For all its tough talk on corruption, the Modi government’s actions have only weakened the anti-corruption reforms in the country. Demonetisation is the latest in the long saga of failed promises of the government, which includes putting Rs 15 lakh in every account, making the names of Swiss bank account holders public and penalising those named in the Panama papers. The government’s manipulation of legal norms in the appointment of the directors of the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate, the deliberate delay in the appointment of the Lokpal, the dilution of The Whistle Blowers Protection (Amendment) Bill, 2015, show that the government’s promised dedication to fighting corruption is just political gimmickry.
The Jan Lokpal Bill was accepted by the Congress government in 2013 with amendments and was renamed and passed as the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill. Three years have gone by and the BJP government is yet to appoint a Lokpal. Their excuse is a minor amendment to the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act 2013, which would allow the leader of the largest party in the Opposition in the Lok Sabha to join the five-member selection committee, is yet to be passed. This reason is hypocritical because earlier this year, the government passed a similar amendment in a different bill, The Delhi Special Police Establishment (Amendment) Bill, 2014.
There is no reason why the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act could not have been similarly amended. Even the Supreme Court has reprimanded the Centre for delaying the appointment indefinitely and observed that the law to have the Lokpal must become functional soon.
The government has moved additional amendments that are against the spirit of the original Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013. Earlier, all public servants were required to file annual details of the assets and liabilities of their spouses and dependent children. This clause was intended to aid in the investigations of public servants, or any person on their behalf, who are in possession of a property disproportionate to their known sources of income. But the amended Lokpal Act in July 2016 removed the clause for public servants to publicise the details of their spouses and dependents.
A similar fate has befallen another anti-corruption legislation, the Whistleblower’s Protection Act, 2011. The Whistleblower’s Protection Act was passed by Parliament in 2014 and received the support of all major political parties. Instead of making the Act operational, the government moved an amendment bill in May 2015 which severely diluted the Act. As per the new amendments, whistleblowers are barred from revealing any documents classified under the Official Secrets Act of 1923, even if the intention is to disclose acts of corruption, abuse of power or criminal activities. These amendments exclude disclosures which “prejudicially affect the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with a foreign State”.
Left to a bureaucrat’s imagination, the interpretation of these amendments is ambiguous and can be used to target honest whistleblowers. The government is clueless about the amendment bill’s status. The MoS in the Prime Minister’s Office said the bill had been sent to a parliamentary committee; an RTI application revealed the bill is not pending with any parliamentary committee.
The Modi government’s appointments to key agencies and institutions show scant regard for well-established procedures and norms. In the case of the CBI, the tenure of the former director came to an end on December 2, 2016. The rules of appointment indicate that the government should appoint the next CBI director based on the recommendation of the selection committee, consisting of the prime minister, the leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the chief justice of India.
With less than a week remaining before the retirement of the former director, the seniormost officer in contention for the director’s post was shunted to the Ministry of Home Affairs as a special secretary. The seniormost officer had the requisite experience and was supervising high-profile cases. A Gujarat cadre IPS officer was appointed as interim director. The appointment was questionable because the selection committee was bypassed: The concerned officer’s history indicated that he was chosen by an earlier Gujarat government to probe the Godhra train burning incident. Many allege the appointment of the interim CBI director was deliberate. The alleged aim was to postpone the meeting of the selection committee to a date after January 4, 2017; after January 4, 2017, a new CJI took over.
Similar rumours cropped up when the appointment of the director to the Enforcement Directorate came up. The post had become vacant in 2015 and for an entire year, the BJP government could not ensure a proper handover. Instead, an officer was given additional in-charge of the ED. He received three extensions in one year before being named the full-term director.
The silence of the BJP government over the Vyapam admission and recruitment scam, which involved politicians, senior officials and businessmen in Madhya Pradesh, is also telling. Corruption must be eradicated. Clear laws, strong enforcement and an empowered citizenry are necessary for that. An independent judiciary, autonomous investigative agencies, a vibrant civil society and an impartial executive are also essential. But that’s not the way India seems to be headed.