One old way to derail ideas and institutions is to burden them so much that they’re rendered incapable. Something similar may happen to the Lokpal, if the Congress party has its way.
On Tuesday a senior Congress leader, Digvijay Singh, mooted the idea of including private sector firms and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) within the ambit of the Lokpal. Singh had said: “The anti-corruption law in the US can look into the functioning of the corporate sector and the NGO sector and it should be considered.” State-owned companies are, in any case, likely to come under the watchful eyes of this caretaker of the Indian people.
In the first instance, this confuses the role of firms and governments. The social contract between citizens and the state is altogether different from the relationship between a firm and its shareholders. Governments have multiple roles and responsibilities towards citizens—from protection of property to safeguarding life to ensuring opportunities for citizens to fulfil their potential. For the lack of a better term, one could say it includes the well-being of all those who live in a particular country.
Firms, in contrast, have a much narrower remit. Their responsibility is only to their shareholders and their sole task is to make profits. They, of course, have to obey the law of the land. If a company breaks some law—some provision of the Companies Act, to give an example—then there is machinery to deal with the infraction. If a firm engages in corrupt practices or is suspected of doing so, law enforcement agencies from the local police to the Central Bureau of Investigation can investigate them.
This clear cut division has never been respected in India. From politicians demanding money for elections from companies, to attempts at imposing “corporate social responsibility”, Indian governments have used laws to bridge the divide between what companies do and what they want them to do. The present case, that of the Lokpal being given the power to investigate private firms, belongs to this muddled way of thinking.
Suppose one were to ignore this division and this widening of scope does occur, what will that task require? For one, it will need a large number of staffers who know how firms work. By “knowing” one means they would need to have practical experience in the private sector. Sourcing such trained persons is sure to prove difficult. It is not hard to imagine a situation where the complaints keep on piling and there are few resources to investigate them. That is the fate that awaits the Lokpal in case private companies are brought within its domain
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