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Tuesday, Sep 17, 2019

Lokpal: A long history of doublespeak

The NDA has so far successfully avoided the appointment of a  lokpal, using every possible excuse, just like the state government stalled the appointment of a lokayukta in Gujarat from 2003 to 2013.

opinion Updated: Apr 12, 2017 12:48 IST
Abhishek Singhvi
Abhishek Singhvi
Anna Hazare during his fast in protest against the proposals of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Lokpal Bill in December 2011.
Anna Hazare during his fast in protest against the proposals of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Lokpal Bill in December 2011. (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

When the Anna Hazare movement was in full flow, the choicest abuses were hurled at it and the then government for the delay in enacting the lokpal. BJP leader Sushma Swaraj spoke eloquently about “an old man who keeps fasting to fight against corruption, an appeal to our collective conscience”. Many in the present government accused the UPA of acting like a child in handling the Hazare agitation and strongly supported the just, “fierce and fair” anger. At that time, the current finance minister, Arun Jaitley has said, “we are ready to pass it (lokpal bill) without a debate”.

Cut to reality. All concrete initiatives were actually taken by the UPA. A joint drafting committee was created in April 2011, and the bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in August 2011. It was referred to the parliamentary standing committee, which I had the privilege to chair. In a record four months, after examining over 140 witnesses in 15 meetings spread over 40 hours, the 31-member Committee comprising 17 political parties, submitted a near-unanimous report. Despite agreeing in the Committee, the BJP opposed it in Parliament. The Act was passed in both Houses at the end of 2012 and after Presidential assent, brought into force on January 16, 2014.

In the last 36 months, every possible excuse has been trotted out to avoid bringing in the lokpal. One of the funniest excuses is that the Act as passed refers to the “Leader of Opposition” (LOP) being in the selection committee to select the lokpal; and the Congress, at 44 members, and the largest in the Lok Sabha, does not qualify as LOP and hence the government has no selection committee. The fact that a one line amendment recognising the single largest party in place of the LOP in the Lok Sabha can be passed in five minutes has escaped those who glibly trot out such specious and flimsy excuses.

An amendment was made about the mandatory disclosure of assets in the Lokpal Act in 2016 but the LOP amendment was deliberately avoided. Indeed, the government did amend the CBI Act to recognise the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha instead of LOP. While this government has no compunction in passing the largest number of ordinances in the shortest time and in camouflaging several non-money issues as Money Bills, it is comical to see the kind of helplessness it pleads on lokpal.

Since institutional memory in India is short, we are being condemned to repeat the lessons of history. We haven’t learnt from the Gujarat experience from 2003 to 2013, the period of Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s entire tenure, which never saw a lokayukta appointed. Instead, it was resolutely and obstinately blocked by the state government for a decade!

Gujarat’s lokayukta post fell vacant in 2003 when Justice SM Soni demitted office. No one was appointed. In 2006, Justice KR Vyas was proposed and then delayed, deserted and denied. In 2010, the state government finally proposed Justice JR Vora, a person who it had earlier opposed. The Gujarat Act specifies a selection process with no ostensible role for the CM and creates a selection collegium comprising the High Court Chief Justice, the governor, and the LOP. Though the Supreme Court in 2013 held that the governor cannot act independently but on the advice of the state government, the court also accepted that the primacy in the collegium is assigned to the Chief Justice. Consequently, when the collegium in 2011 appointed Justice RA Mehta, the state government’s opposition to him was without legal basis.

Unprecedentedly, the State Government filed a Writ in the High Court challenging Mehta’s appointment. After losing, they persisted and carried an appeal to the Supreme Court. The apex court dismissed the appeal on January 2, 2013, upholding Mehta’s appointment. In concluding para 74, the Supreme Court said, “the facts of the case revealed a very sorry state of affairs, revealing that in the State of Gujarat, the post of Lokayukta has been lying vacant for a period of more than 9 years…only a few half-hearted attempts were made to fill up the post…”

Despite the Supreme Court upholding his appointment, Mehta resigned in August 2013 writing in his letter that “the present controversy has degenerated the office of the lokayukta and adversely affects it credibility. The appointment has lost all grace and dignity.” The lokayukta post thus lay vacant for a decade. As in many other issues, this government has already successfully replicated the Gujarat model.

Abhishek Singhvi is MP, national spokesperson, Congress party, former additional solicitor general (ASG) and former chairman of the parliamentary standing committee which also dealt with lokpal

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 12, 2017 12:18 IST