Ending the leakage raj

20 Sep

Just as economic reforms 20 years ago liberated India from the licence raj, governance reforms now underway promise to liberate the country from the leakage raj. Deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwaliarecently pointed out that corruption has a direct effect on the economy: it dries up domestic and foreign investment, hits social sector projects (food security, education, healthcare) which most affect the poor, and shaves up to 2% off annual GDP growth.

To make the anti-corruption Lokpal mechanism effective however, as this newspaper correctly advocated on September 7, it needs to be integrated with a “garland” of other autonomous institutions. Isolated, the proposed nine-member Lokpal bench with several thousand administrative staff may sag under its own weight. Working in concert with newly empowered institutions with constitutional or statutory status like the Election Commission (EC), Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the proposed National Judicial Commission (NJC) will enable the Lokpal to do its job with rigour and speed. How would this grid of autonomous institutions operate?

Start with the EC. Anna Hazare has rightly said that electoral reforms are an immediate priority. He has called for legislation on the right to recall and the right to reject. Both ideas deserve attention. A right to reject provision was recommended by the EC eight years ago. Each electronic voting machine listing candidates standing for election would have a button stating “none of the above”. If this option attracts more votes than any of the listed candidates, the election would be declared null and void. A fresh election to that constituency would be called. A majority “no” vote signifies lack of confidence in all candidates standing from a specific constituency.

The principle behind the right to reject is simple and its implementation practical. It would be especially effective in cases like the recent West Bengal assembly elections where in some constituencies all candidates on the ballot had serious criminal charges against them. Voters in such cases could register their dissatisfaction and a re-election would become mandatory.

The right to recall is more complex. An elected representative can be “recalled” if a specified number of registered voters (usually over 50% of a constituency`s electorate) sign an EC-authenticated petition seeking the recall. If successful, the recall would be followed by a new election. Right to recall legislation already exits for local bodies in four states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh) with varying procedures to initiate recall and hold fresh elections.

The EC has an open mind on introducing a modified right to recall legislation in India by building in adequate safeguards as suggested by eminent jurist Soli Sorabjee to stall politically motivated recall petitions, includ- ing an 18-month post-election moratorium. Employed judiciously, the right to recall can enhance participatory demo-cracy by increasing politicians` accountability and encouraging positive engagement with the electorate on an ongoing basis.

The constitutional powers vested in the EC have greatly improved the Indian electoral system over the past few years. An empowered Lokpal body with a nine-member bench (and possibly a thousand-strong administrative staff to begin with) can achieve the same outcome by curtailing endemic corruption. Would it be able to cope with the workload? If the state Lokayuktas deal with 80 lakh state emplo-yees, the Lokpal body would have jurisdiction over 42 lakh central government employees. The staff of a newly empowered CVC (with binding, not recommendatory, powers) would work under the supervision of the Lokpal. Similarly, the proposed state vigilance commissions (SVCs) would work under the state Lokayuktas.

Two related laws deal with whistleblowers and public grie-vances. The administrative autho- rity for public grievances – again as this newspaper has rightly argued – should logically fall to the CVC and SVCs with their large administrative staff but under the appellate jurisdiction of the Lokpal bench. The administrative authority for whistleblower protection should, however, lie directly with the Lokpal since a smaller but more sensitised staff is required to deal with whistleblowers. Once the CBI is given functional autonomy, it should report to the Lokpal. Top CBI officers have publicly endorsed this view.

The judiciary needs special treatment. The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill is under the standing committee review. It needs to be given teeth. A putative National Judicial Commission could adjudicate cases of corruption in the lower and higher judiciary as well as monitor selection of judges. Just as the Lokpal would be accountable to both the high courts and the Supreme Court, and work closely with the EC, CVC and CBI, the higher judiciary would be accountable to the NJC. The checks and balances bet-ween institutions would thus be firmly established.

An interlocked garland of institutions, independent of the government of the day, would ensure that none of them becomes a monolith with unaccountable power. The path to an open, parti-cipatory democracy has been laid by the remarkable determination and sense of purpose of Anna Hazare. Long after his name fades from the headlines, he will be remembered for transforming the relationship between the government and the governed and placing real power where it belongs.

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