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From India against corruption to India for Lokpal

To a layman this judgment of the Hon'ble Supreme Court is a must read. Students of law believe that this is virtually a crash course in corruption laws. Decided by the Supreme Court, the judgment is virtually a treatise on Law of Evidence, Criminal Procedure Code, Prevention of Corruption Act and Indian Penal Code.

The Hon'ble Supreme Court in the extant corruption case - "The State Represented by CBI versus G Prem Raj" - was asked to adjudicate in an appeal preferred by the CBI where the accused was initially acquitted by the High Court.

After hearing the (brilliant no doubt) arguments put forth by lawyers from both sides the Supreme Court setting aside the acquittal of the accused by the High Court, concluded that the accused did indulge in acts of corruption and evidence produced before it was sufficient to hold him guilty.

Now comes the kicker. If you thought that the amount involved in this case of corruption was in billions or millions you are sure to be disappointed. Crores or Lacs? Not at all! The amount of bribe involved in this case, believe it or not, is a measly sum of Rs 5,000.

And if you thought that I am talking of the fifties or the sixties where a sum of rupees five thousands would be considered princely hold you breadth. The said case is of recent origin. The actual act of graft occurred in May 1998 and was ultimately decided in 2009 – yes 2009 – by the Hon'ble Supreme Court!

Interestingly, there are several cases where our higher courts are seized of corruption cases involving such small amounts. Some are petty bribes involving a mere thousand Rupees and in some cases it involves far lesser amounts. And if the Lokpal Bill were to become law, then all such cases will be referred first to the Lokpal, then to the High Courts and subsequently to the Supreme Court!

Naturally, given our legal system one wonders whether the Lokpal will be clogged by petty cases as are the courts across the country now. Will the Lokpal be yet another tier in our legal system? In the alternative, will the Lokpal be able to zero in and nail the corruption sharks?

Crucially, by talking of Lokpal are we diluting our fight against corruption? That is central to the debate on hand.

Importantly, this Judgment of the Supreme Court also commented about the approach of the High Court on this matter.

It is in this connection it added "Last, but not the least, we are extremely surprised to read the last portion of the judgment of the High Court, wherein, the High Court has honorably acquitted the accused and directed his reinstatement as senior-most Civil Engineer, Civil Department, MIDHANI with all usual retired monetary benefits inclusive of restoration of seniority etc. with immediate retrospective effect."

The Supreme Court concluded "We are shocked to see the step taken by the High Court in straightaway writing off the findings in departmental enquiry without any justification. This aberration on the part of the High Court speaks of its wholly incorrect approach."

Lokpal – A Parking Lot?

This is what is worrying several well-meaning analysts, especially given the fact that Lokpal is expected to monitor all and sundry including lower bureaucracy. The law as envisaged now will necessarily encourage filing of millions of corruption petitions, most of them petty, trivial and ridiculous.

Critically, they will sap the energy of the Lokpal. In the process it is feared Lokpal will lose its focus and direction.

Further, burdened by such trivia, it will commit legal hara-kiri as the High Court did in the above-mentioned case. A few similar knocks on the knuckles by the higher judiciary will rob it of its much acclaimed halo.

What is even more worrying is that the office of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) set up under the statute with so much fanfare a decade or so ago has degenerated into yet another ordinary government office today.

If laws were the sole instruments to deal with any issue, the country should have seen the last of prostitution and spitting in public places; we should also have seen the end of manual scavenging, child marriage, malnutrition, poverty and illiteracy a long time ago.

It is unfortunate for that we have deceived ourselves with spurious arguments.

If the manner in which we as a nation have reacted to scams is any guide, one can vouch for a fact that corruption agitates our people only when they are able to identify the face behind the scam. When that happens, the usual nonchalance invariably gives way to instant public anger.

That is why one was impressed with the India against Corruption (IAC) movement. It was refreshing. It initially did not talk of any surreal ideas or pontificate on idealism. Its stated objective was to expose all individuals involved in specific instances of corruption in recent times; Period.

The IAC movement precisely understood the psyche of our people. Earlier this year, in a widely circulated power point presentation (titled - India a republic of scams) over the internet, the IAC compiled details of all scams in independent India. It had facts, figures and faces that were linked to corruption in high places.

The campaign carried out by the IAC was intensive as well as extensive. This led to a tectonic shift in the mood of the nation. It galvanized our courts to act under the pressure of public opinion and sentiments. This in turn led to the arrest of prominent personalities in 2G and in CWG scams.

Till this point in time, the IAC got its strategy right – it named and attempted to publicly shame and possibly frame all those involved in corruption. In effect, it spoke of corruption with a face and not of faceless corruption.

Somewhere inexplicably this movement against corruption was transformed into a movement for Lokpal. In the process, little did we realize that after so much ado we were in effect fighting for yet another government office! Surely IaC was not about creating yet another parking lot for our retired judges and senior bureaucrats!

From Movement against Corruption to Movement for Lokpal

This is not to say that Lokpal is irrelevant. In our fight against corruption Lokpal is a small and definitive step. But given our track record for rendering institution after institution impotent, the fear that Lokpal too would suffer the same fate, is not entirely misplaced.

And that is not limited to institutions alone. Post independence India has been witness to four very powerful peoples' movement – the anti-emergency, the anti-corruption movement associated with Bofors, the Ram Mandir and Mandal movements.

In hindsight, one can safely say that all these movements began with extraordinary clarity, people's participation and high ideals amongst its leaders. These movements even led to change of governments, albeit for a limited period of time.

What was perceived initially as the high point in these movements, turned out to be their Achilles Heel as the leaders failed to change the system as originally promised.

Not surprisingly, within a short period of time the leaders of these movements were defeated, disillusioned and discredited, at times by their own followers! Why? This happened because the leaders of these movements made the fatal mistake of contesting elections and becoming a part of the Indian establishment.

That brief tryst with the Indian establishment neutralized them forever. Mercifully, the members of IaC seem to have read contemporary Indian history pretty well. They have so far refrained from moving in the direction of contesting elections. It was therefore impossible to deal with them along customary lines as the establishment did on previous occasions.

However, Team Anna underestimated the Indian establishment. By presenting a weak Lokpal bill the establishment was at its strategically brilliant best. It was a red rag to most of us; a trap and we all fell into it.

That is how the Indian establishment, sensing the deep anger of the people, contrived to shepherd the entire debate from the dizzy heights of corruption in high places to the easily managed discussion on Lokpal Bill.

As we agitated for a "strong" Lokpal, the government stonewalled. And after a fortnight of fast, notwithstanding what Team Anna may believe it has achieved, the fact remains that the establishment knows that it has given nothing.

The net result: People's movement "against" corruption has been silently but effectively diffused and a potent agitation transformed into a compromise "for" Lokpal.

PS: The idea of fast appeals even today to all Indians. The potency of this instrument connected Gandhiji to Anna and Anna to us. But Gandhiji would have recoiled at the idea of a fast for an inconsequential Lokpal. His fast would have been directed against the corrupt. Possibly that explains the skepticism that surrounds Lokpal to this day. Time for Team Anna to introspect!

Last modified on Sunday, 07 July 2013 07:36