March 18, 2001
Defence Bribery Affair Underscores Need For Appointing Lok Pal
By Mukesh Jhangiani
United News of India
New Delhi (UNI) – The videotaped defence bribery affair has underscored a long-recognised need over which the authorities have vacillated while scandal after scandal has rocked the nation’s political life– appointing a Lok Pal, India’s much-heralded anti-corrupt ombudsman conceived 35 years ago but still nowhere in sight.
Last heard of, the Lok Pal bill was the subject of second thoughts: whether or not Members of Parliament be placed under its purview. This, notwithstanding the fact that a broad cross-section of MPs themselves has voiced support for that and several other measures aimed at promoting accountability.
The MPs’ support is reflected in responses already in to an appeal sent out some weeks ago by Lok Sevak Sangh, a Non-Governmental Organisation, and its sister NGO, Transparency-International India. Both groups have said they will embark on a Satyagraha if the Lok Pal bill is not introduced in this session of Parliament.
”If the bill is not introduced during the session ending on March 23 or if MPs are excluded from its jurisdiction, we shall resume the postponed Satyagraha on April 16, when Parliament reassembles after recess to continue the budget session,” LSS-TII Chairman Shambu Dutta Sharma told UNI.
The groups deferred Satyagraha last November after announcement of plans to introduce the bill during the winter session.
For decades, the authorities have let the grass grow under their feet while corruption has gone on unbridled– scam after scam bursting forth on the nation’s political stage, eroding public values, chipping away at public morale and cynicising public mind.
The concept of Lok Pal– inspired by Sweden’s Ombudsman– grew out of an interim report on the Problem of Redressal of Citizens Grievances submitted in 1966 by the Administrative Reforms Commission headed by Morarji Desai. The very thought of someone to whom an Indian citizen could turn with a complaint of corruption or administrative excesses against the mighty of the land was a whiff of fresh air.
Two years later, the Lok Pal and the Lokayuktas Bill, 1968 was introduced in the 4th Lok Sabha, when late Mrs Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. It was considered by a joint committee of the two Houses of Parliament and passed by the Lok Sabha in 1969. It was pending in the Rajya Sabha when the Lok Sabha was dissolved. The bill lapsed.
Over the years, with political and public life getting increasingly mired in scandalous goings-on and some governments at the Centre or in States even losing office over issues involving integrity– Bofors, Hawala, Fodder, Urea, Telecom, to name just a few controversies– the need for Lok Pal and other reforms has got more and more acute.
But resistance to the bill appears manifest in the fact that even after being tabled six more times– in 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996 and 1998, the last time by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee– it has never again been put to vote.
The concern was echoed by the Prime Minister while opening a conference of Lokayuktas or State Ombudsmen some weeks ago. As Mr Vajpayee put it, rampant corruption over the past few decades and the failure to catch and punish the corrupt has bred contempt for the law and led to widespread cynicism among the people, causing a decline in moral values in Indian society.
“Experience has shown that our efforts to strengthen probity in civil service and the polity cannot yield desired results without extending the norms of accountability to the judiciary. The inability of our judicial system to deliver speedy justice has itself become the source of much injustice. It has also eroded the credibility of our judiciary in the eyes of the public,” Mr Vajpayee told delegates.
Noting that corruption was detrimental to development, he announced that a Group of Ministers was putting together a new draft of the Lok pal Bill, which “will be introduced in Parliament soon.”
On his part, Mr Vajpayee volunteered to submit to its jurisdiction by vesting the Lok Pal ”with adequate powers to deal with charges of corruption against anyone, including the Prime Minister.”
Authorities acknowledge that even the implementation of Lokayuktas in states has not been satisfactory. Lokayuktas exist in barely 15 states and do not have uniform jurisdiction over Chief Ministers or Members of State Legislatures. Nor is the system entirely effective.
For instance, between 1986 and 2000, the Karnataka Lokayukta ordered investigation in 2,840 cases, of which 1,677 were charge-sheeted but only six percent cases ended in conviction. The bulk– 1,118– were pending trial.
Originally, the Lok Pal bill was to place under scrutiny the conduct of all public functionaries and political leaders, including the Prime Minister, the Members of the Cabinet, as well as all members of both Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. It would have MPs and members of their immediate family declare personal assets each year they remain in office.
