The great quickfix

There is still no compelling rationale for the lokpal. It is either too much or too little

Even as the Lokpal Bill began its journey through the Rajya Sabha, the two men who had crusaded most ardently for it expressed diametrically opposed views on it. Arvind Kejriwal, AAP leader, called it a "jokepal", and said that the final version approved by the cabinet was so feeble that it could not even catch a mouse. Anna Hazare, the veteran activist who is on a fast for the bill to be passed, said it could catch a lion. There, between those two conceptions, lies the problem. A bill intended to create an independent ombudsman has been weighed down with a whole range of infeasible expectations, and is always too much or too little, depending on how you perceive it.

The original Jan Lokpal Bill had envisaged a heavy and unaccountable bureaucracy — a single authority that would merge other investigative agencies into it and have the power to initiate proceedings, investigate and prosecute cases of corruption, finish the probe and recover the money in two years. It had wanted the body to be comprised of "eminent citizens", Magsaysay winners and the like, to sit in judgement over nasty public officials. Thankfully, the bill that is now in Parliament has gone through several rounds of consultation in the legislature and executive, and these filters have taken out some of the more draconian provisions and created a version that is more mindful of institutional balances.

The more fundamental problem, though, remains: what is the lokpal adding? It will create another layer of officialdom, another point of judgement calls to an already swollen investigative apparatus. It has been overloaded with responsibility, including that of all government funded organisations and trusts. The prosecution director of the CBI will report to the lokpal. While it is a good thing for the investigation and prosecution wings of the agency to be split, it is not clear whether answering to the lokpal will give it greater operational autonomy to probe corruption and the CBI could simply end up having two masters to serve. In terms of conviction of the corrupt, the lokpal's success is tied to the infirmities of the criminal justice system, and experience with lokayuktas has not inspired much confidence. In other words, the lokpal could become another point of disruption, rather than a system that speedily resolves matters of corruption. The identification of public corruption is itself a delicate call — we know how an activist CAG can make its own evaluations of policy decisions and declare notional losses to the exchequer. And ultimately, this zeal to create a super-cop for corruption externalises the problem. It takes away from the energies needed to reduce rent-seeking and the scope for shady transactions, to reform systems and comprehensively minimise corruption.

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