Government’s attempts to have its way in the setting up of the Lokpal are a reality check.
With Justice K.T. Thomas “withdrawing” as the head of the Lokpal search committee, the question of political interference in the creation of the anti-corruption super cop has assumed centrestage. Justice Thomas is the second legal luminary to sever his association with the Lokpal’s selection process in as many weeks, following distinguished lawyer Fali Nariman.
If Nariman felt the most “courageous, independent and competent” candidates would be overlooked by the selection process, Justice Thomas has underlined how it is skewed towards candidates preferred by the government. “I wonder why there should be a search committee at all,” wrote Thomas, given that candidates picked from a Central government list could be overlooked by the Lokpal selection committee. He was equally critical of the requirement to “seek” applications for the post of Lokpal, over which other former Supreme Court judges too have expressed concerns in recent days.
That the Lokpal selection committee, under the parent statute, is allowed to ignore the search committee’s recommendations is understandably provoking concern. Already, the government’s nomination of P.P. Rao to the selection committee has run into controversy, with the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, having questioned his political neutrality. Yet, the prime minister, who also heads the selection panel, has made no attempt so far to assuage the concerns of the opposition and the public on this score.
Given the unabashed way in which the government has, in fact, forcibly imposed its preferred candidate on the selection committee, there are credible reasons to doubt that the search committee’s recommendations will be considered in earnest. The Supreme Court’s judgment in the CVC appointment case is pertinent here: just as one member of the selection panel does not hold a veto, it said, the government must make every effort to secure a consensus before appointing the candidate.
Insulating an institution from political interference, be it in appointments or functioning or both, arguably requires a more patient and sober deliberative process than that which preceded the passage of the Lokpal bill. While the anti-corruption body was a long-pending idea, it was finally pushed through in December 2013 in an unseemly hurry — as a cave-in to perceived political-electoral pressures. Similarly expedient considerations appear to be dominating the setting up of the Lokpal now.
In any case, the decision to ignore the fact that combating corruption requires strategic interventions across several fronts and to invest a single institution with the task of fighting all the system’s corruption was flawed from the start. The government’s attempt to influence the appointment of a watchdog is not new. But it does irreparable damage to the credibility of an institution that is billed to be the grand quick-fix for corruption in India.