Lokpal scrutiny will add to PM’s prestige
I’ve a hunch that the government will agree eventually to place the office of the Prime Minister under the proposed lokpal. That’s the inference I have drawn on reading Pranab Mukherjee’s statement in conjunction with that of Digvijaya Singh.
The strategy apparently is to take full credit for the decision rather than coming across as acting under civil society’s pressure.
Digvijaya has since gone back on his publicly expressed view to make the Prime Minister accountable. I still believe the PM, the judiciary, non-government organisations and industrial houses (about whom Anna Hazare and Ramdev haven’t much spoken) be brought under the lokpal.
Besides the PM’s office, the government also has problems giving it jurisdiction over the judiciary and members of parliament for their actions on the floor of the House. The last two exemptions can be forcefully argued on the basis of separation of powers under the constitutional scheme. But the same doesn’t hold for the Prime Minister who is just the first among the equals in the Cabinet form of governance.
So if ministers are to be accountable to the ombudsman, why not the PM? Skeptics with whom I don’t entirely agree insist the lokpal oversight could cramp the PM whose duties encompass matters of grave national import that cannot be open to scrutiny. It entails, among other things, use of secret service funds, espionage abroad, propping up surrogates, extending favours in return of support in international forums, quid pro quos with world powers and deals with strings attached to beat partisan international regimes such as those brought in the wake of Pokhran I and II.
Not all is clean and honest about statecraft. Neither is there any legal way of collecting intelligence abroad, as a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) told Morarji Desai who confronted him with the comment: “You seem to be doing a lot of illegal things.” That happened in 1977 under the Janata Party rule post-Emergency and the JP-led movement against corruption and autocracy. Morarji didn’t last his tenure. RAW’s still there.
A whole lot of politicians cutting across party lines agree with these surmises. They say the PM cannot be shackled in the way civil society groups want him to be; more so when he represents the country abroad. I for one believe that by offering himself to the lokpal’s authority, the PM will vest in his office the prestige it has lost in great measure in recent decades. A compromise could perhaps be that the PM be retrospectively probed on completion of his tenure or upon demitting office. That’ll be a good enough deterrent for worthies who get to occupy the top office.
Other safeguards at the lokpal end could include a mandatory full bench decision to initiate any inquiry on establishment of a prima facie case against the ex-PM. If agreed upon, the measure will obviate misuse – by political vested interests and agent provocateurs — of the anti-graft law to render the government and its top executive dysfunctional.
As for the judiciary and members of parliament, the answer lies perhaps in a robust system of transparency and accountability — that can be activated from outside by the lokpal or any other independent entity — but remains within the ambit of these two institutions. For starters, the judges’ accountability bill must be thrown open for a public debate by top jurists and students of law rather than motley civil society groups driven by populist sentiments.
The lokpal would have powers to probe MPs for their actions outside Parliament. But for what they do inside, there is need to revisit the mandate of ethics committees of the two Houses that acquitted themselves honorably by expelling a dozen MPs in the wake of the cash for query scandal.