Editorial: India Has a Lokpal, finally!

Editorial: India Has a Lokpal, finally!

But, will the watchdog rise to the occasion?

Do you know that India has a Lokpal? Well, it got appointed on March 13, while we were busy doing other things! Coming in the middle of the elections it was almost ignored by the media and political parties alike. Honestly, the appointment of Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose as India’s first Lokpal can pass for the biggest non-event of 2019, purely in terms of visibility. Very few people know him in his new avatar and even fewer know the names of his eight fellow members on the panel.

Contrast this to the height of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in 2011 when India was galvanised around the slogan of Lokpal. All conversations revolved around it and the TV channels repeated Hazare’s theatrical arrest every few hours. And then came a series of rallies in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore and a wave of protests in the cities and towns across India.

It was the movement for Lokpal which uprooted the grand old Congress party and brought in the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for two consecutive terms. But wait, what happened to the Lokpal in between? After all, the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act was duly passed in Parliament in December 2013, months before the change of guard in 2014 and half a century after the idea was mooted (See the Lokpal timeline in the following pages).

Sadly, the party which came to power riding on the storm called Lokpal seemed in no hurry to set it up. It was particularly bizarre because it required nothing but notifying an Act and following due procedures. Even an amendment would have been easy, considering the number of Acts and amendments passed during this period. Obviously, the ruling party leaders were dawdling with a little help from a complicit opposition.

It is in this backdrop that Common Cause challenged the arbitrary nature of the Search Committee Rules in the Supreme Court in March 2014. True, the appointment of the Lokpal was a direct result of this Common Cause intervention. The government feigned helplessness as there was no Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha. Common Cause challenged this further but our PIL was disposed in April 2017 with the observation that the Lokpal Act was a perfectly workable piece of legislation. When the government still refused, we filed a contempt petition against willful and deliberate non-compliance. The appointment happened after many nudges from the Apex Court.

So where does Common Cause stand now? While we hail the appointment, we feel the process could have been more inclusive, impartial and transparent i.e., the leader of the largest opposition party should have been included as an equal, and not as a special invitee. We also stand for greater transparency in proposing and accepting nominees. But above all, we think it is obligatory for the Lokpal panel to silence the sceptics and show some courage and fairness in the spirit of panch parmeshwar, irrespective of how it got appointed.

Vipul Mudgal

April-June, 2019