AT last the first step to appoint a head of Lokpal has been taken. Because it has come at the end of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first tenure, when the elections to the Lok Sabha have been announced, there could be criticism with some validity that the decision has come to convey a message that the BJP has done what the Congress had not done. However, it is a good beginning even if Modi is seeking to make some political capital out of it. The country has been witness to popular agitations for the appointment of the chairperson of Lokpal. Eminent social worker Anna Hazare had led an agitation in which yoga guru Ramdev had also participated, together with the leaders and workers of BJP and other political parties as well as hundreds of thousands of ordinary people.
The high-level selection committee comprising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan and senior advocate of the Supreme Court Mukul Rohtagi has selected former judge of the Supreme Court Pinaki Chandra Ghose as the first chairperson of Lokpal. Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, who is the special invitee on the selection committee, could not attend the meeting. Not that Kharge would have influenced the selection, but he should have been present to raise any issues contrary to the opinion of other members if he had any. Let us hope that Justice Ghose would do his job in an impartial manner and not be influenced by any considerations other than the rule of law and justice.
Lokpal is appointed under the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 as the national anti-corruption ombudsman to inquire into allegations of corruption against public servants at the national level, including the officers posted in embassies in other countries. The Congress can take some credit for getting the Act into effect. The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha on December 22, 2011 and passed by the House on December 27. However, when it was tabled in the Rajya Sabha two days later it triggered a debate that went on until the midnight of the following day and no vote on the bill could take place. On May 21, 2012, the bill was referred to a Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha, which suggested certain modifications. The bill was moved with certain amendments in the Rajya Sabha and passed on December 17, 2013. It was passed by the Lok Sabha on December 18, 2013. The legislation received assent from President Pranab Mukherjee on January 1, 2014 and came into force from January 16 the same year.
Although people have a right to question the NDA government why it did not appoint a Lokpal during the five years of its tenure, they can only hope that the appointment is not just used as a poll gimmick to create an impression that the Modi government is serious about corruption in high places. The government has been facing criticism for the various concessions given to the company supplying the Rafale fighter aircraft. The appointment of Lokpal is perhaps supposed to convey the message that the government is not afraid of any kind of overseeing. The Lokpal has jurisdiction of trying cases of corruption against all Members of Parliament including ministers and Prime Minister. The Lokpal can conduct investigation and based on the findings from investigation they can conduct a trial. It can call for papers and documents and ask officers to depose. The Lokpal consists of a chairperson and a maximum of eight members, of which 50 per cent have to be judicial members and 50 per cent members from SC/ST/OBCs, minorities and women.
The Lokpal has powers to give direction to CBI. If it has referred a case to CBI, the investigating officer in the case cannot be transferred without its approval. The Lokpal has powers to direct CBI for search and seizure operations related to the case. The Lokpal has powers of confiscation of assets, proceeds, receipts and benefits arisen or procured by means of corruption in special circumstances. By way of punishment, the Lokpal has the power to recommend transfer or suspension of public servant connected with allegation of corruption.
However, the experience with the Lokayuktas in states suggests that powers and efficacy of Lokayukta depends on the government of the day. If the central government stops at appointing a chairperson for the institution of Lokpal it would only reinforce the public notion that no political party is interested in having an ombudsman at