India has appointed former Supreme Court Judge Pinaki Chandra Ghose as the country’s first anti-corruption ombudsman or chairman of the Lokpal.

Over the last five years, countless calls from activists have blamed the Narendra Modi-led government for delaying the appointment of a national anti-corruption ombudsman. After variations of it were allowed to lapse for decades, the Lokpal Act was at last passed in 2013 and came into force on January 16, 2014. Now, finally India gets its Lokpal ahead of general elections scheduled to start on April 11.

The anti-corruption ombudsman or Lokpal has the power to investigate any complaint of corruption against any public entity — including the Prime Minister. It is supposed to be an empowered, independent body that will fight corruption in public services and cases involving high-level government functionaries and benefit the common people. However, in order to conduct an investigation into the Prime Minister, it would need approval from two-thirds of the Lokpal committee.

President Ram Nath Kovind on Tuesday appointed former Supreme Court judge Justice P C Ghose as the chairperson of the Lokpal committee along with eight committee members drawn from both judicial and non-judicial circles. The appointments were recommended by a selection committee headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ghose is also part of the National Human Rights Commission.

The appointments took place after the Supreme Court on March 7 directed Attorney General KK Venugopal to submit within 10 days the date on which the prime minister-led panel would meet to appoint the Lokpal.

The Aam Aadmi Party has already decided to file complaints with the Lokpal over alleged corruption by PM Modi in the Rafale fighter jets deal and Sahara-Birla diaries. Following this, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in Delhi said it would raise the issue of alleged non-declaration of assets and liabilities by Aam Aadmi Party’s lawmakers.

Protector of people

The Lokpal Act came into being as a result of the 2011 anti-graft protests by activist Anna Hazare. The protests targeted the increasing number of corruption cases that had surfaced during the United Progressive Alliance government and drew support from millions of people across the country. The word “Lokpal” is derived from the Sanskrit word “loka” meaning people and “pala” meaning protector or caretaker.

Hazare, the septuagenarian Gandhian from Maharashtra who became widely known through the anti-corruption movement, is finally seeing his struggle leading to the on-ground implementation of the anti-corruption law. “I welcome the decision of appointing the country’s first Lokpal. The people’s movement for it, going on for 48 years now, has finally won,” he told the media.

The term Lokpal and Lokayukta were coined by Dr. L M Singhvi who proposed an Indian model of ombudsman for the redressal of public grievances. The bill for a Lokpal was initially passed in the Lower House of Parliament in 1968 but was then allowed to lapse. Since then it lapsed several more times until 2011 when the anti-graft movement started.

The Act not only empowers the Lokpal to address corruption in public service but also ensures that public servants who act as whistleblowers are protected. The Lokpal has the power of direction over Indian investigation agencies including the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for cases referred to them by the ombudsman. The Act also stipulates a six-month time frame to complete investigations.

The appointment of the Lokpal has been long overdue for India, which ranked 78th out of 175 countries for corruption in the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International.

The committee

The four judicial members of the Lokpal committee are former Allahabad High Court Chief Justice Dilip Babasaheb Bhosale, former Manipur High Court Chief Justice Abhilasha Kumari, former Jharkhand High Court Chief Justice Pradip Kumar Mohanty, and current Chief Justice of Chhattisgarh High Court Justice Ajay Kumar Tripathi.

The non-judicial members are Maharashtra Chief Secretary Dinesh Kumar Jain, retired IPS (Indian Police Service) officer and ex-DG of Sashastra Seema Bal Archana Ramasundaram, retired Internal Revenue Service (IRC) official Mahender Singh and retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer I P Gautam, who is currently the full time managing director of Gujarat Metro Rail Corporation Limited.

The Lokpal Act also called upon states to appoint a Lokayukta within a year of its coming to force. However, presently 13 states do not have a Lokayukta while others have temporary vacancies; seven states have never had a Lokayukta.

Five-year delay

The Act was expected to be implemented promptly by the Modi government that came to power in 2014 on an anti-corruption platform.

One of the main hurdles faced in the constitution of the Lokpal Committee was the formation of the selection committee. The Lokpal Act provides for a politically balanced selection committee. It comprises the prime minister, speaker of the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament), the leader of the opposition (LoP) in the Lok Sabha, the Chief Justice of India or a Supreme Court judge nominated by the CJI, and a reputed jurist recommended by the former four.

After the 2014 general elections, no one was recognized as the leader of opposition (LoP). The Modi government introduced a 10-page amendment bill, which sought to solve the LoP issue. But instead, the amendment bill was accused of trying to fundamentally dilute the original law. The bill was referred to a parliamentary standing committee because of its controversial nature; there it became stuck and was never enacted.

Following this, anti-corruption activists raised the issue of the delay in Lokpal appointment in the Supreme Court. The court ruled in April 2017 that the Lokpal could be appointed by a selection committee without the LoP. Even after this, no Lokpal was appointed. It was after a contempt petition was filed in court that a search committee was formed in September last year to find eligible members for the Lokpal, and this was informed to the top court only in January this year.