A governance crisis has been unfolding in Congress-ruled Karnataka since July this year, which is steadily leading towards the murder of the institution of Lokayukta by the present incumbent, and his political masters. The original Karnataka Lokayukta Act of January 1986, gave suo motu powers to the Lokayukta to investigate any action taken by the Chief Minister, Minister, Member of Legislature, or any public servant. However, by June 1986, the Lokayukta Act was amended, and suo motu powers were withdrawn. The Lokayukta could only investigate cases referred to it by the State Government. This was the first state initiative to curtail the Lokayukta.
Deterioration in the Lokayukta continued over the years, partly due to the character of the persons who came to occupy the Ombudsman, and mainly due to political determination to emasculate the institution. As the institution evolved, it was becoming the norm for certain incumbents to repeatedly indulge in publicity stunts, storming public offices or institutions, accompanied by TV channel crews, rebuking and shaming public servants, and then returning to their offices, doing no follow up.
The political class did not resent the Lokayukta hogging prime time media limelight. They were happy that he was keeping himself busy with publicity at the cost of concentrating on anti-corruption work. Besides, the politicians by now had mastered the art of protecting the corrupt by ensuring that timely sanction for prosecution was never given, and by ‘punishing’ the corrupt public servant by something called a ‘transfer’, which in actual fact was redeployment of his talent and potential to a more lucrative assignment. The Lokayukta in Karnataka has now turned into a full blown scandal. News had been filtering into the media since July, 2015, that the son of the present Lokayukta, one Ashwin Rao, was running an extortion racket in the very residential and official premises of the Lokayukta, summoning government officials being investigated for corruption and demanding protection money from them.
After detailed information compromising his son started making sensational headlines, the Lokayukta, as an honourable gentleman, should have tendered his resignation. However, he stuck to his chair. The politicians were delighted. Now, they had a real partner to work with, and the pastures for corruption quid pro quos had turned much greener and wider. But the heat kept increasing as sordid details of Ashwin’s extortion started with names and places appearing daily in the local press. Ashwin was arrested on July 27 near Hyderabad. His father, the Lokayukta, fled from Bangalore to another destination without handing over charge, granting month after month of ‘leave’ to himself.
With the institution of the Lokayukta completely disgraced, the Government realised it was an ideal time to strike. They decided to give an Independence Day gift to the people of Karnataka, bringing into effect on August 14, 2015, the Karnataka Lokayukta (Amendment) Act, 2015 – that in view of recent developments, “It is considered necessary to make the following amendments to the Karnataka Lokayukta Act, 1984,” inter alia, “to revise the procedure for removal of the Lokayukta or Upalokayukta;” and “to preclude the Lokayukta or Upalokayukta from discharging his duties during the pendency of the motion for his removal before the House or the Houses of the State Legislature;”
Section 6 of the original Lokayukta Act of 1985, had stipulated that the Lokayukta/Upalokayukta could only be removed by the Governor on the ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity, “after an address by each House of the State Legislature supported by a majority of the total membership of the House and by a majority of not less than two thirds of the members of that House present and voting”, after following the procedures prescribed in the Judges (Inquiry) Act, 1968.
This Section was replaced by a new Section 6 which states in sub-section (2) that a notice of motion for removal of Lokayukta or an Upalokayukta may be given in writing to the Speaker of the Karnataka State Legislative Assembly or the Chairman of the Karnataka State Legislative Council, duly signed by not less than one-third of the total membership of that House. Sub-section (14) of Section 6 contains the lethal killer dose — “The Lokayukta or Upalokayukta, as the case may be, against whom a motion is moved before the House or the Houses of the State Legislature for his removal, is precluded from discharge of his duties during the pendency of motion for his removal before the House or the Houses of the State Legislature.”
The implications are clear. Just one-third membership of either House was required for removal of Lokayukta/Upalokayukta, something any ruling government can muster. Thereafter, the Ombudsman is completely precluded from discharging its functions until the entire process of referral to the Chief Justice and enquiry is over. This is a perfect Damocles sword in the hands of the Chief Minister whenever he apprehends any action by the Lokayukta on any serious charge of corruption against his government.
After details of the Lokayukta scandal stared surfacing in July this year, the opposition parties, (not the government) after much struggle, were able to give a notice to the Speaker for the Lokayukta’s removal on November 19. On November 27, the government struck back by giving a notice for removal of the Upalokayukta, an appointee of the previous government, making rather vague and unsubstantiated allegation against him, not yet released to the public or even given to the sitting MLAs. So, the Congress-ruled Karnataka today has a Lokayukta, who is a deserter on ‘leave’ since July 2015, and non-functional in view of the motion of removal having been admitted against him by the Speaker, and an Upalokayukta who has also been rendered non-functional by way of the notice for his removal given to the Speaker by Congress legislators on November 27.
The Lokayukta in Karnataka has been killed by the Government. Thousands of complaints against corrupt officials are lying unattended. But, there is great relief and good cheer among politicians and public servants in Karnataka, and the corrupt are celebrating. Strangely, there has been no outcry in mainstream media or from national activists, who had once thronged Jantar Mantar, crusading for a strong Lokpal. Indeed, one of them has done his usual U-turn and is tabling a Bill for a Government-controlled Lokpal in Delhi.