About half a decade after the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill was passed, and as the National Democratic Alliance’s tenure winds down, India will get its first lokpal. Former Supreme Court judge PC Ghose was on Sunday recommended to be the country’s top corruption watchdog by a selection committee headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It is not clear if other members of the Lokpal committee have been finalised yet. The committee can have up to eight members and must include Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Classes, minorities and women. Even Ghose’s appointment seems to have been nudged along by the Supreme Court, which set a February-end deadline for the selection committee. Like so many of the Centre’s grand gestures towards fighting corruption, it seems disingenuous at worst and half-hearted at best.
Though the idea of an anti-corruption ombudsman was first floated in the 1960s, this bill was born out of mass agitations that gained ground in 2011. The India Against Corruption movement, led among others by activist Anna Hazare, the present Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, proved to be the unravelling of the United Progressive Alliance government. It was fuelled by tremendous public anger against a scam-ridden ancien regime and a desire for change.
The heat and dust of the protests had two results. First, the lokpal bill emerged as a magic cure for corruption. Second, it provided an opening for the Bharatiya Janata Party to project itself as the clean alternative – the promise to fight corruption and black money became a key election plank in 2014.
The BJP may have had mixed sentiments about the bill and as Gujarat chief minister Modi had opposed the appointment of a lokayukta. Indeed, the institution of the lokpal had been criticised on several counts: it only added another fallible institution without fixing the ones that were broken, it would paralyse the executive with fear, it would short circuit constitutional checks and balances. If these concerns weighed with the BJP, it did not make them known. Some of the few safeguards that did exist seem to have been bypassed – no opposition party had a say in Ghose’s appointment, for instance.
The BJP’s own “surgical strike” on corruption – demonetisation – proved to be short-sighted and born of a much more punitive imagination than that which dreamt up the lokpal bill. It failed to extinguish black money, while causing boundless economic distress. Besides, even as the BJP showboated on black money, it worked to make government and political parties less transparent, less accountable. It attempted to dilute the Right to Information Act, it made a mockery out of institutions such as the Central Bureau of Investigation, it drew a veil over political funding by introducing electoral bonds.
After five years of spectacle that was meant to cover up for the creeping systemic rot, the appointment of a lokpal merely looks like an extension of the BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign. Watchmen, after all, are the flavour of the season.