The Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi has taken a major step in Independent India’s fight against corruption and set a new course for governance. On Wednesday, the Delhi Cabinet passed the Delhi Jan Lokpal Bill, with its passage now awaited in the state Assembly. For the uninitiated, the Jan Lokpal Bill also referred to as the Citizen’s Ombudsman Bill, is an anti-corruption legislation drafted and drawn up by civil society activists and party members seeking the appointment of an independent body to investigate corruption cases. Since the start of its second tenure in the high offices of the Delhi Secretariat, the AAP government had faced much criticism from opportunistic political opponents that it had failed to introduce its anti-corruption legislation. Suffice to say, after much deliberation the Delhi government has delivered on its promise of introducing a strong and effective anti-corruption bill that will not spare anyone in the government. The bill will bring the Chief Minister’s office under its purview and ensures that any investigation and trial by the Lokpal (ombudsman) has to be completed within six months. As per the draft bill, a corrupt person proven guilty would go to jail within two years of the complaint being filed. Interestingly, the bill also envisages power to the Jan Lokpal to prosecute politicians and bureaucrats without government permission. Suffice to say, government interference in corruption cases has often derailed investigations. Other features include the much required legal right of protection to whistleblowers and witnesses, besides a hefty fine for those business entities involved in corruption. In the fight against corruption, the current ruling dispensation at the Centre has not made much progress.
The Whistleblower’s Protection Act, which was passed by the Parliament in February 2014, is yet to be operationalised because the present dispensation has been slow to frame the rules necessary for its implementation. The whistleblower bill came about after a sustained outrage and campaign after the deaths of Satyendra Dubey and Shanmugam Manjunath. In 2003, Dubey, an Indian Engineering Services officer, had written to the then Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, exposing massive corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral project. Soon after this letter was written, he was shot dead on the streets of Gaya. In 2005, Manjunath (an Indian Oil Corporation officer) was killed after he sealed a petrol pump in Lakhimpur Kheri (UP) for selling adulterated petrol. Since 2007, more than 40 people have been murdered for accessing crucial official documents under the Right to Information.
Activists constantly face threats and harassment. The nexus of corruption ties together businessmen, contractors, criminals, politicians, bureaucrats, and even the judiciary. They all receive their share of kickbacks from public money and work to protect this nexus. An honest official, who wishes to expose this corruption, faces a possible backlash from such powers. And yet one scam after another has been exposed by brave officials and other whistleblowers, often at great risk to their lives. Therefore, the decision to include provisions for protecting whistleblowers is a really welcome one.
Looking back into the past, the historical India against Corruption movement during the reign of the previous UPA government set the ball rolling for an anti-corruption bill. Kejriwal, who was a leading light of the movement, has come full circle. Entering the dirt of politics, he has now managed to not only make his way into the corridors of power but also pass a bill that was at the heart of his existence in public life. However, before one gets carried away, there are certain elements of the bill that need to be closely examined. Critics point out that the Lokpal’s wide-ranging powers to probe and punish without accountability are border on the anti-democratic. Moreover, they argue that adequate mechanisms are available to both the Centre and State government to crack down on corruption. However, these mechanisms are not put to use by the powers that be. Therefore, they argue that it is naive to believe that another extra-constitutional body with such powers of oversight will not suffer from the same problems surrounding its implementation. The debate has only started. Setting up the possibility of a yet another clash over the Jan Lokpal Bill, Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung has made it clear that the union government’s approval is mandatory before it becomes a law.