The Big Story: Misplaced idealism

In 2013, anti-corruption protests broke out in Delhi. The numbers of demonstators were not remarkable for India, where even an everyday rally can result in a turnout of millions. But the movement captured the imagination of the country’s voluble middle class, so national politicians could not ignore it completely. The protests resulted in India’s Parliament passing the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act which provides for the establishment of a Lokpal at the Centre and Lokayuktas in the states – ombudsmen with both executive and judicial powers to investigate corruption.

In theory, the Lokpal would have a significant amount of power, being allowed to receive and act on allegations of corruption against civil servants as well as elected politicians as well as any organisation that receives substantial foreign donations. The Lokpal is selected by a small body consisting of the Prime Minister, Speaker of Lok Sabha, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (or a sitting Supreme Court judge nominated by him) and an eminent jurist to be nominated by the first four members of the selection committee.

There has been little movement on the Lokpal since the act was passed. However, on Thursday, Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge declined to attend the Lokpal selection committee meeting as a “special invitee”. The current Lok Sabha does not have a leader of Opposition because the Congress – the principal Opposition party – does not have enough members in the House. As a result, Kharge was not invited as a member of the selection committee but only as a “special invitee”, without voting rights.

More than anything, that a selection committee can be constituted without any Opposition voices highlights the dangers of a Lokpal. The body is invested with significant powers. Fighting corruption is a noble intention – however, as needs bear repetition, that is exactly the substance with which the road to hell is constructed.

The anti-corruption agenda has captured the imagination of India’s middle classes. However, there are sobering examples of how it can lead to bad governance (and, therefore, have results that maybe even worse than corruption). The partisan use of the Central Bureau of Investigation is a case in point. The party in power often uses allegations of corruption against Opposition parties to achieve blatantly political ends – so much so that the Supreme Court one called the CBI a “caged parrot”. In Pakistan, corruption charges led to the courts actually dismissing a popularly elected prime minister. It is a move that commentators see as being driven by the powerful military – a “judicial coup” given that a real one is unviable in today’s political climate.

The Aam Aadmi Party that arose out of the anti-corruption protests of 2013 is now in shambles, its legislators accused last month of assaulting a bureaucrat. The noble intentions of 2013 led to little actual political change in the form of AAP.

The intention of removing corruption is laudable – but that cannot be an excuse for getting rid of the checks and balances of democracy. The Lokpal is a dangerously undemocratic body that would, when constituted, have significant powers, without Parliamentary or judicial checks. That the present government can further squeeze the selection committee to even exclude the largest Opposition party is a pointer to how risky the setting up of such a body could be.

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