On the campaign trail last year and immediately after getting a thumping mandate to lead the country for five years, rendra Modi had spoken eloquently and forcefully against corruption. He had called it a ‘cancer’ and denounced the ‘mera kya’ culture which has ruined the country. In the first full budget of the Modi government tabled this year, Fince Minister Arun Jaitley spelt out the contours of a new law which will be tough on those stashing black money abroad. Now the Modi government is primarily moving against corruption by public servants — but with a rider imposed by the practicalities of governce. While it seeks to deal with graft strictly, the Modi government is trying to balance it by reassuring public servants that decisions taken wrongly but in good faith will not lay them open to harassment. After Jaitley told the CBI at a meet recently to distinguish between ‘genuine error and corruption’, things got moving with the Union Cabinet recently approving official amendments to the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill 2013. The proposed legislation has been pending in the Rajya Sabha, with a parliamentary standing committee studying its provisions since then.
Ostensibly the proposed amendments will make this law harsher by treating graft as a heinous crime. Even offering and accepting non-monetary gratification will be treated as bribery. The maximum pelty for bribery is sought to be raised from 5 to 7 years and the minimum pelty from 6 months to 3 years. Treating intentiol bribe-taking by public servants as crimil misconduct, completing bribery related trials within 2 years instead of the average 8 years at present, and considering the possession of disproportiote assets as proof of bribe-taking are some other notable amendments the Modi government wants to make to the anti-graft bill. The amended 2013 bill will replace the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, though that seems unlikely during the ongoing second part of the budget session. Already the Modi government has made its intention clear — in the interest of economic activity, it will not compromise with speeding up official decision making.
To prevent ‘policy paralysis’, the government proposes to make it mandatory for investigation agencies to get clearance from the Lokpal or Lokayukta before probing any public servant for corruption. This is a controversial provision which has caused much disquiet among a section of legal experts. This is in the context of the Supreme Court last year striking down a provision that prevented the CBI from probing joint secretary-level officers without government permission, holding that there could not be two sets of law for public servants. Now the government seems to be trying to work around that judgement by reintroducing the protection to all civil servants leading up to the secretary and the minister. If there is no Lokpal or Lokayukta, the government will decide which authority will grant permission to probe corruption allegations. Incidentally, the Parliament is yet to pass the Lokpal and Lokayuktas and Other Related Law (Amendment) Bill, 2014, over which a parliamentary standing committee is slated to submit a report within this month. However, as per the amended anti-graft bill, no permission will be required if a public official is caught red-handed accepting a bribe. After probe is completed, investigators will have to seek from the government another approval to prosecute the errant official for corruption. In the courts, investigators will not only have to prove that an official took a decision to benefit private parties but also that he made money from the transaction.
It is thus clear that the Central government will have to maintain a fine balance in cracking down on public officials indulging in corruption, as well as safeguard other officials from the fear of harassment and thereby spur them to work boldly. After all, corruption and policy paralysis are both the bane of economic activities in the country. But will it end the corrupt administrative culture that makes corporate entities the victims of state-sponsored extortion? The major reason why large sections of the bureaucracy and officialdom in India has got away with endemic graft is direct pressure by the political class. Babus collecting funds for political masters has played havoc with public services and implementation of welfare schemes, turning entire government departments into cesspools of corruption. If businesses and industries pay bribes for licenses, the common man has to grease official palms to avail of public services. After depositing such ill-gotten, extorted money in the kitty of political masters to help them fight elections, is it any wonder if such compromised babus are emboldened enough to enrich themselves on the side? Economically backward states like Assam have long been a hostage to such institutiolised, well entrenched graft. The rendra Modi government may seek to clean up public offices of corruption in the interests of the country’s economy. But it will win the war against graft only if it brings about transparency in political funding.