Group of ministers led by Rajnath Singh clears proposal to appoint central anti-corruption ombudsman, now just PMO approval required.
New Delhi: Almost four years after it assumed power at the Centre, the Narendra Modi government is just one step away from appointing a Lokpal – a decision that is expected to be used to re-emphasise Modi’s promises of “zero tolerance against corruption” and of running a “scam-free” government.
ThePrint has learnt that the proposal was cleared last week by a group of ministers headed by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and is now awaiting the final nod from the Prime Minister’s Office.
Highly-placed sources in the Home ministry said the decision to go ahead with the appointment of a Lokpal was taken despite the fact that the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2013, will need key amendments going forward.
The amendments can, however, take place in due course, even as the government begins the process of appointing the Lokpal – a long-drawn process that can take anywhere between six to eight months. However, since there’s no leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, it remains to be seen if the government succeeds in appointing a Lokpal of its choice.
Strong counter to criticism
With a little over a year to go before the general elections of 2019, the BJP is expected to score political points with the move to appoint an anti-corruption ombudsman. Insiders said the party can now counter the criticism that has repeatedly come its way from the opposition and civil society groups, including Lokpal crusader Anna Hazare, over the delays in the appointment.
Earlier this month, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi had attacked the PM over the Lokpal issue, asking if “defenders of democracy” and “harbingers of accountability” were listening.
In December, Hazare had announced a protest against the government on 23 March this year. He had also accused the NDA and UPA governments of deliberately weakening the bill, and said he had not received any replies from the government over the appointment of the Lokpal.
Recently, retired Supreme Court judge and former Karnataka Lokayukta N. Santosh Hegde also alleged that the BJP did not want to appoint a Lokpal as it was afraid of an ombudsman.
The Lokpal Act and its provisions
The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013, features provisions to establish a Lokpal at the Centre, and Lokayuktas in states, to look into cases of corruption against public servants, including legislators and the Prime Minister, but excluding the armed forces.
The basis of the bill is the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011, proposed by a group of ministers chaired by then-finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. This followed a nationwide protest led by Hazare.
Under the provisions of the act, property acquired through corruption can be attached and confiscated even in the instance of a pending prosecution.
A five-member panel comprising the Prime Minister, the Lok Sabha Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition, the Chief Justice of India and an eminent jurist nominated by the President is supposed to select the Lokpal.
The Lokpal is to consist of a chairperson and a maximum of eight members, half of whom shall be from the higher judiciary. The chairperson may be either a serving or retired Chief Justice of India, or a judge of the Supreme Court, or an eminent person.
All states were required to establish a Lokayukta within one year of the law being made.
Lying in limbo
While the act came into force on 16 January 2014, the legislation has been lying in limbo all this while.
In the winter session of the Parliament, minister of state for personnel Jitendra Singh had told the Lok Sabha in a written reply that the government was examining the recommendations of an inter-ministerial committee on the Lokpal Act.
The committee, comprising seven Union ministers, was studying a report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, submitted two years ago on 7 December 2015.
The NDA has maintained that the UPA government had brought in the legislation hurriedly without adequately examining it, and hence it needed to be amended first in order to make it operational. Also, because of a lack of a leader of opposition for the Lokpal selection panel, an amendment was moved to bring in the leader of the largest opposition party.
Earlier, in April 2017, the Supreme Court had directed the government to immediately implement the act and appoint a Lokpal, stating that there was no justification to keep its enforcement under suspension until the proposed amendments were carried out.