Can India Control Corruption by the All Powerful Ombudsman?

The Embedded Culture of Graft needs a Strong a Credible Deterrence

Can India Control Corruption by the All Powerful Ombudsman?
Image Source - Wikimedia Commons (,_Bangalore_on_19th_August.jpg)
The Lokpal Act of 2013 provides for the appointment of Lokpal and Lokayukta. The law, which resulted from wide spread protests and display of public anger against corruption, is left unattended today, with little public enthusiasm. Many also doubt as to whether the Lokpal can actually prevent graft, which has now become embedded in public functioning. To succeed against corruption, we may need strengthening of existing institutions as well as create an expectation that change is likely.

India’s quest for the ‘Lokpal’ or an all powerful ombudsman to address corruption in higher quarters, which began in a Parliament session in 1963 is yet to be fulfilled in spite of several studies, a number of aborted attempts, a strong people’s movement led by the septuagenarian crusader Anna Hazare in 2011 and the enactment of the Lokpal Act of 2013.

The Lokpal Act of 2013

The 2013 Lokpal Act provides for appointment of an ombudsman called Lokpal at the center and a similar ombudsman, the Lokayukta in every province. The ombudsman at the center is to be appointed by a panel consisting of the Prime Minister, the Speaker of Lower House of Parliament (Lok Sabha), the leader of opposition, the Chief Justice of India and an eminent jurist nominated by the President of India. In spite of the Act being in place, the Government has been able to avoid appointing the ombudsman on the technical ground that since only the leader of an opposition party having at least 10% seats can qualify as the leader of opposition, and since no opposition party enjoys that status as of now, there is no opposition leader in existence.

While many are not willing to buy this excuse, the public interest on the issue also seems to have died down, with hardly any questions being raised in this regard. Even an attempt by Anna Hazare, who undertook another fast in Delhi recently to resurrect the issue found little public support, unlike 2011. At least to some extent, the loss of public enthusiasm may also be due to doubts as to whether creation of a new authority will actually be able to interrupt this menace that has gradually became embedded in India’s political, social and administrative milieu. Another reason could be the gradual sidelining of civil society and social activists from the national public discourse, and a relative indifference towards them by the media.

The Jan Lok Pal: An All Powerful Ombudsman Body to Prevent Corruption

Under the 2013 Act, the Lokpal is actually an authority including a Chairperson and up to eight Members, which will have power to investigate allegations against all higher authorities including the Prime Minister of India, the only exception being the Defence Forces.

It will also have powers to confiscate property accumulated by corrupt means even before the prosecution is completed. An important feature of the Act is that it hands over the supervisory powers over investigating agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to the Lokpal. The time provided for investigation is six months and the prosecution for such cases is to be held in Special Courts to expedite the matter.

Initial Support of People has Dwindled

While this interesting Act on the chaotic theatre of Indian democracy unfolds, many see it is as another step towards greater political maturity of this seven decades old democracy, which has been plagued with allegations of corruption at different levels during this period. The enactment of the 2013 law was precipitated by public anger against the arrest of civil activists seeking Lokpal, and the widespread rallies and protests in Delhi and many other Indian cities in 2011 supporting their cause. The strong public support at that time was seen as the culmination of a problem that Indian people have been facing for a very long time.

History of Corruption in India & Need for Independent Agency

Historically, corruption in India became endemic under the unaccountable authoritarian rule of East India Company, especially the Company Courts, which introduced a completely alien law and procedure over the native people, in a language that people did not even understood, and which were manned initially by unqualified judges, leading to widespread corruption and exploitation of people. After the territories were annexed by the British Crown, the British Parliament did take some steps to curb corruption among higher ranks of its officers, but the lowly paid native officials were left largely uncontrolled, so as to ensure that their interests and loyalties were aligned with the British authority rather than their Indian brethren. Thus, corrupt practices at the lowest level became almost a norm in all colonial offices, including the Courts and this culture persisted unchecked even after independence. Unfortunately, even after independence, very little effort was made to revamp the police, bureaucracy or judicial machinery so as to prevent them from misusing their authority, as a result of which most such practices continued unchanged, or even worsened further.

