For all its tough talk on corruption the BJP government’s actions are contradictory and have weakened the anti-corruption reforms in the country. Demonetization is the latest in the long saga of failed promises of the government which includes Rs 15 lakh in every account, making the names of Swiss bank account holders public and penalizing those named in the Panama papers. The government’s manipulation of legal norms with the appointment of the Directors of CBI and ED, the deliberate delay in the appointment of the Lokpal, the dilution of The Whistle Blowers Protection (Amendment) Bill 2015, shows that the government’s promised dedication to fighting corruption is just political gimmickry.
Weakening of laws and statutes – The Case Of Lokpal And Whistle Blowers Act
The Jan Lokpal Bill was accepted by the Congress government in 2013 with amendments and was renamed and passed as the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill. Three years have gone and the BJP government despite supporting the Bill initially is yet to appoint a Lokpal. Their excuse is that a minor amendment to the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act 2013, which would allow the leader of the largest party in the opposition in the Lok Sabha to join the five-member selection committee, is yet to be passed. This reason is hypocritical because earlier this year the government had passed a similar amendment in a different bill, The Delhi Special Police Establishment (Amendment) Bill 2014. So there is no reason why the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act could not have been similarly amended. Even the Supreme Court has reprimanded the Centre for delaying the appointment indefinitely and observed that the law to have Lokpal must become functional soon.
The fate of the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act has also befallen on another anti-corruption legislation the Whistleblower’s Protection Act 2011. The Whistleblower’s Protection Act was passed by the Parliament in 2014 and received the support of all major political parties. Instead of making the Act operational, the government moved an amendment bill in May 2015 which severely diluted the Act. As per the new amendments whistleblowers are barred from revealing any documents classified under the Official Secrets Act of 1923, even if the intention is to disclose acts of corruption, abuse of power or criminal activities. These amendments exclude disclosures which “prejudicially affect the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign State”. Left to a bureaucrat’s imagination the interpretation of these amendments is quite ambiguous and can be used to target honest whistleblowers.
The suspended status of the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act and Whistleblowers Protection Act reveals the government’s lack of commitment to strengthening anti-corruption laws. While these Bills need to be immediately operationalized, other bills such as the Grievance Redressal Bill need to be introduced in order to create a vibrant framework for anti-corruption legislation.
Established procedures ignored while appointing Directors of national investigative agencies
Recently the BJP government actions in appointing heads of key agencies and institutions show scant regard for well-established procedures and norms. In the case of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) the tenure of former CBI Director came to an end on December 2, 2016.Rules of appointment indicate that the government should appoint the next CBI Director based on the recommendation of the Selection Committee consisting of the Prime Minister, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and The Chief Justice of India.
With less than a week remaining before the retirement of the former Director, the senior-most officer in contention for the Director’s post was shunted to the Ministry of Home Affairs as a Special Secretary. This was rather surprising because the senior-most officer had the requisite experience and was supervising high profile cases. What followed was the questionable appointment of an officer from the Gujarat cadre Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, as the interim Director. Not only was the appointment questionable because the Selection Committee was bypassed but the concerned officer’s history indicated that he was chosen by an earlier Gujarat Government to probe the Godhra train burning incident.
Many allege that the appointment of the interim CBI director was deliberate. The same rumours appeared in the appointment of the person heading the Enforcement Directorate. The post of Director had become vacant in 2015 and for an entire year the BJP government could not ensure a proper handover. Instead an officer was given additional in-charge of the ED and received three extensions in one year before being named as the full-term Director.
In both the case of the CBI and the ED the BJP government has failed to ensure a smooth succession. In the case of national investigative agencies the appointments of the Director should follow proper procedures and be as far from controversy as possible. While the newly appointed Directors should be given a free hand to crack down on criminal activities, their arbitrary appointment leaves them vulnerable to greater scrutiny by the media and the public.
The only takeaway from the hopes of “Achhe Din” is the rigour with which the BJP government fought the elections was only political theatre. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the decision of the BJP government to be silent over the Vyapam admission and recruitment scam. The scam involved politicians, senior officials, and businessmen in Madhya Pradesh. While the death of around 40 people associated with Vyapam should have been a call to action irrespective of who is involved, these individuals have now been forgotten.
Corruption as an evil must be removed from our society. To do so we require clear laws, strong enforcement and an empowered citizenry. This can occur if our country possesses an independent judiciary, autonomous investigative agencies, a vibrant civil society and an impartial executive. Unfortunately we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Rhetoric can never replace execution irrespective of the masterful oratory of our political leaders.