The irony is glaring. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s BS Yeddyurappa – the only chief minister in the country to resign because he was indicted for corruption in a Lokayukta report – is now fighting to prevent what many say is an attempt by the Karnataka government to weaken the anti-corruption watchdog.
Yeddyurappa has joined the chorus of criticism against a recent decision of the Congress government headed by Siddaramaiah to form an Anti-Corruption Bureau to replace a unit of the police that worked under the supervision of the Lokayukta to investigate cases of corruption. In 2011, a report by former Lokayukta, Justice Santosh Hegde, which linked Yeddyurappa, his minister Janardhan Reddy and relatives to a Rs 16,085 crore mining scam, led to Yeddyurappa spending some time in prison. During the 2013 Assembly elections, Yeddyurappa and his party lost Karnataka, their Gateway to the South, because of this very scandal that had adversely impacted the country’s GDP.
Established in 1984, the Karnataka Lokayukta was once considered to be one of the country’s strongest anti-corruption bodies. But a series of recent controversies have cast a shadow over the institution.
The establishment of the Anti-Corruption Bureau – announced by the Siddaramaiah government via a government order on March 14 – is just the latest. According to the notification, the Anti-Corruption Bureau will take over prosecuting powers from the police wing attached to the Lokayukta, essentially leaving the anti-corruption body without any powers of prosecution. All complaints the Lokayukta police was examining so far will also move to the Anti-Corruption Bureau – many of which include complaints against the chief minister and his bureaucrats.
Since the Anti-Corruption Bureau reports to the state government, many feel that the chief minister will now be the investigator, judge and jury in corruption cases that may involve him or his colleagues in government.
Former Lokayukta, Justice Santosh Hegde said that the idea behind the Anti-Corruption Bureau was to “destabilise the institution of the Lokayukta and make it useless.’’ He questioned whether the Anti-Corruption Bureau would be truly autonomous. “The ACB sounds very nice. But, it has a supervisory body of eight senior officers, including those drawn from the Indian Administrative Service, above which is the chief minister,” said Hegde. “Every time there is a case, the supervisory body has to give permission to raid X, Y or Z bureaucrat. So, where is the autonomy of the body?”
Siddaramaiah – the very man who led a padyatra from Bengaluru to Bellary to protest against the illegal mining scam of the then BJP government – has rejected calls to revoke the decision, insisting that the Anti-Corruption Bureau had not taken away the powers of the Lokayukta to probe the chief minister or ministers. His reasoning is that the government had only tried to correct an “anomalous situation’’ that was turning out to be legally untenable in the wake of a Supreme Court judgement.
The anomalous situation refers to the fact that Karnataka Lokayukta Act empowers the Lokayukta to inquire into complaints against public servants, but it cannot conduct criminal investigations. This responsibility was entrusted to the Lokayukta police wing, which had powers to do so under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
The SC judgement the government has used in its defence is the 1998 C Rangaswamaiah vs Karnataka Lokayukta case in which the apex court said that police officers, who had the power to investigate under the Prevention of Corruption Act, did not become autonomous just because they were deployed with the Lokayukta as they were ultimately servants of the Karnataka police establishment that reported to government. The government’s argument is that by creating the Anti-Corruption Bureau, it was simply separating the two roles in order to avoid confusion.
However, the government has misread and misinterpreted the Supreme Court order, which in no way had indicated that the Lokayukta police wing should be disbanded.
Hegde questioned the timing of the government’s decision. “The Supreme Court verdict did not come recently. It came in 1998,” said Hegde. “For nearly 20 years, the government kept quiet.”
Hegde added that when he was the Lokayukta he had made suggestions to the government that would allow it to bypass restrictions imposed by Section 17 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, which empowers only high-ranking police officers to investigate cases under the Act. Hegde’s suggestion was that one of the two Upalokayuta’s should be appointed as a “deemed police officer, which would fulfil the provisions of Section 17.”
A legal aspect too has enraged those against the formation of the Anti-Corruption Bureau. “How can an executive order of the government replace a legislation?” asked Suresh Kumar, who was law minister in the previous BJP government. “And, nowhere has the Supreme Court judgement suggested an omnibus ACB.”
The Lokayukta’s office has seen a series of controversies after Justice Hegde retired as its head in 2010. His successor, Justice Shivraj Patil, had to resign little over two months after taking charge following a controversy that broke out over the allotment of plots to him and his wife allegedly in violation of rules. The BJP government took over a year to find another Lokayukta – Justice Bhaskar Rao. He too resigned last December after he was listed as a prosecution witness by a special investigating team that was probing charges that his son, Y Ashwin, was involved in an extortion racket.
That the erstwhile BJP government took over a year to find a replacement for Patil is indicative of the struggle that the government has had in finding judges to head the Lokayukta. But a senior Congress leader said that was still no excuse to weaken the Lokayukta further. “It is ridiculous to set up the ACB just because there is no clean member from the judiciary or that the governor rejects all names suggested by the government,” said the Congress leader.
The controversy has seen even senior Congress leaders like former chief minister SM Krishna, former union minister Janardhan Poojary, and former Congress MP BK Hariprasad publicly criticising their government. To no avail. How Chief Minister Siddaramaiah braces up to the challenges that the old guard in the party will throw at him in the future will depend on various inner party dynamics and external factors. Even the Karnataka High Court has weighed in on the matter, criticising the government for forming the ACB.
But a BJP leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, gave a new twist to the issue. He said most political parties weren’t really averse to the idea of an Anti-Corruption Bureau because of the power it placed in the hands of the chief minister. “Opposition protests may be on but there are many within the BJP, the Janata Dal (S) and the Congress which want the ACB,” said the BJP leader. “That is the ultimate power point for anyone in his (Siddaramaiah’s) place."
The reality is that the institution – which had once earned the goodwill of the people for its action on corruption and other issues – may be on its last legs. The Lokayukta that helped straighten out systems to prevent any more harm to the GDP over the next few decades in the exploitation of natural resources like iron ore, courtesy the Supreme Court, is now indeed a poor shadow of its former self.