India parliament passes anti-corruption bill

Bill will establish an independent authority to pursue complaints of corruption against the government. Samanth Subramanian reports

NEW DELHI // The upper house of India’s parliament yesterday passed a long-pending anti-corruption bill that will establish an independent authority to pursue complaints of corruption against the government.

Under the Lokpal Bill, an ombudsman authority known as the Lokpal is to be created and its three members will be appointed jointly by the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, and the chief justice of the supreme court. One of its three members has to be an eminent jurist.

The Lokpal can direct the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an elite federal police agency, to investigate corruption complaints against the government.

The bill also enjoins each of India’s states to set up a state-level version of the Lokpal, called the Lokayukta, within a year.

“Never before in the history of this country has such a bill had such a wide discussion,” Kapil Sibal, India’s law minister, said at the start of parliamentary proceeding.

The earliest version of such a bill was first introduced in 1968 but it and several subsequent editions, never passed parliament. The latest version was introduced in December 2011, after public protests over corruption scandals hit the Congress-led government.

The Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house, passed the bill then, but the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, was not able to pass it before its session expired. The bill was referred to an inter-party committee for review and was amended before its passage yesterday.

The amended draft bill returns to the Lok Sabha today for a final vote.

Some critics believe that the amendments have weakened the draft of the bill. Arvind Kejriwal, an anti-corruption campaigner who organised pro-Lokpal rallies in 2011 and has since become a politician, has dubbed the amended bill a “Jokepal”.

Mr Kejriwal’s year-old Aam Aadmi party, espousing a strong anti-corruption agenda, recently won 28 out of 70 legislative seats in Delhi revealing the extent of public anger over corruption.

Mr Kejriwal noted that the CBI will, according to the bill, still not be an autonomous agency and continue to be under government control instead of being under the Lokpal’s control.

“The Lokpal Bill, in its current form, won’t even send a mouse to jail, forget a politician,” he said.

Other critics of the bill include the Samajwadi Party from Uttar Pradesh, a coalition partner of the Congress in the federal government. The party staged a walkout and refused to participate in the debate and subsequent voice vote, saying the bill was not in the public interest.

“In this bill, any person can put in a complaint and we will have to go to police officers investigating the matter to give our statement,” said Ramgopal Yadav, a Samajwadi Party leader. “This bill will lead to no work. Officers will hesitate in taking up work. Do you want to take the nation towards a state of indecision?”

Arun Jaitley, a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said his party was “ready to pass it even without a debate”, although he claimed that the Congress had “taken this decision only because they have no other choice”.

Mr Jaitley was referring to the Congress’s need to revive its image after the corruption scandals and poor performances in four out of five recent state elections, with a national election to be held early next summer.

But Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice president, rejected the accusation.

“To say we are doing this because of elections ... is a bit unfair,” he said.