New Delhi: In the first 45 months of Modi’s reign, he didn’t chair a single meeting of the Lokpal selection committee. In response to a Right to Information (RTI) plea, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) further reveals that no meeting of the search committee was convened during that time either.
The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act was passed in 2013 to set up an independent and empowered body to look into cases of corruption. Although the BJP came to power on the plank of anti-corruption, the government has failed to appoint a single Lokpal so far, said RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj, who filed the plea.
A member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), Bhardwaj filed the query to learn about the status of the selection and search committees which are needed to appoint the Lokpal.
Activists had flagged this issue in January
In January, NCPRI wrote a detailed letter to Modi stating that the delay in the appointment of Lokpal has “created a strong perception that your government does not wish to put in place an effective anti-corruption institutional framework.”
It noted with concern that while the Act was passed in December 2013 and was notified in the gazette on January 1, 2014, not a single Lokpal has been appointed till date. “The Lokpal law was demanded by the people of the country as there was a need for an independent and empowered body to look into cases of corruption of public servants,” it pointed out.
In her application, Bhardwaj asked for information regarding the selection committee constitution under the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013. In particular, she sought details of the number of meetings of the committee held since January 1, 2014; dates and minutes, discussions and proceedings of these meetings and the name and designation of persons who attended them.
In response, the DoPT on December 13 disclosed that the first two meetings of the selection committee were held on February 3 and February 21, 2014 respectively under the chairmanship of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. They were both attended by Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj and Justice H.L. Dattu of the Supreme Court. The second meeting was also attended by eminent jurist P.P. Rao.
Fast-forward to 2018 – six meetings of the selection committee were held under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The first two of these meetings were convened on March 1 and April 10 this year. These were also attended by Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan and former Chief Justice Dipak Misra.
Four more meetings were held under Modi on July 19, August 21, September 4 and September 19. Apart from Mahajan and Justice Misra, these were also attended by eminent jurist Mukul Rohatgi.
For nearly 45 months in the middle, no meetings were convened.
Minutes ‘shared as secret documents’
Answering another query from Bhardwaj, DoPT said it did not have the “authorship” of documents like minutes of the meeting, since these were attended by 3-5 very “high level dignitaries”. It said these minutes have only been “shared as secret documents” and therefore their copies could not be provided by the concerned central public information officer.
The department revealed that in its second meeting, “the selection committee made recommendations to constitute a search committee of eight persons”. However, it said, “two of the persons declined to accept the offer and the action taken at that point of time was rendered infructuous”.
The DoPT also stated that former Attorney General of India, Mukul Rohatgi was nominated as the “eminent jurist’ member of the selection committee by the president of India against the vacancy that arose on the passing away of P.P. Rao.
Order for constituting search committee issued in September 2018
The selection committee, in its subsequent meeting, also constituted a search committee for the purpose of recommending a panel of names for consideration of the positions of chairperson and members of the Lokpal. The order was issued on September 27.
Reacting to the response, Bhardwaj said while the selection committee of the Lokpal met for the first time more than 45 months after the BJP came to power, no meeting of the search committee has been held till date. “This,” she said, “betrays the commitment of the government in setting up the Lokpal.”
‘Denial of information blatantly illegal’
On denying the minutes of the meetings on the pretext of them being “secret documents”, Bhardwaj insisted that this “denial of information is blatantly illegal”. She said the PIO has not cited any of the exemptions allowed under the RTI Act while denying the information.
“The long delay and the opacity in the process of appointment being followed by the government will undermine public trust even before the Lokpal is set up,” she cautioned.
Gandhi attacked Modi for protecting ‘super rich’, not appointing Lokpal
Incidentally, the delay by the Modi government in appointing a Lokpal has also been criticised by his main political opponents.
In the wake of the multi-crore Nirav Modi-Mehul Choksi scam with Punjab National Bank earlier this year, the Modi government was attacked for delaying the appointment of Lokpal. Congress president raised the issued during a rally in Karnataka – where he lashed out at Modi for favouring the “super rich” and questioned why he had still not appointed a Lokpal to fight corruption.
“In Gujarat, Modi ji did not implement Lokayukta. It has been four years since he became prime minister… He did not implement Lokpal even in Delhi,” Gandhi charged.
SC found Centre’s approach ‘wholly unsatisfactory’
In July, the Supreme Court also asked the Centre to disclose its stand on the appointment of a Lokpal. It was hearing a contempt petition filed by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan on behalf of the NGO, Common Cause, against the government for not appointing a Lokpal despite an April 2017 judgment by the court.
In his plea, Bhushan said: “They [the government] are just dragging their feet. The court should start the procedure of appointing a search committee [to shortlist the candidates for Lokpal].”
The Supreme Court then acknowledged that the government’s stand on completing the appointment process for getting an ombudsman to protect the citizens from corruption was “wholly unsatisfactory.”