New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on Thursday rejected key demands by civil society representatives for inclusion in the anti-graft Lokpal Bill and decided to press ahead with its own prescription to fight corruption in public life.
The Bill approved by the Union cabinet on Thursday will be the ninth attempt by Parliament to pass legislation to constitute an anti-corruption watchdog. The Bill will be introduced in Parliament in the first two days of the monsoon session beginning 1 August, said V. Narayansamy, minister of state at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Contrary to recommendations by civil society representatives headed by activist Anna Hazare, the government has kept the Prime Minister, the judiciary and the conduct of lawmakers inside Parliament out of the purview of the Lokpal. The immunity for the Prime Minister only extends to the period during which he remains in office.
The legislation allows the proposed anti-graft watchdog to investigate any Union minister or so-called group A official—of the rank of under secretary and above—without seeking permission.
Hazare and his associates were dissatisfied with the proposed legislation.
“If they think that they can woo the people of this country by pulling off such a cruel joke on the people, then I think they are sadly mistaken and the people of the country will teach them a lesson in the time to come,” said Prashant Bhushan, one of Hazare’s associates.
Hazare has announced a protest fast to start on 16 August. His five-day anti-corruption fast in New Delhi had drummed up public sentiment against the government and forced it to accept his demand to draw up the proposed legislation and to be consulted on key details.
The government was open to changes in the Bill as per suggestions by Parliament, said law minister Salman Khursheed.
“Anyone challenging this will not be challenging the government of the day, but Parliament’s authority,” Khursheed said, referring to Hazare’s threat.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called for the inclusion of the Prime Minister under the ambit of the law.
“We want to make one thing clear—that the BJP does not appreciate the complete omission of the PM from the jurisdiction of the Lokpal,” said party spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Political analyst and former head of the political science department at Jawaharlal Nehru University Balveer Arora justified the exclusion of the Prime Minister and the judiciary from the purview of the Bill.
“It is normal to exclude the head of state up to the point of his exit from the office because it means there is no immunity for life,” he said. “The judiciary’s exclusion is in the logic of our constitution that it should be independent and should not be subservient to the executive.”
Civil society should influence the opposition to make amendments as there is no other democratic way to have its say.
“It is a substantial achievement that it is coming after the efforts of more than three decades and it is the victory of those who have agitated for it,” he said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “reiterated” in the cabinet meeting on Thursday that the person who occupies the post should be covered by the proposed legislation, Union information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni said. Some ministers, including those belonging to alliance partners, also backed this. But “after much deliberation,” the cabinet decided otherwise, keeping in view the “pitfalls” of such a proposal, including a possible adverse effect on the stability of the government.
“The Prime Minister can be investigated after he exits office and the judiciary will be covered under the proposed judicial accountability Bill (Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010, introduced in Parliament in December),” Soni said.
The Bill proposes a seven-year statute of limitations for filing complaints.
The Lokpal will consist of a chairperson, who can be a sitting or retired chief justice of India or a serving judge of the Supreme Court. Of the remaining eight members, four should be from the judiciary and the others persons of “impeccable integrity, outstanding ability and knowledge and experience of 25 years in the fields of investigation, public administration, vigilance, finance, banking and insurance.” Anyone who becomes a member will be barred from contesting elections. Members will be appointed for a five-year term by a committee consisting of the Prime Minister, the Lok Sabha speaker, leaders of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, a serving Supreme Court judge, a cabinet minister nominated by the Prime Minister, an eminent jurist and one eminent personality.
Once the complaint is made, the Lokpal has to probe the case in six months and the trial should be completed within a year. The Lokpal can be removed through a presidential reference to the Supreme Court, which in turn can give its opinion. The President will take the final call. Non-governmental organizations that get substantial funding from the government can also be probed under the legislation.
The cabinet also approved the constitution and operation of the National Social Security Fund for unorganized sector workers with an initial allocation of Rs1,000 crore to support weavers, toddy tappers, rickshaw pullers and bidi workers.
Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had announced setting up of the fund in his 2010-11 budget speech.
Anuja and Ruhi Tewari contributed to this story.