Many a daring attempt to curb corruption among politicians and government servants in the past three decades made the lokayukta a hugely popular institution in Karnataka. But the recent allegations of corruption and extortion against the current lokayukta’s son, Ashwin Rao, dented its reputation. And worse, the controversy has triggered fears of its being used as an excuse by the political leadership to render the watchdog toothless.
Allegations of Ashwin and his accomplices using the lokayukta office premises and having demanded Rs1 crore from PWD engineer M.N. Krishnamurthy to prevent a raid on him surfaced on May 8. A week ago, the lokayukta police registered a case, naming Ashwin as the prime accused. But on July 11, it had to hand it over to a special investigation team headed by Additional Director General of Police Kamal Pant, which was appointed by the state government.
The opposition BJP has been demanding a CBI probe into the allegations and moved a motion in the assembly to remove the lokayukta, Justice Y. Bhaskar Rao. “The assembly should have the power to vote out a tainted lokayukta,” said former chief minister Jagadish Shettar. The house, however, could not arrive at a consensus over the exact procedure for impeaching the lokayukta, and the government is now working on a bill. “We will come up with a comprehensive bill that will address issues like removal of the lokayukta among others problems. My legal team is looking at both the Judges Inquiry Act and the Lokayukta Act,” said Law Minister T.B. Jayachandra.
It is exactly this move which is making the anti-corruption brigade in the state jittery. They sense a ploy to dilute the powers of the institution on the pretext of “seeking clarity” over the removal of a tainted lokayukta. First, it was the lokayukta draft bill 2014, which the government floated but did not table in the assembly. And now, a “comprehensive bill” is being worked out by a legal team. “We will picket the lokayukta office to prevent a tainted Rao from attending office,” said freedom fighter H.S. Doreswamy, who has been active in the anti-corruption crusade. “At the same time, I appeal to the government to preserve the sanctity of the lokayukta institution.”
Experts say the Lokayukta Act, 1984, which combines the functions of both the Vigilance Commission and the Anti-Corruption Bureau, is effective in tackling corruption and should not be tampered with. “During my tenure, there were 700-odd raids,” said former lokayukta Santosh Hegde. “But, there were as many as 23,000 complaints from the aggrieved people. I realised it was a huge responsibility to secure justice to these people. But the new bill would scrap the grievance redressal role of the lokayukta. The nine-member body mooted in the bill is a farce. The lokayukta will be left with no role to play, as investigations are being carried out by the lokayukta police and not the lokayukta.”
There are arguments supporting a review of the 30-year-old law. “We need to relook as the nature of corruption, society and administrative systems has all undergone changes,” said former law and parliamentary affairs minister S. Suresh Kumar. “The act was made with a good intention and on the assumption that people heading the institution would be clean. Today, we see that political leadership is not open to probity. Unless, we tread with caution, we might end up making lokayukta a toothless institution.”
No institution in Karnataka has been as effective in curbing corruption as the lokayukta. A report by Hegde on illegal mining in 2011 not only exposed the Rs16,000 crore scam, but also cost chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa his chair. Politicians are wary of the lokayukta's power to entertain private complaints of corruption against legislators. “In Yeddiyurappa’s case, somebody filed a complaint based on a CAG report and suddenly 10-15 FIRs were lodged. In fact, the CAG report had to be placed before the Public Accounts Committee. However, we cannot allow any attempt to dilute or deny the powers of the lokayukta,” said Kumar.
Hegde does not see merit in suspecting the intentions of the lokayukta. “The Lokayukta Act has clearly demarcated what can be inquired into and what not,” he said. “Every institution faces such allegations. During my later days in office, the government suspected my motive. But I had mentioned chief ministers of three parties – Dharam Singh, H.D. Kumaraswamy and Yeddyurappa—in my mining report. Judicial activism of the court was also criticised as it hurt some people. Negative thinking is only an argument.”
* In 1966, a report by the Administrative Reforms Commission recommended setting up of lokpal and lokayukta for grievance redressal. The Karnataka Lokayukta Act, 1984, came into force when Ramakrishna Hegde was the chief minister. Formulating a lokayukta and upa lokayukta law was one of Hegde's promises during the 1983 assembly election.
* The Vigilance Commission, formed in 1965 to investigate corruption cases in the state, was abolished and the pending cases were transferred to the lokayukta. Some lokayuktas became quite popular, like N. Venkatachala (2001-2006) and Santosh Hegde (2006-2011). Activists fear the current controversy might lead to the government diluting the powers of the institution.
* According to section 6 of the act, the impeachment of a lokayukta is possible only with an order of the governor, passed after an address by each house of the state legislature. The address has to be supported by a majority of the total membership of the house, and by a majority of not less than two-third members of the house present and voting. The address has to be presented to the governor in the same session as when the voting takes place. The lokayukta can be removed on the ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity.
* The procedure of the presentation of an address and for the investigation and proof for the lokayukta's removal is as per the Judges (Inquiry) Act, 1968, similar to the removal of a judge.