When the Bharatiya Janata Party ascended to power at the Centre in 2014, it was helped enormously by a wave of anti-corruption sentiment that has swept India. In the run-up to the election, prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi promised to prosecute all corrupt officials and politicians – including those from his own party. During the campaign, Modi and his partymen frequently alleged that the Congress was notoriously corrupt and has been responsible for several scams, such as fixing the sales of 2G mobile phone spectrum.

As recently as August, the prime minister exhorted Indians to unite to ensure a corruption-free country by 2022. “Mahatma Gandhi had given the slogan of ‘do or die,’” he said. “That was the formula of that time. Today, in 2017, if we take this resolution that how will India become in 2022, then we will get rid of corruption from the country.”

However, on December 21, a Central Bureau of Investigation court exonerated all the people accused in the 2G scam, in which a former minister in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was accused of granting spectrum to telecom companies in return for favours. This judgement raised the question of whether the BJP has done any better than the Congress regime in fighting high-level corruption in the government. In its judgement, the court made scathing comments about the prosecution and CBI for presenting little real evidence to back up their allegations.

The BJP’s effectiveness in batting graft can be gauged from a reply by the Prime Minister’s Office to a Right to Information query.

RTI query

In October, a Right to Information applicant asked the Prime Minister’s Office three key questions. To begin with, how many corrupt Indian Administrative Service officers had the government taken action against? If IAS officers are found to be corrupt, only the prime minister can sanction administrative action against them.

The Prime Minister’s Office replied that in the three-and-half-years from 2014, action had been taken against 12 officers. There are more than 5,000 serving IAS officers.

Records shows that in the two years for which data is available in public domain, between 2012-’14, when the Congress-led government ruled at the Centre, four IAS officers faced action for corruption. The government does not disclose information about how many IAS officers are being investigated or against how many corruption-related complaints have been received.

The response to the RTI query also showed that the appointment of a Lokpal to investigate corruption at the highest levels in the Union government is not likely soon. In addition, an internal study of the government has also revealed that investigations by the government into corruption allegations against All India Service officers – the top rung of the bureaucracy – who serve the Union government, are facing inordinate delays. They take an average of eight years to be completed.

When accused of corruption, IAS and other All India Service officers working in the Union government are subjected to two parallel processes of investigation and prosecution. They face regular criminal charges under the Prevention of Corruption Act and other laws. They also have to undergo internal departmental inquiries in which the Central Vigilance Commission plays a supervisory role. At the end of the departmental investigations, the commission recommends action to be taken against an official found guilty of corruption. Based on these recommendations, the nodal ministry for the particular central service officer takes action. If an IAS officer is found guilty of corruption, the Prime Minister’s Office is the final authority to decide any major penalties. These include dismissal from service or compulsory retirement in the case of a serving officer, and a cut in pensions for retired officers.

The study conducted by the Central Vigilance Commission in 2016 found that disciplinary proceedings against officers on average take eight years to be completed, even though regulations require the inquiries to be completed in less than two years.

Corruption at the highest-levels

The RTI applicant also asked the Prime Minister’s Office about the status of the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013. The law aims to detect, investigate and prosecute corruption involving the upper levels of the executive, including members of the Union cabinet. When the BJP was in opposition, it frequently attacked the Congress-led government for failing to implement the Act.

Though the law was enacted and notified in January 2014 under the Congress-led government, more than three years after the BJP-led government took power, it has not been implemented. The office of the Lokpal is intended to oversee investigations against all officials, ministers and even the prime minister. But the position is still vacant.

A 2011 photo of yoga guru and businessperson Ramdev at Delhi’s Ramlila grounds, where social activist Anna Hazare went on a fast for the creation of a Lokpal bill. (Photo credit: Reuters).
A 2011 photo of yoga guru and businessperson Ramdev at Delhi’s Ramlila grounds, where social activist Anna Hazare went on a fast for the creation of a Lokpal bill. (Photo credit: Reuters).

When taken to court for this in 2014, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government said it had not picked the Lokpal yet because the selection process required the Leader of the Opposition to be on the selection panel and one did not exist. It said that according to the rules, the largest Opposition party must hold 10% of the Lok Sabha’s 545 seats for its leader to be designated as Leader of the Opposition. The Congress, with 44 seats, is the single-largest party, but it did not fulfil the 10% criterion.

As the Supreme Court criticised the government during the hearing of the case, the BJP government moved an amendment in December 2014 in which it replaced the provision requiring he Leader of the Opposition to be on the panel with the leader of the Opposition party with the highest number of seats. The amendment was referred to a standing committee of Parliament, which submitted its report in December 2015, recommending the proposed changes.

The response to the Right to Information request said that an inter-ministerial committee comprising seven members of the Union cabinet had been formed to review the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, and it had submitted its report. “Recommendations of the inter-ministerial committee are under consideration of the government” the reply said.

In April, the Supreme Court directed the Union government to appoint a Lokpal. “The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act 2013 as it stands today is an eminently workable piece of legislation and there is no justification to keep the enforcement of the Act under suspension till the amendments, as proposed, are carried out” it said.

But the government has still not appointed a Lokpal, leaving the law in limbo.

However, in 2016, the government passed an amendment to the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act in which it did away with the need for all public servants to disclose the assets and wealth of their family members, and only to disclose their own.

The applicant asked a third question of the Prime Minister’s Office: in the absence of the implementation of the Lokpal law, what procedure had the government put in place to deal with cases in which complaints of corruption against any central minister were lodged with the prime minister? The applicant also asked for copies of all complaints submitted to the prime minister in which corruption allegations were made against serving Union cabinet ministers, and the action taken against these complaints between June 2014 and October 2017.

To this, the Prime Minister’s Office replied, “The request made by you is generic and vague.” It quoted an order of the Chief Information Commissioner, which said “information seekers are expected to seek pointed and specific information and not make roving and open-ended inquiries”.