Parsing Rhetoric From Reality in Modi Government's Anti-Corruption Efforts

To reduce corruption, there is need for overall transparency and proper implementation of the Right to Information legislation, which the BJP government has failed to do.

Although the BJP-led NDA government has been making claims about its anti-corruption efforts from time to time, the reality is quite different.

The election which brought this government to power was preceded by an anti-corruption movement in 2013 led by Anna Hazare, which made a big splash with its demand for a powerful Lokpal. The BJP and some of its allies extended their support to this movement and subsequently, the saffron party’s election manifesto made a strong commitment towards an effective “Lokpal institution”. Its task had already been made easier by the passing of the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 and its notification in the gazette on January 1, 2014.

There were serious doubts about the desirability of foisting a powerful Lokpal as a one-point programme for eradicating corruption at the time of the Hazare-led movement, and a much more balanced approach would have been to push simultaneously for several anti-corruption measures. There were concerns over how various vested interests were trying to use the strong and legitimate anti-corruption sentiments of people to push their own narrow objectives, and in the process rhetoric was getting the better of rationality.

However, as the demand for a strong Lokpal had become so widespread and frequent in the course of the movement and its media coverage, it was expected that the BJP would certainly honour its manifesto promise.

So it is really surprising that while the NDA government is close to completing four years, not a single Lokpal has been appointed yet. Quite recently, the government informed the Supreme Court about the steps it is taking to constitute the selection committee for this.

The fact that after all this while only a selection committee is being constituted is indicative of the extent to which reality has diverged from the anti-corruption rhetoric of the government. Another indication of the low priority accorded to this election promise is that less than Rs 5 crore (Rs 4.29 crore) has been allocated for Lokpal in the Union Budget 2018-19.

Another important plank under reducing corruption is protection for whistleblowers. The creation of legislation for this has been demanded time and again by civil society, and the Whistleblower Protection Act was enacted in 2014. So all that this government had to do was notify the rules. However, this was not done and so this legislation could not be implemented.

To reduce corruption, there is the need for overall transparency and proper implementation of the Right to Information legislation, which the BJP government has failed to do.

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One recent indication of this is that the budget for the Central Information Commission (CIC) has been reduced in recent years despite the existence of critical vacancies at senior levels and increasing backlog of appeals. The revised estimate for the CIC in the 2017-18 Budget was Rs 55 crore, which was considerably less than the actual expenditure of Rs 66 crore in the previous year. The Budget estimate for 2018-19 has been reduced even more drastically to Rs 35 crore.

Now, if we look more closely at the allocation for the head called ‘Central Information Commission and Right to Information’, we will observe that the revised estimate in the 2017-18 Budget was Rs 23.6 crore, which has been reduced in the budget estimate for 2018-19 to just Rs 8.7 crore – a drastic cut of 63%. This will be highly harmful for the effective implementation of RTI and thereby the transparency of the entire governance system will be adversely affected. Clearly, it is not enough to merely provide new and better housing to the CIC, a stronger commitment to its real democratic role is needed which appears to be missing.

Another important plank of anti-corruption efforts, which is particularly useful, is a time-bound and rights-bound system of delivering essential goods and services and grievance redressal. In this respect, a Bill was presented in the parliament in 2011 and this has also been discussed in a standing committee. But there does not seem to be any action on the part of the Union government to push for enacting this long-pending legislation.

A much-discussed anti-corruption step, which had captured public imagination on the basis of highly-exaggerated election-eve BJP promises, related to bringing back piles of money stacked in tax havens and using it to help common people. It is now clear that this was another election-time jumla. In addition, while India has been a part of the OECD and G20-initiated efforts against tax havens, the use of cross-boundary cover for tax avoidance and financial secrecy at the international level, there are questions on why India should not forge new agreements with developing countries, to go beyond efforts led by a few developed countries, which at best have a limited agenda.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been associated with several social movements and campaigns.     

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