The bill was scheduled to be introduced for the eighth time in November 2000, but the move appears to have bogged down because of demands to leave MPs out of its sway.
An argument advanced for excluding MPs from its ambit is that Lok Pal should only mind the affairs of those wielding government and ministerial office who take decisions affecting citizens and therefore have the potential to abuse it for personal gain.
But activists for MPs’ inclusion point out that legislators exercise enormous influence in shaping laws, policy and decisions which is fundamentally important and has potential for abuse.
“MPs are also empowered to take decisions such as spending constituency development funds,” the LSS-TII spokesman said. “A few MPs have been known to accept bribes and misuse government property and ever increasing facilities and perquisites for personal benefit.”
A well known example is the acquittal of four Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs who allegedly voted for the Narasimha Rao government in return for monetary consideration. The magic words that got them off were written into Article 105 of the Indian Constitution: “no member of Parliament shall be liable to any proceedings in any court in respect of anything said or any vote given by him in Parliament or any committee thereof… ”
The episode has occasioned calls to change such provisions. Law Commission Chairman Justice B P Jeevan Reddy recently sought to kick off a public debate by suggesting that bribe-taking legislators should be liable for prosecution. He suggested including a new clause requiring that “nothing… should bar the prosecution of a Member of Parliament under the Prevention of Corruption Act etc, if they take money for voting in Parliament”.
Another argument advanced by those seeking to exclude MPs from Lok Pal’s purview has been that MPs are accountable to Parliamentary Ethics Committees, and do not need additional supervision.
But in its appeal to MPs, the LSS-TII pointed out that even bipartisan ethics committees in the United States “have not really been effective in controlling the wrongful conduct of the Senators and Representatives there. It is not likely to do better in India. It will be a case of you scratch my back and I will scratch yours.”
The letter pointed out that “the argument that the MPs would not like their conduct to be adjudicated by any outside agency, is untenable… Nobody should seek to be a judge in his own cause.”
It cited the Rajya Sabha Ethics committee’s quietness when the national press and the Chief Election Commissioner in the last biennial election raised grievous doubts about some Rajya Sabha candidates trying to bribe the MLAs.
“So far as Lok Sabha Ethics Committee is concerned its Chairman and (former) Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar is facing proceeding re(garding) his large Bhondsi campus in a public interest petition filed by advocate Dr (B L) Wadhera.”
“We request that the Lok Pal legislation should not be delayed further on any ground whatsoever,” the LSS-TII said, adding that “thirty-three years are enough for our political leadership to put in place an effective Lok Pal.”
Appointing Lok Pal is one of seven measures the LSS has been stressing to further the cause of probity in public life. The others include enacting laws giving citizens access to information, plugging loopholes to discourage defections, requiring declaration of political parties’ assets and accounts audit, debarring corrupt and criminal citizens from contesting elections, speedy trial of erring politicians and forfeiture of illegally acquired property, most of which have been under legislative consideration for years, even decades.
The MPs who have stepped forward cutting across the party lines to support the measures include Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Dr Manmohan Singh, and leading attorney and Congress leader, Kapil Sibal, as well as ruling Bharatiya Janata Party veterans such as B P Singhal, Kailash Joshi and Vijay Kumar Malhotra.
They also include Debabrata Biswas of All India Forward Bloc, Nagendranath Ojha of Communist party of India, Sunil Khan and Subodh Roy of Communist party of India (Marxist), Chandra Vijay Singh of Akhil Bharatiya Lok Tantrik Congress, Tarlochan Singh Tur of Shiromani Akali Dal, Ananda Mohan Biswas of Trinamool, Prof M Sankaralingam of Dravida Munnetra Kazhgaham, Peter Alphonse of Tamil Manila Congress, Ashok Mohol of Nationalist Congress Party, Arun Kumar and Mahendra Baitha of Janata Dal United, Prabhat Kumar Samantaray of Biju Janata Dal, Prof A Lakshmisagar of Janata Dal, Dr S Venugopal of Telugu Desam Party, Ram Prasad Singh of Rashtriya Janada Dal, Ravi Prakash Verma of Samajwadi Janata Party and S D Shariq of National Conference.
Independent Member S Roy Choudhary and nominated Members writer K S Duggal, journalist Kuldip Nayar and jurist Fali S Nariman, all noted in their respective fields, have also voiced their support.
One party from which no response has been received so far is Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.
UNI MJ DSB DS0945