One of the key points highlighted by a division bench of the Karnataka High Court in its judgment on August 11 to abolish the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) of the state police and resurrect a Karnataka Lokayukta police unit, was a comparison between the number of politicians prosecuted by the ACB and the Lokayukta.
The High Court provided a list of 67 politicians, 28 IAS officers and eight IPS officers against whom the Lokayukta police had initiated corruption investigations under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, Act between 1994 and 2015, when the agency was empowered to carry out criminal investigations.
The 67 politicians cut across the political spectrum in Karnataka — B S Yediyurappa, Janardhan Reddy, C T Ravi, Murugesh Nirani of the BJP; D K Shivakumar, Roshan Baig, R V Deshpande of the Congress; and H D Deve Gowda, H D Kumaraswamy of the JD(S).
In comparison to the Lokayukta police, which functioned independently under the Lokayukta and Upa Lokayukta – both retired judges — the ACB did not prosecute a single politician or senior bureaucrat after it came into existence in March 2016, the High Court noted.
The ACB, which works under the control of the chief minister, was established via an Executive order, by a Congress government led by Siddaramaiah.
“The material on record clearly depicts (that) after creation of ACB w.e.f 14.3.2016, ACB has not registered any criminal cases against Ministers, MPs, MLAS or MLCs, but only registered (a) few cases against some authorities and conducted raids,” the Bench comprising Justices B Veerappa and K S Hemalekha said.
Not surprisingly, the response among the political class to the High Court order has been muted.
Social activist S R Hiremath, one of the petitioners in the High Court against the creation of the ACB, said none of the parties was in favour of a Lokayukta police – which would be independent, and outside political control — despite what they might have conveyed publicly.
Hiremath, who was a central figure in highlighting the politically backed illegal mining in the Bellary region of Karnataka in 2008-2012, said in his petition: “The ACB has been created to avoid accountability and transparency.”
The Siddaramaiah government had used the charges of deep-rooted corruption within the Lokayukta institution itself to bring in the ACB. There were only a few stray voices of protest, among them former PM Deve Gowda and the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party.
Soon after the creation of the ACB, Deve Gowda said it had been formed “only to make the Lokayukta completely weak”. He added: “The government can use this ACB as a weapon to destroy political opponents. It can also be used to protect them from their illegal acts and irregularities.”
Former CM and fellow JD(S) leader Kumaraswamy had written to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to stop the move.
AAP leader Ravikrishna Reddy – who is no longer with the party – had tonsured his head along with five others to protest against the ACB.
But while the BJP promised revival of the Lokayukta in its 2018 election manifesto, it never moved in that direction. The illegal mining in Bellary had happened under a BJP government.
Neither did the JD(S) take any action in this regard when it formed a coalition government with the Congress between 2018-2019. After that government fell, the BJP one which replaced it continued with the ACB.
Now, with the High Court cracking down, the BJP has been trying to take credit. CM Basavaraj Bommai said the order is in line with the BJP’s election manifesto of 2018. “… We will take action on this on the basis of our manifesto,” Bommai said.
The Congress, on the backfoot on the matter, has been pointing out that the BJP government had, in fact, opposed the revival of the Lokayukta in the High Court.
Siddaramaiah, whose government brought in the ACB, said he could only comment after “studying the judgment”. “We accept the High Court order,” he added.
Castigating the political class, the High Court in its order said: “Even though we got Independence about 75 years ago by the struggle of our forefathers… we are not in a position to eradicate corruption till today since no government has taken drastic steps in that direction.”
One of the biggest hurdles in taking cases registered by the ACB since 2016 to conclusion has been the government blocking permission when senior officials were involved. “This used to happen earlier with the Lokayukta too but not so blatantly,” a Lokayukta official said.
In March, CM Bommai told the Assembly that out of 310 cases registered since 2017 by the ACB, as many as 223 were awaiting clearance from the state government for prosecution of officials.
Before the High Court order, the matter was already a source of friction between the state government and the judiciary. Recently, Justice H P Sandesh of the High Court had questioned the role of the ACB in a case involving the deputy commissioner of Bengaluru Urban region.
The Lokayukta history
The Karnataka Lokayukta Act of 1984 had been introduced by a Janata Party government, as part of its election promise to create an institution to address complaints against public servants. Then CM Ramakrishna Hegde had facilitated the creation of a Lokayukta which brought even CMs under its purview.
In 2002, the Congress government under S M Krishna further empowered the Lokayukta by giving it a police unit to probe cases registered under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Functioning under the ADGP and state police chief, the unit was answerable only to the Lokayukta and Upa Lokayukta.
The institution was at the peak of its powers between 2010 and 2012, when former Supreme Court judge Justice Santhosh Hegde was the Lokayukta. The majority of the 67 cases registered by the Lokayukta against politicians were during this period.
The High Court also noted this, pointing out that in 2011, the Lokayukta action had forced then CM (Yediyurappa) and a minister (Katta Subramanya Naidu) to resign, “creating history” and becoming “a model to the entire country”. This was over charges of illegal mining and gift of government land to private entities.
Justice Hegde had recently commented on the ineffectiveness of the ACB as compared to a Lokayukta police.
The Congress government action against the Lokayukta in 2016 had followed charges of extortion against then Lokayukta Justice Bhaskar Rao, a former chief justice of Karnataka, and his son Ashwin Rao. Rao had subsequently resigned as Lokayukta, while the Congress, after failing to convince the Assembly to have the Lokayukta Act of 1984 replaced, had defanged it via an Executive order on March 14, 2016.
In its order, the High Court said there was “no independent application of mind by the state government before passing the impugned Executive order, and the same (was) based only on the recommendation made by the DG & IG”.