The introduction of the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011, in the Lok Sabha on December 22 is in or by itself not an earthshaking event. This is actually the ninth Lokpal Bill to be introduced by the Central Government, in a series that started as early as in 1968 and ended in 2001. None of them ever reached the stage of debate on the floor of either House of Parliament; seven of them lapsed with the dissolution of the concerned Lok Sabha on completion if its tenure, and one was withdrawn.

The difference this time is that the introduction is the climax of the powerful India Against Corruption movement mounted by Anna Hazare and the accompanying extensive nationwide discussion of the different issues connected with it. In the course of it, the people made it amply clear that they would no longer put up with the Government's easy-going attitude to rampant corruption eating into the vitals of the nation. It is the searing heat of public opinion that has taken the ninth version of the Bill through the various stages leading to the introduction and enhanced the prospect of its becoming a law within a reasonably good time.

MOST SERIOUS OMISSION

Anna Hazare had been insistently demanding a ‘strong' Lokpal, and the initial reactions from him and his associate have been anything but encouraging. The Bill is a far cry on a number of counts from the expectations of not only Team Anna but different sections of opinion equally committed to the eradication of corruption.

The most serious omission is the absence of a separate and independent investigative wing exclusively under the Lokpal's direction, supervision and control. It is going to prove the greatest handicap, virtually reducing the Lokpal to a toothless institution. The anti-corruption division of the CBI could easily have been hived off and attached to the Lokpal, without any impairment of the agency's role and functions. This one provision alone could have made up for any other shortcomings the Bill might have.

There are many other features of the Bill just tabled that detract from the effectiveness and credibility of the Lokpal. The one I find weird is the explicit provision that not less than 50 per cent of not only the nine-member Lokpal but also the Selection Committee for short listing the names should be from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward classes, minorities and women. Thus, the institution is defiled at the very source by the injection of considerations of caste, community and religion.

The original intention behind the recommendation of the first Administrative Reforms Commission which mooted the idea was to tackle corruption in high places. But, now, the Bill extends the concept to the elimination of corruption at all levels of the Central government and from public life in general, by including even the NGOs of certain categories. This, combined with the elaborate procedures prescribed for preliminary inquiries and constant back-and-forth referrals to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in processing complaints which may soon number tens of thousands, makes all the timelines mentioned in the Bill unrealistic and unattainable.

The highly cumbersome procedural complexities will enmesh the Lokpal almost from the start. It will take quite considerable time to take off in any purposeful or energetic manner what with all the regulations it is required to frame laying down procedures for a variety of actions covered by the Act.

It is also puzzling why the detailed framework pertaining to establishment of Lokayuktas in States should form part of the Bill. It needlessly clutters up the Bill and blurs its focus. A model Lokayuktas Bill could have been separately circulated to the States, instead.

CLEANSING POWER

All said, it is also true that no Bill can ever reflect to perfection all that is desirable and necessary. Even with all the bashing to which India's political class, in general, and the legislators, in particular, are subjected, there are many among them still who are public-spiritedness and enlightened, and no less keen than the so-called civil society, of which they also form an adjunct, to see India hold its head high as a corruption-free nation. There are many MPs among the younger age group who are unspoilt and idealistic.

The MPs should know that all eyes are on them and people are pinning on them the hope that they will make relentless efforts through their vigorous participation in the debate to rectify the Bill's deficiencies.

In the ultimate analysis, though, a Lokpal is as a Lokpal does. The best enactment can still burden a nation with a useless Lokpal if wrong persons are chosen or if they function in an unprincipled fashion; an Act with many drawbacks may still have enormous cleansing power if persons of character, integrity and will to rid the society of the deadly scourge of corruption make up the institution.

(This article was published on December 25, 2011)
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