Madhu Shankar
Keeping the PM out of the Lokpal Ambit
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

 What is the logic behind keeping the PM outside the scope of the Lokpal? One can understand the logic behind keeping the Judiciary out of its scope because the constitution demands that the Judiciary be an independent entity. Without this check and balance there is a risk that almost any institution including the proposed Lokpal could go rogue and there would be no recourse to the public to reign it in.

But why the Prime Minister? And why is it being made into such a big issue? Mr Pranab Mukherjee, the joint chairman of the Lokpal Bill drafting committee and the Finance Minister in the UPA cabinet says that bringing the PM under the Lokpal will result in what he calls “institutionalized permanent instability”.

He says that “In this time of frenzy, anybody can write to the Lokpal and make a complaint. If the Lokpal prima facie sees merit in it…the PM will have to resign. The PM is the keystone in our system and if he goes, the entire government goes. This will institutionalize permanent instability”.

Even PM Dr Manmohan Singh seems to have now changed his opinion and has said that bringing the PM under the Lokpal “would not be advisable”. He says that “Well, our government has taken a view taking all factors into account.It would not be advisable to bring the PM within the purview of the Lokpal, except when he demits office”.

I think both the gentlemen are being disingenuous. In a parliamentary system such as ours the entire union cabinet functions under the principle of “collective responsibility”. i.e., there is nothing special about being a prime minister. An ordinary minister can become the prime minister tomorrow and tomorrow the prime minister can become an ordinary minister for the remainder of the government’s term. Which is quite a different scenario compared to the presidential system in the US where the cabinet members are employees of the President and serve at his pleasure and cannot replace him and neither can the president tomorrow be made into an ordinary cabinet member. The cabinet in our system is an institution of equals and the prime minister is only the first among equals. Therefore this very provision in the bill is unconstitutional and will probably be struck down on appeal in the supreme court.

What lets the cat out of the bag is in Mr Mukherjee’s above statement that he fears that if the Prime minister, the key person in the cabinet is targeted and it is found that there is some merit in the allegations against him then the entire cabinet will come under a cloud as opposed to the case where the allegation is against an ordinary cabinet minister. In that case there is always the option of making him the fall guy and saving the rest of the cabinet and the prime minister from the uncomfortable situation. This is a recipe unfortunately for “institutionalizing permanent unaccountability and corruption” in the Indian system because that is exactly the tactic that future governments will employ from now on to duck corruption charges. When cornered they will blame it on some individual minister or bureaucrat and make him or her the fall guy. Even in a scenario where more than half the cabinet will stand accused and the prime minister himself will not be above suspicion; the government of the day will have the option of continuing under the very PM who has now come under a shadow as it is because nobody can now legally move against the crown piece of the cabinet. This is one of the worst outcomes of putting such a ill-thought out provision in the law. If the fear is that someone will make frivolous allegations against a Prime Minister to the Lokpal then Mr Mukherjee himself is saying in his above statement that he believes that it is unlikely that the Lokpal will make a move against the PM if it does not see any merit in the allegation. So there itself we have a nice check and balance against unfounded allegations. even if the Lokpal makes a mistake there is always the Judiciary to go to and work it out. so where is the risk of the feared “endemic permanent instability” ?  there really isn’t. and in cases where it is found that there is merit in the allegations  against the PM and some of his cabinet colleagues there is always the option of the PM and his tainted cabinet colleagues stepping down and a new person from the ruling party taking over the mantle and forming a new cabinet. so again there is really no risk of the government actually falling and the ruling party losing power in this scenario. so again there is no reason for anyone to fear any kind of “institutionalized permanent instability”.

The only reason one can think of for the political class to rally around this inane and unjustifiable provision is for them to have the option of continuing business as it is. because once the PM’s office also comes under the scanner there will be no more excuse for not cracking down against corruption. A Prime Minister who runs the risk of being taken away in handcuffs for corruption in his government will soon find all the motivation and interest he needs to run a tight ship. He or she will monitor and track the doings of his or her colleagues more closely and the scope for corruption becomes so much less no matter whether it is a coalition government or not. it is to overcome this doomsday scenario that the entire political class is uniting to put a trapdoor or escape hatch in the law which will allow them to continue doing things the way they are being run today. and it is exactly why the citizens of India must unite and demand that this ill-thought out provision be done away with. this is the only way of putting an end to continued endemic corruption that has become the bane of our system, i.e., by “institutionalizing permanent accountability” for all and leaving nobody out of its scope. the law should be the same for everyone.