) will appoint Lokpal and you will control the removal procedure. You are creating an institution where you control appointment and removal mechanism,” said Jaitely. He also called the bill a constitutional cocktail. To this, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha, replied that BJP is just making excuses not to pass the bill.

Allies jolt to UPA

The Trinamool Congress, a UPA ally, was firm in its stand of not supporting the government if it pushes for lokayuktas in each state. "States' autonomy is the guiding principle," said Derek O'Brien, Trinamool member of Parliament. A day earlier, UPA members had spoken to Trinamool Congress on this matter after the ally voted against this provision on Tuesday in the Lok Sabha. BJP, Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) and Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) also voted against it saying it would be an attack on the federal structure of the constitution. They said setting up a lokayukta in states should be a state prerogative.

The Lokpal Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha without the enabling bill for giving constitutional status to the Lokpal. This was because the ruling party could not ensure the minimum quorum (272 of the 543 Lok Sabha MPs) required. At least 50 per cent of the house should be present and voting, and of the 50 per cent, two-third should vote in favour of the amendment for it to be passed. At that time, leader of the lower house, Pranab Mukherjee, admitted that the government did not have the requisite two-thirds majority to get the amendment adopted. The UPA strength in the house is 277, including five MPs of Ajit Singh's RLD, who recently joined UPA. Parliamentary affairs minister P K Bansal admitted that at least 25 MPs of the Congress and its allies were not present during voting.

Reportedly, around 10 amendments were moved in the Lok Sabha. Seven were passed. The amendments, including keeping defence and coast guard out of the purview of the Lokpal and increasing the exemption time for former MPs from five to seven years, were accepted. However, some of the amendments moved by opposition, including keeping media, corporate and NGOs getting donations, under Lokpal's purview, were rejected. Amendment for appointing lokayuktas in each state was also defeated.

How effective?

Nikhil Dey, co-convener of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, says he had foreseen such an outcome. “It is important to have the Lokpal’s equivalent lokayukta in each state to probe corruption charges. It is not an attack on the federal structure because the government has introduced the bill under Article 253 of the Constitution to fulfill India's international obligation arising from ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC),” he says. Under this, the government can very well ask each state to appoint a lokayukta and they will have to follow it, he adds. Gujarat has not appointed a lokayukta in nine years.

Questioning the exclusion of corporates from the ambit of the bill, Amitabh Beher of the non-profit national Foundation of India says, “Corporates also use public money, but they have not been brought under the purview of the bill.” Dey adds, the Lokpal should have a right to cancel their licences in case charges of corruption are proven. The Left also raised its voice against the non-inclusion of corporates and the private sector under the bill.

The bill also does not provide for a completely independent investigating agency and does not give the Lokpal suo moto powers. It implies that the ombudsman panel can only take action once complaints are brought to it.

The Lok Sabha debate saw a differing opinions about the inclusion of the Central Bureau of Investigation(CBI) and the prime minister under the bill. The Left was sceptical about the Lokpal having its own investigating agency.  Social activist Aruna Roy is reported as having said that the Lokpal needs its own investigation agency.

In case of inquiry against a prime minister, the Lokpal can take up complaints against him with the consent of two-thirds of the nine-member panel of the Lokpal and not three-fourths as proposed in the original bill. Religious trusts are also included under the ambit of the Lokpal; trusts were excluded in the original bill.

Amitabh Beher says a Lokpal alone cannot curb corruption at the ground level and in its current form, the bill, raises a few important concerns regarding efficacy of the Lokpal. He explains that while the government has only approved the inclusion of class A and B employees and not C and D as proposed by the Anna Hazare team, even with this limited number, the numbers are very large.

Beher says the discourse and approach to corruption has become unidimensional and that is where the problem lies. “A Lokpal alone cannot solve corruption. We need to take into account a number of other concerns that have been touched upon and addressed by the basket of bills supported by the Right to Information group—the protection of the whistle blowers act, for instance.   

Some public policy experts feel it is too early to jump to conclusions regarding the efficacy of the Lokpal. “The bill needs time to play out before we decide whether it can work or not. Technically, the bill does not exclude anyone and the minor clauses are still to be decided like the cap amount of public donations received by institutions that will come under the purview of the bill,” says M R Madhavan of PRS Legislative Research. He explains the bill in its current form is applicable to all who use public money or over Rs 10 lakh under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act of 2010. “These provisions put every institution open to scrutiny under the Lokpal. The only exclusions are defence and coast guard,” he adds. Madhavan was principal and senior strategist for Asia region for the Bank of America and is currently head of research at PRS. “What we need to ensure is that the Lokpal is independent enough while also being accountable enough for it to be effective against corruption,” he adds.


Who said what 

imageArun Jaitely, leader of opposition, Rajya Sabha 

Government’s politics was totally transparent—to create a smokescreen that we are talking to civil society. You wanted to create a phony Lokpal and create a smokescreen that we are giving it constitutional status. You wanted to make it a toy and then say it's a constitutional authority. The country does not need this sort of Lokpal. This is what you described as a game-changer? Games don't change with such phony institutions.”

imageAbhishek Manu Singhvi, congress spokesperson on keeping CBI and CVC out of Lokpal's ambit 

“CBI is 70-year-old organisation. Should birth of a Lokpal mean automatic destruction of every other institution? You want one Lokpal, to subsume CVC and CBI, move Citizen's Charter under Lokpal, allow Lokpal suo moto power, have prelim inquiry by Lokpal, actual investigation by Lokpal, prosecution by Lokpal. Thank God you did not say judgement must also come from Lokpal.”

imageSitaram Yechury, leader CPI (M)  

“The spirit of constitution lies in the first article which says India is a union of states and the federal structure should not be compromised. There should be a new section in the bill saying that states will constitute lokayuktas within six months, and the next clause should have guidelines for this purpose. In that case, you are fulfilling your promise for lokayuktas, and also respecting states' rights. You will allow supremacy of federalism to prevail.” Yechury moved an amendment to this effect on behalf of his party. Yechury also pitched for electoral reforms, calling the money trail in polls the root cause of all corruption. “Unless electoral reforms are brought about and money trail in election is controlled, corruption cannot be cured," he said. "Corporate funding of polls should be banned... that is the root cause of corruption," he said. “I regret that the Lokpal Bill introduced by the government is incompetent and will not turn out to be an effective tool to fight this menace.”

imageKapil Sibal, Union human resource development minister  

“The state governments had not taken any steps to counter the problems of corruption. The opposition wants Lokpal to cover UPA at the Centre, but they do not have a strong Lokayukta to watch over them in the states.”

imageSushma Swaraj, leader of opposition in Lok Sabha  

“The presented bill is unconstitutional, it is weak, filled with flaws and shortcomings. It is nowhere close to our expectation. We will pass a strong Lokpal Bill in this house and a strong lokayukta bill in the states. We already have a strong lokayukta in Uttarakhand.”

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