t was after a long drag that the Union Government took the first decisive step this week for appointment of the Lokpal, a national level anti-corruption watchdog that will pursue complaints, recommend action against public servants and file cases in a special court as per provisions. The government decision appointing retired Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose came notably after a Supreme Court order setting February end as cut off timeframe for setting up the Lokpal. The government has jumped that deadline, too, by a couple of weeks before the clearance was given by a panel headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Curiously, this appointment was made 17 March after the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct for the 2019 Lok Sabha Polls came into force on 10 March. This Code bars governments from making any new appointment, transfer or policy decision. Interestingly, the Election Commission has preferred to ignore this new appointment by a committee headed by the Prime Minister of India. Allowing such an appointment, which should have been construed as blatant violation of the Model Code of Conduct, has greatly eroded the credibility of the EC in the eyes of the public.
The Lokpal Bill was passed by Parliament in 2013, two years after activist Anna Hazare took his fight against corruption to New Delhi and led a nationwide push for formation of Lokpal vis-a-vis the Centre and Lokayuktas for States to proceed against acts of corruption in the public sphere. The UPA government enacted the Bill but did not take any further action in its implementation. The Modi led BJP came to power on a crest of anti corruption wave. The Anna Hazare movement, although politically inconsequential, greatly influenced the minds of voters against the Congress led UPA government. That perception directly benefited the BJP to win the seats of power.
Returning to the Lokpal issue, it is noteworthy that the panel to choose an appropriate candidate also consists of the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, who has been kept out of the process in this very first selection. Mallikarjun Kharge was not included in the panel as a full-fledged member but, instead, as only a special invitee. This was done citing the reason that he did not qualify for the designation of Leader of Opposition because the principal Opposition, the Congress, did not have the minimum required 50 MPs in the Lok Sabha. Keeping Kharge away on technical grounds has definitely set a bad trend which will bounce back if there be a non BJP led government during the 17th Lok Sabha.
Now, with the Supreme Court putting a deadline for formation of the Lokpal, the government had a choice – either to facilitate the appointment much earlier or to seek more time on the grounds that the EC Code of Conduct has come into effect. The government announcing this appointment now makes the matter complicated. It may be perceived by a section of voters that this move by the government has been towards more transparency. At this juncture, the average Indian should remember that the Modi government at New Delhi, as also most state governments, had notoriously maintained a stoic silence in the matter of appointing Lokpal and Lokayuktas during the past full five years. This appointment, while Prime Minister Modi himself is under a shadow of suspicion over the Rafale fighter jet deal, makes matters worse.
With the whole country in election mode, Justice Ghose has been unnecessarily dragged into an unsavory situation. Controversies need not arise for every single action but doubts have been cast.
A problem with the election Code of Conduct is also the grey areas it creates. For instance, ministers, chief ministers and the PM participate in election campaigns across constituencies and States with heavy security cover, using hundreds of policemen to guard them. Although the respective political parties are billed for such arrangements, the pomp and show with helicopters and aircraft might be construed as an advantage. This stands in the way of creating a just and equitable atmosphere prior to polling. It is important that political leaders interested to address rallies and seeking to occupy office by getting larger number of their party candidates as well as themselves elected should be treated as any ordinary contestant during the run-up to the polling dates. If, in case, these worthies have a sense of threat to their lives, they ought not to campaign at all. In a democracy, the leader is expected to be approachable by the common voter. The feudal mindset prevalent in India gets magnified during elections. It is shameful how common voters are herded like not-so-holy cows into vehicles and transported to meeting sites. At times, they are made to wait for hours to listen to some ranting and plenty of false promises before some food is thrown at them and they are bundled back home.
Although the Lokpal is a welcome step, the proof of the pudding is in its eating. Time alone can say how effective this new institution against corruption can be. India has its own problems, with corrupt practices being the social norm rather than an exception. No arm of governance or general society is free from corruption, and even the judiciary has its very bad apples. Granted that Justice Ghose may have a high reputation of integrity. Yet who knows the reality? The BJP might be blamed that it has chosen a former judge known to have a Hindutva/RSS leaning. That allegation cannot be ignored. Similarly, in future, the Congress or some regional party may appoint a minority or a scheduled caste person and allegations could come against that choice as well. Eventually, this could well become another institution that the filthy among politicians would love to tinker with. While all these arguments go to prove the frailty of this recent appointment, the EC’s silent acceptance of demolition of the Model Code of Conduct has not only weakened the EC itself but gravely damaged the trust placed on the Indian democratic system by the voters of this country.