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The government’s anti-corruption scorecard

The last five years have seen consistent attacks on anti-corruption laws and institutions

The popular sentiment that helped the BJP in the 2014 general election was resentment against corruption in public life. The party’s clarion call for a corruption-free India resonated with the electorate, who believed the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate when he pledged, “Na khaunga, na khane dunga (neither will I indulge in corruption, nor allow anyone else to indulge in it)”.

Ironically, the last five years have seen consistent attacks on anti-corruption laws and institutions. Serious cases of big-ticket corruption have surfaced under the National Democratic Alliance regime, including banking frauds and the Rafale deal. At the same time, there is no evidence of any check on everyday corruption that impacts the delivery of services to people.

Blows to fighting graft

In 2015, the government proposed amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act. The amendment Bill, which was later approved by Parliament, narrows down the definition of corruption, increases the burden of proof necessary for punishing the corrupt, and makes things more arduous for whistle-blowers.

The most grievous blow is the strengthening of the shield available to officials accused of corruption. Investigating agencies have been barred from even initiating an inquiry or investigation into allegations of corruption without prior approval from the government. Effectively, this empowers political masters to decide whether they wish to allow a corruption inquiry against a government employee or not. The amendments have done away with the offence of abuse of position by a public servant, unless the element of bribery is established. This frustrates peoples’ ability to fight corruption in cases which may not involve the payment of a bribe, as it may be done for other considerations like pleasing political masters for rewards. Also, cases involving gratification are often impossible to trace as they may be deferred in the form of post-retirement benefits or paid through clandestine off-shore accounts.

Recent months have witnessed a brazen undermining of the autonomy of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). To insulate the organisation from government influence, the selection and transfer of the CBI Director is vested in a committee comprising the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, and the Chief Justice of India. However, the government, without consulting the selection committee, removed the erstwhile CBI Director Alok Verma and appointed an Interim Director, M. Nageswara Rao. Although the Supreme Court eventually struck down these decisions as being illegal, it was not before the credibility of the institution was seriously eroded.

The Lokpal law was enacted to set up an independent and empowered anti-corruption ombudsman, who would work without fear or favour to tackle cases of big-ticket corruption involving high-level government functionaries. The BJP government failed to take the necessary steps to appoint a Lokpal for nearly five years. To ensure the independence of the Lokpal, the law provides for a balanced selection committee, including the recognised Leader of the Opposition. After the 2014 general election, no one was recognised as the Leader of the Opposition. Instead of limiting itself to amending the Lokpal Act to substitute the recognised Leader of the Opposition with the leader of the single largest Opposition party in the Lok Sabha, the government introduced a 10-page amendment Bill which sought to fundamentally dilute the original law. The Bill was not enacted.

Three weeks prior to the 2019 general election, a selection committee without the Leader of the Opposition selected the chairperson and members of the Lokpal. The selection of the Lokpal by a committee having a preponderance of government representatives, and consequently an inherent bias towards candidates favoured by the ruling party, defeated the purpose of the law and undermined public trust in the institution even before it became functional.

The BJP government has failed to promulgate rules and operationalise the Whistle Blowers Protection Act, 2014. Whistle-blowers, who speak truth to power by exposing corruption and wrongdoing, continue to be denied protection. Many Right to Information (RTI) users who have exposed corruption have been killed.

Everyday corruption

Corruption in India is not limited to collusive high-level scams. Petty corruption, which affects the delivery of basic services and rights to people, is rampant. This especially impacts the poor and marginalised, who are most dependent on public provisioning of rations, pensions, health and education. This form of corruption thrives primarily due to lack of effective mechanisms to hold officials accountable. A legislation to fix this problem was introduced in Parliament in the form of a Grievance Redress Bill in 2011. Unfortunately, it lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 2014 and needed to be reintroduced — a fact acknowledged by senior BJP leaders when they were in Opposition. Although one of the poll promises of the BJP was to ensure proper delivery of services to citizens, no attempts have been made by the government to reintroduce the Grievance Redress Bill, which would have empowered people to fight everyday corruption.

The RTI Act, one of the most effective tools to fight corruption and abuse of power, has been under consistent attack by the Modi government. Not a single commissioner was appointed to the Central Information Commission in the last five years without intervention by courts. In 2018, the government proposed regressive amendments to undermine the independence of information commissions. These were eventually abandoned due to public pressure.

The worst blow to the peoples’ right to know came in the form of electoral bonds. There has been an urgent need to infuse greater transparency in political party funding. The electoral bond scheme, passed as a Money Bill in Parliament, prevents citizens from finding out who is funding political parties. In one stroke it has ensured that donations worth thousands of crores can be made anonymously. Not surprisingly, the largest benefactor of the electoral bonds scheme has been the ruling party. Citizens don’t know who makes donations and whose interest, therefore, the party will serve.

Instead of putting in place a robust anti-corruption and grievance redress framework, draconian measures like demonetisation and mandatory use of Aadhaar have been pushed by the BJP government in the name of fighting corruption. These have done more harm than good. The BJP’s lack of political will to take necessary steps to curb corruption has given credence to refrains like ‘Chowkidar chor hai’, as people witness allegations of graft flying thick and fast in a regime they voted to power to eradicate corruption.

Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri are transparency and anti-corruption activists associated with the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information

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Printable version | Mar 24, 2020 3:19:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-governments-anti-corruption-scorecard/article26974033.ece

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