The road to hell is often paved with good intentions – and machinations, if we may add to the ancient aphorism that warns how intent itself cannot carry the day. This is true of the Maharashtra Lokayukta Bill 2022, passed earlier this week in the winter session of the Assembly at Nagpur. It would be difficult, even disingenuous, to find fault with the purpose of the Bill, but that is only half the story about a law whose passage Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis have been rather impatient with. The Bill was passed in the absence of the Opposition whose members were protesting outside. To make it worse, Mr Fadnavis sought to reassure people that suggestions made by social activist Anna Hazare were taken on board.
The state has had the benefit of the Maharashtra Lokayukta and Upa-Lokayukta Act of 1971 but the new Act goes substantially ahead in at least two ways: the anti-corruption watchdog will have powers to bring the Chief Minister, including those of the past, the Council of Ministers and serving bureaucrats within its ambit, and it will be able to direct state agencies to investigate corruption cases against them where the old law could only recommend action against government officials. Action against high authorities has to follow procedure in which sanction has to be sought. If all institutions of the democratic architecture were to function with the autonomy vested in them, then a strong anti-corruption law can only be a good move.
However, this is only one part. The other, more significant part lies in the unmasked intent with which the Act has been passed and the unclear path for its implementation. The Shinde-Fadnavis Government will have to live up to its claim of zero tolerance for corruption. But will it authorise action against its own ministers who face allegations of corruption? As many as four of the 10 ministers from Mr Shinde’s faction of the Shiv Sena have corruption charges against them; Mr Shinde himself has been accused of illegally allotting government land to 16 private parties. So, would the Government, in an absurd move, recommend investigation of its Chief Minister?
The holier-than-thou attitude adopted by the Government in pushing the Bill through points to a disturbing political intent: to fix political opponents who have fallen out of favour. Topping the list is Uddhav Thackeray. Will the Government now ask the Lokayukta to initiate action against the former Chief Minister whose very presence rankles Mr Fadnavis and his BJP bosses? Whispers have been going around that the Government and its agencies would like Mr Thackeray to be placed under a cloud, thereby hollowing out his faction of the Sena – just desserts for breaking away from the BJP after the 2019 polls to form the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi with the Congress and the NCP.
Empowering the Lokayukta structure is a good democratic move. Corruption has been the bane of administration in the country for decades; governments have been voted out and chief ministers have had to hand in resignations on allegations of corruption. The late AR Antulay is but a case in point in Maharashtra. There are others around the country. Central governments down the ages have faced allegations of corruption. It was the movement launched by India Against Corruption, a thinly veiled organisation, and Anna Hazare in 2011-12 that created the political space for the BJP and Narendra Modi to offer a viable alternative to the UPA. Mr Hazare and his colleagues had campaigned for a stronger Lok Pal with substantially enlarged powers and near-autonomous structure.
In that sense, Maharashtra empowering the Lokayukta with additional powers ought to be welcomed if it can be shorn of political intent. But the proof of the pudding, as always, is in the eating. We have not forgotten that Mr Fadnavis, in his brief 80-hour government formed with Ajit Pawar, ensured that the corruption charges against the latter were substantially whittled down or dropped. Let M/s Shinde and Fadnavis demonstrate that they mean honest business by sanctioning probes against their Cabinet colleagues who face corruption charges. It is time to walk the walk.
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