The government tabled its draft of the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill in the Lok Sabha on Thursday. The introduction of this keenly contest bill has once again set the stage for another round of face off between the PM Manmohan Singh led UPA and veteran Gandhian Anna Hazaare led civil society. The civil society is campaigning for a strong Lokpal Bill which includes the PM and the Judiciary.
The moment the bill was introduced in the Lower House of the Indian Parliament i.e. Loksabha, there were protests outside with the Anna and his supporters burning copies of the government draft. The protesters said the symbolic protest would continue till August 16. Anna has announced indefinite fast from August 16 to protest the exclusion of several recommendations made by civil society members on the bill.
The union cabinet on July 28 approved the Lokpal Bill draft by the ministers in the drafting panel. The Bill provides for the establishment of the institution of Lokpal (Ombudsman) to inquire into allegations of corruption against public functionaries. Having both investigation and prosecution powers, the ombudsman once created will have a chairperson and 10 members, half of them judicial.
The institution will be appointed by the president on the recommendation of the selection committee consisting of the Prime Minister, Speaker, leader of the House of which Prime Minister is not member, minister of home affairs, leader of opposition in both Houses, judge of Supreme Court, chief justice of a high court, President of National Academy of Science, and cabinet secretary (secretary of committee).
According to the draft bill, the ombudsman will have powers to investigate all corruption cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.
It covers MPs, ministers, ‘Group A’ officers, any ‘Group A’ officer in a company or body owned by the government, any officer of a society or trust that is financed by the government or gets funds under Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 1976 or gets funds from the public.
Team Anna has opposed the proposed legislation introduced in the Lok Sabha since it doesn’t cover the Prime Minister within the purview of the ombudsman during his or her term in office. But once the Prime Minister demits the office, he or she may be investigated for any wrongdoing during the term.
It also excludes the higher judiciary. Any action of an MP in Parliament or a committee will not be under the Lokpal, but they would otherwise be under its purview, the cabinet approved draft says.
The government has maintained that judiciary will be covered by the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill pending with a Parliamentary Standing Committee. As for the conduct of MPs it has cited Article 105 (2) which says, “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…”
But the Lokpal would not require sanction or approval under Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, or Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, in cases where prosecution is proposed.
The Lokpal will also have powers to attach the property of corrupt public servants acquired through corrupt means.
The bill provides also for prosecution for false complaint.
The anti-corruption watchdog can also seek the assistance of the Centre and the state government in conducting inquiries.
It provides for a time limitation period of seven years from the date of taking cognisance of an offence. In the case of the Prime Minister, the limitation period will apply after he or she demits office.
In the overall thrust of the UPA government after instituting, legislating Right To Information Act in the first UPA government the thrust has been greater accountability and transparency in public life,” said Ambika Soni.
“We will also introduce judicial Accountability Bill, Whistle Blowers’ Protection Bill, and the CVC (Chief Vigilance Commissioner) bill,” she said.
On the other hand, Leader of opposition in the Loksabha BJP’s Sushma Swaraj asked Swaraj wondered when the Prime Minister does not enjoy immunity from prosecution under the criminal law and Prevention of Corruption Act, why he was being kept out of the ambit of the Lokpal. She said as chairperson of the then Standing Committee on Home, Pranab Mukherjee had accepted that the Prime Minister should be within the purview of the Lokpal. Even PM Manmohan Singh wants to be within the ambit of Lokpal. “Why is the Cabinet not paying heed to his views?” she asked.
Mukherjee told the House that Swaraj’s contention about his nod to the NDA Lokpal Bill is true.
“On February 16, 2002 as Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Home, I had placed that bill on the table of the House. NDA had two full years after that. Why did they not bring the bill,” Mukherjee wondered.
Former IPS officer and key member of Team Anna Kiran Bedi said, “It is not only PM and higher judiciary, but many other things, many vital posts and agencies are kept out. It is a fractured bill. There is nothing for the common man”.
The other provisions of the draft Lokpal bill provides for expenses to run the institution to be be borne out of the Consolidated Fund of India.
The bill does not provide for constitution of Lokayukta as in states.
The Lokpal Bill has had a long and chequered history. Legislations in the past had included the Prime Minister within the ambit of the bill only on a few occasions.
The National Commission for Review of the Working of the Constitution in 2001 had recommended that the Prime Minister be kept out of the Lokpal’s purview since he occupies a unique position and is the head of the entire governmental structure.
The Commission, headed by retired Chief Justice M N Venkatachaliah, had said that the Prime Minister as the symbol of stability and continuity of the regime should not be exposed to the risks of well-orchestrated attempts to malign his image and reputation.
The idea of Lokpal emanated from the office of Ombudsman prevalent in Scandinavian countries.
The first legislative attempt at Lokpal in India fell after the bill was passed in the 4th Lok Sabha in 1969 but could not get through in Rajya Sabha.
Subsequently, Lokpal bills were introduced in 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2005 and in 2008.
(With PTI inputs)