After 47 months into power, the Narendra Modi government at the Centre recently announced that it's holding the first meeting of the Lokpal Selection Committee on Thursday. And to that, it extended a "special invitee invitation" to Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge to attend the meeting as the leader of the largest party in Opposition. Kharge, however, in a two-page letter addressed to the prime minister, refused to attend the meeting, terming the "special invitee invitation" as an attempt to silence the "independent voice" of the Opposition.
The Congress' stand is simple: we believe, a Lokpal appointed without having a say from the Leader of the Opposition will be sullied. And if the first Lokpal is sullied each Lokpal after that will be sullied too. And Congress will not be party to that.
BJP's intentions are wrong
In a democracy, processes exist to safeguard the independence of the various agencies. If you compromise the processes, you compromise democracy.
Under the Lokpal Act, the selection committee has to have the requisite members — the law minister, the prime minister, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Chief Justice of India and the Leader of the Opposition — to appoint an independent jurist and the Lokpal.
There’s no Opposition at the moment because Congress doesn’t have the requisite strength in the Lok Sabha. A party requires a minimum 10 percent seats in the 545-seat House of the People to assume the role of Leader of Opposition, whereas Congress has just 49 members. If BJP wants it could easily recognise Congress as the Leader of Opposition, and appoint the Lokpal following due process.
But instead, the BJP government had been using the absence of the Leader of Opposition as an excuse to delay the appointment of Lokpal. It said that it would bring an amendment into the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act 2013 to allow the Leader of the largest Opposition party to be a part of the Selection Committee. But despite being in power for three years, it has failed to bring that amendment.
Is BJP adhering to the rules, or simply delaying the appointment of Lokpal? In Congress, we believe, it’s the latter. And we have many arguments to support that.
First, what we have been seeing so far is a duplicity from the BJP government's part. If the Narendra Modi government really wanted to appoint Lokpal it would have acknowledged Congress as the Leader of Opposition.
The same BJP, which has been refusing to acknowledge Congress as the Leader of the Opposition — citing its low numbers in the House of the People — had no qualms assuming the role of Leader of Opposition in the Delhi Legislative Assembly despite having just three MLAs.
When the chief minister of Delhi decided to appoint and recognise BJP as the Leader of Opposition despite its low strength, the party gleefully accepted it. Where they (BJP) are the beneficiaries, they peacefully accept it. But where they have to give something, they act stingily.
Secondly, if the question is about the public mandate, Congress received 19 percent of the vote share across India. It's another thing that Congress' numbers are low. But now we are 49 members, up from 44 in 2014. Since 2014, our numbers are constantly going up, whereas BJP numbers are going down. BJP is constantly losing public support, whereas Congress is gaining public support and improving the mandate.
Let’s look at the numbers another way.
The 19 percent vote share, which Congress received in 2014 is exactly what BJP had in 2009. But, BJP had a strength of 120 seats and that’s because Congress fielded a much larger number of candidates across the country. While BJP had a smaller catchment, and therefore they extracted votes from fewer states. Even going by popularity based on the mandate, Congress has more than deserved a place in the Lokpal Selection Committee.
Congress with a repository of 19 percent votes deserves a say in the appointment of Lokpal. But despite this BJP is not willing to recognise Congress as the Leader of Opposition. This shows that the Modi govt lack bonafide.
Lokpal: Why now?
In the run-up to the election, BJP had said that it would "set-up an effective Lokpal" institution. Forty-seven months have passed since BJP came to power at the Centre, but Lokpal has remained a dream. The govt has now woken up suddenly after being hauled by the Supreme Court.
With just months left for the Lok Sabha Election 2019, the Modi government wants to present itself as the one initiating the process to appoint a Lokpal. But in reality, it doesn't want a Lokpal as envisioned in the 2013 Lokpal and Lokayukta Act.
Because Modi is a micromanager, he doesn't want anyone overseeing his activity. Let's not forget that as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi didn't want an independent Lokayukta. He blocked the first Lokayukta appointed by the then Gujarat Governor Kamla Beniwal. And when she didn't relent, he amended the act diluting the powers of the governor in the appointment of Lokayukta.
The bottom line is Modi doesn’t want anybody to hold him up for his corrupt activities. And he has many things to answer for. Right from the Rs 58,000 crore Rafale deal, the value of which more than tripled in comparison to what was agreed upon during the UPA regime — he has even refused to divulge details of the deal citing national security concerns — to Purushottam Solanki, Babu Bokhiria, the GSPC scam, or the land allotted to the Adanis to build a port, these are all scams.
Modi doesn’t want a Lokpal, and certainly not an independent one. The Selection Committee Meeting is a ruse to ensure that that the picture appears very clean. The last thing Modi wants is probity, and to have someone to answer to.
Modi came to power with the promise to end corruption. But look at India now, our position in the Global Corruption Perception Index has fallen to 81 from 76. Today, every organisation — the ED, CBI, RAW, SFIO — everything is working for the government. These organisations are working as satellite offices of BJP.
The (government) has been using all agencies against Congress, and now using someone who allegedly killed her daughter, cut her into pieces and then dumped her body, and then hid it for years, for vendetta. A handicapped Lokpal will another instrument into government's arsenal.
Congress also wants the Lokpal to be formed — in 2013, we listened to the public mandate and passed the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act — but we want it to be formed by a proper process. The Act clearly necessitates the presence of the Leader of the Opposition. If the Modi government wants Congress to be a part of the Selection Committee it has to be as the Leader of the Opposition. But if you want Congress to just eat snacks, drink tea, and not say a word, Congress won't be a party to it.
The author is a Congress spokesperson and Supreme Court lawyer.
As told to Hassan M Kamal
Updated Date: Mar 01, 2018 21:24 PM