Poll code in place, search panel in mess, wait for Lokpal just got longer

Two legal luminaries quit search committee, embarrassing UPA govt but the law itself may need tweaking

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Ashish Mehta | March 5, 2014



If we have waited for the Lokpal for about half a century now, a few months more shouldn’t hurt. Because that is what is happening. There’s no likelihood of the anti-corruption watchdog by the elections, starting April 7, now that two eminent jurists have quit the search panel.

First it was Fali Nariman, who refused to be part of the search panel, and now former supreme court judge KT Thomas has rejected the government’s offer to head the same panel.

More importantly, Thomas has criticised the way the Lokpal is going to be chosen. In a letter sent to the prime minister’s office (PMO), he wrote, “Why should there be a search committee at all… when the selection committee itself can decide on who should be the members of Lokpal?”

This embarrassment for the Manmohan Singh government comes in the wake of the controversy over naming a member of the selection committee itself. In January, Sushma Swaraj, a member of the selection committee and leader of opposition in Lok Sabha, had opposed the government’s choice for this position.

The UPA government might have wished to deliver the Lokpal and take credit for it during the election campaign – however weak or politically susceptible that institution might be. Now, of course, there is going to be no Lokpal at all, since the model code of conduct has come into force, and it will be up to the next government to do the needful.

That is good, as the new Lokpal, expected to be in place by December, will not be set up by a lame-duck government and will thus have full legitimacy.
The criticism made by justice Thomas, meanwhile, should be read as going beyond humiliation of the UPA. What he has pointed out is a provision in the law itself, and the same criticism will be valid a few months later when the next government will take steps to set up the Lokpal. The names chosen by the search committee can be ignored by the next selection committee too.

That is where we stand after close to half a century’s debate on every clause and sub-clause of the various Lokpal bills. In any case, such an overarching (some would say overambitious) institution will be a work in progress for a long time to come. What is needed is a visionary leadership that can go beyond the legal fine print, willingly set aside short-term political benefits and build an institution. That, however, is one thing in short supply these days.

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