Lokpal to Jokepal: The Lokpal has no credibility or authority, which is why it is futile to refer cases
Prashant Bhushan, lawyer and activist, who played a key role in drafting the Lokpal Act in 2013 spoke to Sanjukta Basu on the movement and the aftermath. Excerpts
The government pushed the Lokpal Amendment Act in 2016, eliminating the requirement of public servants to disclose assets of spouse and children, did away with the need for public disclosure, empowered the Union Government the manner of asset disclosure and indefinitely extended the deadline. Now the Lokpal had to obtain permission of the government before prosecuting officials.
Even after dealing this critical blow, the Modi Government did not appoint the Lokpal on the plea that there was no Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. When the Supreme Court put its foot down and set end of February as the deadline, Jitendra Singh, a minister in the PMO and Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress leader, were invited as special invitees to a search committee meeting. Kharge boycotted the meeting because the government did not specify what authority he would have as special invitee. Eventually the first Lokpal was appointed along with eight other members on March 15, 2019, less than a month before the general election to the Lok Sabha.
BJP had thus reneged on a poll promise and diluted the Lokpal Act it had backed before coming to power. Prashant Bhushan, lawyer and activist, who played a key role in drafting the Lokpal Act in 2013 spoke to Sanjukta Basu on the movement and the aftermath. Excerpts:
You played a key role in the India Against Corruption Movement pushing the demand for a Lokpal. After all these years, how do you reflect on your role?
Corruption in high places was certainly a serious problem and if the Lokpal had been set up properly, it could have had a significant impact in investigating and prosecuting the offenders. The movement also succeeded in galvanizing and energizing the youth.
However, BJP and Modi took political advantage of the campaign. They used it to destroy Congress and came to power. But the current regime has been much worse in every possible way. The UPA government may have been corrupt but not draconian, fascist, communal, and also stupid as the present regime is.
But then the Lokpal was finally appointed…
The UPA did not appoint a Lokpal in 2013. BJP also did not appoint it. We had to approach the court, which took a long time to decide and finally did not even allow the leader of the opposition to participate in the selection process. There was no transparency in the process. As a result, useless people have been appointed who have done nothing for the last one and half years. The current Lokpal has no credibility.
Any other regret you have about the IAC movement? The Aam Aadmi Party which was born out of it and Arvind Kejriwal betrayed the founding principles that it would provide alternative politics, usher in transparency and continue to fight against corruption. It dampened the hopes and enthusiasm of all the young and idealistic people who had joined.
You described Mr Kejriwal’s draft Jan Lokpal Bill as a Jokepal. Why so? Is the central Lokpal an improvement?
Yes, the central bill was an improvement. It was not quite the Jan Lokpal we had wanted but it was reasonably good. Unfortunately, the kind of people appointed by the Modi government have turned it into a Jokepal at the central level also. Kejriwal’s Bill was a Jokepal because it made the state Lokpal subservient to the state government which defeats the whole objective of an independent Lokpal.
Why do you think it took the Modi Government five years to constitute the Lokpal?
They did not want to have any kind of anti-corruption ombudsman. Instead, they have systematically destroyed all the existing anti-corruption institutions from CBI to Enforcement Directorate to Income Tax Department, CAG. They were finally forced to appoint the Lokpal by the Supreme Court so they appointed nothing but lackeys who would just sit and twiddle their thumbs in fivestar hotels.
Neither the Lokayukts in the states nor the Lokpal at the Centre have led to any significant exposure of corruption –could it be because corruption has come down?
(Laughs) There is enormous corruption at present. All the transferring of the airports to Adani, the changing of the power purchase agreements with the Adani group. Handing over of public assets to corporates and their huge windfall – these are the areas where the biggest corruption can be found, as well as in defense deals like Rafale. The Lokpal could have acted upon these issues but nobody has any confidence in the body. I certainly do not have any confidence in them. I know if I had taken any of these cases to Lokpal, they would have just done some whitewashing.
Do you still see Anna Hazare, Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar as crusaders against corruption?
I don’t think any of them has done anything substantial to be deemed crusaders against corruption. While I don’t think Anna Hazare had any oblique political motive, Ravishankar and Ramdev certainly did. Their affiliation with the BJP is very evident now, and back then their motive was to bring down the Congress.
Anna Hazare is not affiliated to BJP but he needed a large team to support his movement, which we provided back then. He is also quite old now, so maybe that’s why he has been subdued ever since. That said, I would not regard him as dishonest. The other two names you took are politically dishonest.
You had gone to the Supreme Court and prayed that deliberations of the Search Committee for Lokpal be made public. But the apex court turned down the plea. Was it on substantive issues or on technicalities?
They turned it down like a raja turns down any plea from the praja. Mr. Gogoi behaved like a King running a fiefdom. He would not let anybody argue or question before him, that was his style. It became worse when he became the Chief Justice. He passed arbitrary orders one after the other in even matters related to NRC when he should have just recused because he hails from Assam. As such, the substantive issues raised in the Lokpal matter remain unaddressed by Supreme Court.
You had also mooted the idea of a Lokpal for the Judiciary. Does it have any precedence in other countries? Is the idea ahead of its time?
There are precedence of bodies looking into accountability of the judiciary. We raised the issue because in India there is no accountability for the judges of higher judiciary except the process of impeachment, which is both politicized and cumbersome. It requires signatures of one hundred MPs who are always reluctant owing to fear of judicial backlash.
We need a fully independent body to entertain complaints against judges, investigate them and take action. Such body should be independent of both the government and the judiciary.
The overwhelming public support for the Lokpal dissipated quite fast and people no longer seem interested in anti-corruption campaigns. Why is that?
Those who joined the anti-corruption movement felt so betrayed that they have become disheartened. It was a big psychological setback for the youth.
So, will India have to wait for another India Against Corruption Movement to wage a war on corruption? Is it a losing battle? And pardon us for asking this but do you see yourself as a champion of lost causes?
(Laughs) We do need another movement but today there are far more serious issues affecting the nation than corruption. BJP rule is both corrupt and laden with fascism, communal hate, authoritarianism, centralization of power in one or two hands, promoting a culture of violence and abuse, fake news and so on. The Covid pandemic created a new dystopia where people are told to stay at home and not meet anybody; there are all kinds of restrictions on movements. Therefore, corruption has gone down the list of threats.
What are the changes required to make the Lokayukts and the Lokpal more effective?
The original 2013 Central Act was not a bad one and it could become a strong body. There are some amendments made since then which are retrograde such as public servants do not need to disclose their assets etc. If we go back to the original Act and have credible people selected, it would be a strong anti-corruption body. Unfortunately, we cannot do much about it because their appointments were tacitly approved by the Supreme Court.
Published: 13 Aug 2021, 12:05 PM