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Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has done the unthinkable. Unable to install his 'yes man' as the new Lokayukta, he has proceeded to dismantle the ombudsman and set up an anti-corruption body directly under his supervision.
Even before the state governor Vajubhai Vala, could take a call on Justice (retd) SR Nayak, the chief minister's nominee for the post of Lokayukta, to replace a disgraced Bhaskar Rao, the state government acted quickly and issued a Government Order creating an Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and three separate vigilance bodies.
The order makes it clear that the powers of investigation under the Prevention of Corruption Act against public servants have been taken away from the police wing of the Lokayukta and handed over to the ACB.
The ACB, headed by an officer of the rank of Director General of Police, will work under the vigil of the state government. The ACB is precluded from taking up anti-corruption probes against any public servant in the state without the prior permission of the "appointing authority."
Experts fear that it is a dangerous throwback to the days before the Karnataka Lokayukta Act (KLA) came into being in 1984, when the then vigilance commission functioned directly under the Home department.
Former Lokayukta Santosh Hegde said, "the move will effectively make Lokayukta redundant. Emboldened by the bribery scandal precipitated by Bhaskar Rao, the government is misusing the circumstance to essentially weaken the institution."
The first non-Congress government under Ramakrishna Hegde enacted the KLA, giving it powers to independently deal with cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act and also haul up public servants for deficiency in administrative services. It was hailed as a model Lokayukta which functioned well for nearly three decades, before the last Lokayukta, Bhaskar Rao allowed a coterie headed by his son Ashwin, to destroy it by indulging in corruption.
Since then, the Siddaramaiah government has been trying to weaken the Lokayukta Act. While amending the Act to facilitate the removal of Bhaskar Rao through a simple majority in the Assembly, it also tried to keep the elected representatives out of the Lokayukta's purview. The government backtracked after a strong public reaction.
When it came to the appointment of a new Lokayukta, there were two names, Justice Vikramjit Sen, a former judge of the Supreme Court and Justice SR Nayak, a former chairman of the state's Human Rights Commission.
The Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court and Opposition leaders of the two Houses of Legislature and the Council chairman favoured Sen, but the chief minister and the Speaker voted for Nayak, saying they preferred a 'local' judge.
Former Lokayukta Santosh Hegde pointed out that Nayak was 'barred by law' from taking up another office after being the chairman of a human rights body. Several other social activists said there was a pending disproportionate assets case against Nayak in the high court and hence he could not be considered for the post of Lokayukta.
Siddaramaiah brushed aside these objections and when the selection committee met for the second time, he again backed Nayak. Sen had the majority in his favour, but the chief minister decided to use his 'prerogative' and wrote to the governor recommending Nayak's name.
Getting wind of Raj Bhavan's move to send back the file containing Nayak's name, the state government has embarked on making the Lokayukta itself redundant by taking away its police wing and merging it with the ACB.
Several hundred police personnel working in Lokayukta under an ADGP with suo motu powers, will now stand transferred to the ACB.
The functioning of the ACB will now be monitored by the Department of Personnel and Administrative Reforms (DPAR) and a Vigilance Advisory Board (VAB) headed by the chief secretary. The VAB has six IAS officers and one IPS officer with the administrative powers to "monitor pending cases and inquiries."
A senior IPS officer said, this is "a classic case of conflict of interest" as there are several hundred pending cases against the bureaucrats and most of them will now be able to escape punishment.
There are at least six complaints under the Prevention of Corruption Act against Siddaramaiah and some other ministers before the Lokayukta police, which will all get transferred to the ACB. Critics point out that since ACB's functioning is supervised by the DPAR which is headed by the chief minister, "Siddaramaiah will effectively become the jury and judge."
Legal experts point out that the provision for prior permission of the 'appointing authority' to initiate a preliminary inquiry against a public servant clearly violates a Supreme Court ruling in this regard. A bench headed by then chief justice, RM Lodha, held in 2014 that section 6A of the Delhi Special Establishment Act (mother Act of the CBI) which required prior permission before initiating a probe against a public servant "is unconstitutional and goes against the basic principles of criminal law."
Defending the government's action, Home Minister G Parameshwara said, "the government has no intention of weakening the Lokayukta by setting up the ACB. Karnataka will also have a system which is in vogue in other states."
Social activist SR Hiremath, who is in the forefront of the anti-corruption movement, said the government's move was "in continuance of the campaign by political parties to sabotage anti-corruption bodies" and vowed to take the matter to the Supreme Court.
Edited by Anna Verghese
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