Supreme Court sets February-end deadline on Lokpal but Centre drags its feet citing technical difficulties, manpower issues

One nationwide stir, two prolonged hunger strikes by a septuagenarian, and five years after framing of a law, the wait for an anti-corruption ombudsman remains insufferably long. The Narendra Modi-led government, which ousted United Progressive Alliance on the plank of corruption in 2014, has been dragging its feet on appointing the Lokpal, even as it was hauled up by the Supreme Court over the delay in the process, no less than on three occasions.

The reasons cited for the delay in process varied from absence of the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha (a position which remains vacant in the 16th Lok Sabha as no party managed to win the requisite number of seats) to inability to pass an amendment Bill in the Upper House. But a closer look at the facts reveal that none of these reasons were strong enough to hold up a process for full five years.

File image of protesters demanding Lokpal bill. Reuters

File image of protesters demanding Lokpal bill. Reuters

Although the demand for a Lokpal was first raised in Parliament 56 years ago, the current chapter of the story begins from 2014, when the longstanding demand finally took the shape of a law.

The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 came into force on 16 January 2014, just a few months before the then Congress-led government was unseated from power. The then government initiated the process for appointment by convening the Selection Committee meeting on 03 February 2014 and also constituted an eight-member Search Committee on 21 February, 2014 under section 4(1) of the Act. However, the process had its first run-in with obstacles when eminent jurists Fali S Nariman and KT Thomas refused to be a part of the Search Committee.

Then comes the NDA government in power. The government did not hold even a single meeting of the Selection Committee for at least the first 45 months; the first meeting under the Modi government was held in 2018. It promised to bring an amendment to fix the anomaly of the absence of a Leader of Opposition and instead give the same rights to the leader of largest Opposition party, but that still remains in the pipeline.

The government's failure to include the Opposition leader in the committee has given Congress grounds to allege it wants to keep the Opposition out of the process. The government has invited Mallikarjun Kharge as a non-voting special invitee, but he has refused to attend the meeting at least six times in the last year, stating he does not want to attend the meeting merely to munch on snacks.

However, the Supreme Court has already clarified on 27 April 2018 that this can be no ground for delay. The court said that a Lokpal can be appointed under the current law and the government is not obliged to wait for the amendment to be passed. Yet this particular technical snag seemed to have held up the process the longest.

Almost a year after this observation, the first meeting of the Selection Committee was held in March 2018 followed by few others after which the government finally managed to nominate a Search Committee in September last year, headed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice Ranjana Prakash to recommend the chairperson and members of the anti-corruption ombudsman Lokpal.

Another snag that the government hit was the death of eminent jurist PP Rao, who was a part of the Selection Committee. The government took its own sweet time in naming his replacement, MukulRohatgi, former Attorney General of India.

The Selection Committee comprises the Prime Minister, Lok Sabha Speaker, Chief Justice of India or his nominee and an eminent jurist. The panel will have to nominate at least seven persons as members of the Search Committee.

Meanwhile, the Selection Committee is yet to meet for the first time four months since its constitution. Now anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare, whose stir against corruption during UPA rule, made the Lok Pal Act a reality has again threatened to go on a hunger strike from 30 January.

The 81-year-old has already fasted for the cause twice before to have his demands met but the government has been rather slow to respond.

Finally, the Supreme Court has fixed a February-end deadline for the Search Committee to recommend a panel of names for appointment of the on Lokpal. However, the country's first anti-graft ombudsman still seems a long time away as the government continues to cite infrastructural problems in picking the Lokpal. General KK Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, told the Supreme Court that there were certain problems like lack of infrastructure and manpower due to which the search committee was not able to hold deliberations on the issue. Whether or not the government manages to iron out these difficulties within a months time depends on its resolve to give teeth to the anti-corruption body.

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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2019 17:36:18 IST

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