What changed after indpendence, though, was the increasing public consciousness of corruption in higher offices, particularly as such allegations began to surface in the eighties and nineties with increasing regularity. The gradual commercialization of social values was also seen at contributing to this decay of integrity in public life. What has been irking people most during the last few decades, however, is the fact that very few culprits seem to have been brought to the book so far. Many perceived this as a weakness of the politician-bureaucratic nexus not going all out against its own people, which laid the foundation for calls of an all powerful ombudsman to ensure proper investigations in such matters.

Doubts About the Proposed Ombudsman

While the ombudsman is largely seen as a positive step, not everybody is sure about the assumption that it can be the panacea for all the ills of corruption. There are also doubts as to whether the Constitution of India, which distributes the powers primarily between the three organs of executive, legislature and judiciary, will allow a meaningful functioning of such an independent authority. Some wonder as to whether it would interfere with judicial independence, while others point out that it can possibly compromise even national interests by creating a politically motivated crisis against the Prime Minister. Clearly, investing draconian powers in an agency that is not directly accountable to anyone is always fraught with its own dangers. The unintended and unanticipated consequences of misuse of such powers do not appear to have been discussed at all so far.

Can a New Institution Control Wide Spread Culture of Corruption?

At the centre of most of these debates are certain basic questions, like whether a problem like corruption, which has got embedded in the culture of public agencies, can be controlled just by creating another public authority, even if it has all the powers of the world. This, perhaps, is the central question in this whole debate, and one that deserves to be given greater attention in this quest of Indian society for better governance.

The Government in India is a large body consisting of a few hundred thousand men and women, if we take all public offices into account. Even with the most conservative estimates, more than a couple of hundred thousand will have a potential authority for rent seeking behaviour. The functioning democracy and the highly competitive procedure of selections ensure that people from different parts of society keep entering this large club every year. The fact that all these new entrants soon become an inseparable part of this system indicates that corruption is not the monopoly of a selected few. It reflects a graver malice in the society, its aspirations and its values. The question that many want to ask is whether an omnipotent ombudsman can take care of this grave social malice. It is difficult to answer the question, but what one can expect is that this omnipotent ombudsman will do something that will bring about a change.

How can the Lokpal Help?

One way in which this ombudsman can make a difference is by changing the expectations of the society. Today, corruption is so prevalent that people expect it to happen and also accept it as a way of life. It is almost as if they have given up the hope that the society can get rid of corruption. It is also because it is so expected and accepted that new aspirants to public offices, either as bureaucrats or politicians aspire to make the most of it, and enter these positions with an expectation that it will be their ticket to a life of comfort and luxury. All this can change only if the new ombudsman can bring about the desired changes in the expectations of the society.

If the ombudsman can take some expedient actions on a scale that will convince the society that corruption will not go unnoticed, then, and only then, will the ordinary public functionaries, numbering a few hundred thousand at least, will begin to give up their preference for the graft. It will only be then, that the common man will begin to expect corruption free governance, and when faced with corruption, resist it. It is only when the society at large expects public offices to be free of graft, that new entrants would be willing to lead a professional career of integrity and honest service. It is only when the expectations of society do not accept corruption as inevitable, that the wide spread corruption in public life can disappear.

Need for Strengthening the Existing Institutions

To be able to achieve this goal, one institution of ombudsmen may still not be enough. There is a provision for a Chairperson and eight Members in the institution of Lokpal and even if all of them are men and women of absolute integrity, they are unlikely to make much impact, unless they can stimulate the strengthening of the existing institutions mandated with ensuring probity in public life. As things stand, enough of such institutions already exist, beginning with Chief Vigilance Commissioner, Comptroller and Auditor General, independent judiciary, Central Bureau of Investigation, Anti corruption wings of Police and separate units of audit and vigilance in every government office. It is only when all these existing institutions are rejuvenated and try their best that a credible deterrence against corruption will be created.

One can only hope that the public anger against corruption, which led to the enactment of the Lokpal Act, 2013 finally leads to energise an institutional revamp that will change the expectations of people, make them believe that India can get rid of corruption and thereby interrupt it.

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