Jan Lokpal: A brief summary


History and background

The basic idea of a Lokpal bill is to tackle corruption at the higher echelons of power and to create a just and honest work culture. The idea is borrowed from the office of Ombudsman in Scandinavian countries, where an ombudsman is a person who acts as a trusted intermediary between an organization and some internal or external constituency while representing not only but mostly, the broad scope of constituent interests.

The Lokpal bill was first introduced by Shanti Bhushan (also a co-chairman of the current Lokpal Drafting committee) in 1968 and tabled in the 4th Lok Sabha in 1969. But it did not get through in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Parliament of India. Subsequent versions were re-introduced in 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2005 and in 2008, but none of them passed, mostly owing to dissolution of the parliament at various times. As Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari rhetorically puts it, “Government proposes, parliament disposes”.

The Lokpal Bill issue picked up momentum when Gandhian activist Anna Hazare started a Satyagraha movement by commencing a fast unto death which apart from attracting a lot of attention and public support, also prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to announce a re-introduction of the bill  in the 2011 monsoon session of the Parliament. Accordingly a truce was negotiated and a 10 member Drafting committee was formed, with 5 members sourced from the cabinet of ministers and 5 from the civil society, to be co-chaired by one member on each side.

The Split

The drafting committee’s two sides, the civil society and the cabinet ministers, shared a blow-hot-blow-cold relationship while drafting the bill. They could not reach an agreement as to the final draft, with the government deciding to go ahead with its own version of the bill. Consequently Anna Hazare and his supporters have begun protesting and mobilizing support for their version of the bill.

The Debate

The bill’s supporters consider existing laws too weak, full of contradictions and insufficiently empowered to combat corruption. On the other hand, critics of the Jan Lokpal Bill argue that the bill attempts to supercede existing constitutional bodies and attempts to create a super-institution with sweeping powers, which can be dangerous for the future of democracy.

The Clashes

1.      Suo moto cognizance of complaints

  • Suo moto means “on its own”. The Jan Lokpal gives the Lokpal body power to start investigation cases suo moto, i.e. without having received complaints from anyone. Citizens are expected to file complaints directly with the body.
  • The government draft of the bill provides for investigating only those cases forwarded by the Speakers of the Rajya Sabha or Lok Sabha. Citizens are expected to file complaints with the office of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or the chairman of the Rajya Sabha

2.      Power to start judicial proceedings

  • The Jan Lokpal seeks to give police powers to the body, along with it the right to file FIRs.
  • Lokpal will only be an Advisory Body with a role limited to forwarding reports to a “Competent Authority”. Lokpal will have no authority to even file FIRs against those it finds guilty, or proceed with criminal investigations.

3.      The relation between the CBI and the Lokpal

  • The Jan Lokpal Bill combines the two into one independent body.
  • The government seeks to keep the two institutions unconnected.

4.      The scope of persecution:

A large part of the clash lies here. Member of the drafting committee Santosh Hegde acknowledges the following main differences:

The Prime minister

  • The PM currently doesn’t enjoy immunity as enjoyed by the President. Being first among equals, the Jan Lokpal Bill says the PM can be investigated, but only with the permission of seven member Lokpal bench.
  • The government bill does not put PM under ambit of Lokpal, though his cabinet and other PMO officials can be investigated. Also, the PM can be investigated by Lokpal, once he/she leaves the office.

Judiciary

  • Judiciary is an independent body today. In cases of judicial corruption, constitution does provide a mechanism to address it. For example, recently a sitting high-court judge, Justice Sen, got impeached by Parliament on corruption charges.
  • Jan Lokpal supporters feel the judiciary needs to be investigated, though high level members may be investigated only with permission of a seven member Lokpal bench.
  • The government bill exempts judiciary as by constitution and will cover it by a separate “Judicial Accountability Bill”.

Members of Parliament

  • An MP, just as the PM, is answerable for any corrupt practice under the Prevention of Corruption Act. But, constitution provides MPs with freedom of vote and speech inside a parliament. If MPs are found compromising their position, as in the JMM bribery case, cash-for-vote scam, etc parliament has its own mechanism to tackle them.
  • Under Jan Lokpal, any corrupt practice by an MP, inside or outside the parliament will be investigated. Again investigation can begin with a permission of seven member Lokpal bench.
  • In the govt version, MPs can be investigated, but their conduct within Parliament, such as voting, questions asked in parliament, etc cannot be investigated, because constitution provides that immunity. If any MP found guilty, there are parliamentary proceedings which would take care of them.

Lower Bureaucracy

  • The Jan Lokpal wishes to include all public servants.
  • The government wishes to include only class A officers or above, in order to not excessively overburden the Lokpal body.

Lokayukta

  • The lokayukta, though present in few states, is simply an advisory body, with no investigating/prosecuting powers, as seen in the mining scam in Karnataka which led to the then CM Yeddyurappa’s ouster. The Jan Lokpal bill seeks to retain and sustain the office of the Lokayukta.
  • The government wishes to close all state anti-corruption agencies. All responsibilities to be taken over by centralized Lokpal.

5.        Whistleblower protection

  • This remains a crucial clash. The Jan Lokpal wishes to take up the responsibility of safeguarding the complainant’s life and security.
  • The government feels that this would be an excessive burden on the Lokpal body and seeks to continue to have the police as the protector.

6.       Punishment for corruption

  • Currently only the courts can inflict any kind of punishment. The Jan Lokpal seeks to have the power to order recovery of assets from the guilty.
  • The government feels that even this amount of punitive action should not rest with the Lokpal but only with the courts.

7.         Investigatory powers

  • Currently investigation can only be done by the police after a magistrate order. CBI, though it is an autonomous body, still comes under the purview of PM’s office.
  • The Jan Lokpal Bill vests in the body – the power to obtain wiretaps, issue rogatory letters (letters to foreign courts asking for assistance), and recruit investigating officers.
  • The government version, however, while allowing the body to issue contempt orders, gives no authority to obtain wiretaps, issue rogatory letters or recruit investigating officers.

Compiled by: Tarun Reddy, Ishan Sodhi, Suman Rao

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