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Modi govt's new bill trying to dilute power of Gujarat Lokayukta?

The controversial new Gujarat Lokayukta bill, which curtails the primacy of the Governor and Chief Justice of the High Court in appointment of the anti-corruption ombudsman, was on Tuesday passed by the Gujarat Assembly amid protests from the opposition Congress.

Congress dubbed the Gujarat Lokayukta Aayog Bill, 2013 as a ploy by the Narendra Modi government to keep corruption under wraps. The legislation was passed by majority vote after Congress walked out of the House.

Apart from curtailing the power of the Governor and the Chief Justice, the bill’s character has remained same as the existing Lokayukta Act 1986, which has been held as a “toothless piece of legislation” by some legal experts.

According to the bill, the Lokayukta will have to seek the government's permission before acting on a complaint. If a complaint is found to be frivolous, the complainant will have to deposit Rs 2000 to Rs 25,000 as a fine and may be jailed upto six months, reported Deccan Herald. But, the Lokayukta's report will not be binding on the state government.

Accusing the Modi government of allowing corrupt people to go scot-free, Gujarat Congress President Arjun Modhwadia said that the bill allows Modi to declare any accused as innocent.

Modi government's new Bill dilute the powers of the Lokayukta? Reuters

Modi government's new Bill dilute the powers of the Lokayukta? Reuters

"The government is coming out with a new law which will make it easier for the accused to go scot-free. If someone is accused of corruption, they should be punished. We will protest against this in Parliament," he said.

After losing the judicial battle against the appointment of Justice Mehta by Governor Kamla Beniwal, the Modi government has also planned to keep the governor away from the selection or consultation process of the new Lokayukta and Uplokayukta.

The bill proposes to eliminate the role of the governor and chief justice of the Gujarat High Court from the appointment process. Instead, it proposes that the selection panel for the Lokayukta would include the chief minister, the assembly speaker, a minister and the leader of the opposition.

“For the purpose of conducting investigations and inquiries in accordance with the provisions of the Act, the Governor shall …. appoint a person to be known as the Lokayukta and not more than four other persons each to be known as Up-Lokayuktas,” the Bill said, adding, “…Provided that the Lokayukta shall be appointed after consultation with the Chief Justice of High Court.”

Does the bill reflect the extent to which Modi can go to block justice Mehta who has not been able to take charge despite the fact that he was appointed way back in August 2011?

Maybe.  A Times of India report notes, "The government had described justice Mehta, a retired high court judge, as an 'activist'. The new law requires the Lokayukta to be a retired chief justice of a high court or judge of the Supreme Court."

Also, the bill prescribes the retirement age of 72, while Justice Mehta is 75 years old.

It has been almost 10 years since Gujarat had a Lokayukta - the last one being Justice SM Soni whose term ended in 2003.

In 2011, RA Mehta was controversially appointed as Lokayukta by governor Kamla Beniwal, bypassing the state government. Modi had appealed against this appointment claiming it was unconstitutional as Beniwal had appointed Mehta without consulting him and the state Cabinet. However, the Supreme Court had upheld his appointment.

In January, a bench of justices BS Chauhan and FM Ibrahim Kalifulla dismissed the Gujarat government's plea saying the Governor is bound to act under the advice of the Council of Ministers. The court ruled that the appointment of Justice Mehta was correct as it was done in consultation with the Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court.

Slamming Modi, the court had said, "The Chief Minister acted under the false impression that he could turn down the superiority and primacy of the opinion of the Chief Justice, which was binding. The spiteful and challenging action demonstrates the false sense of invincibility."

Modi's government had challenged the order in the Supreme Court, which also upheld the verdict, saying Justice Mehta's appointment was legal.