As the Parliament debate on the Lokpal Bill entered its final phase, the government was gearing up to move a series of amendments to the bill to reflect the opinions of large opposition parties like the BJP and key allies like Mamata Banerjee and the DMK. These changes were shared by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee whose expansive speech concluded the debate at nearly 10 pm. States have been allowed to choose whether to introduce a version of the Lokpal Bill; how an inquiry will be ordered against the PM has also been altered.
The Lokpal refers to a new national ombudsman of nine people who will be empowered to fight corruption among government servants.
Mr Mukherjee said that in deference to the views expressed by many parties, now, two-thirds of the Lokpal will need to sanction an investigation against the PM, as opposed to the original provision for an approval by three-fourths of the ombudsman. Parties like the BJP had assured that the PM was given too many safeguards against investigation for charges of corruption.
Both Ms Banerjee's Trinamool Congress and the DMK are partners in the ruling coalition but said they could not accept a provision of the Bill that makes it obligatory for states to create a Lokayukta or ombudsman that follows the model used by the Centre. The BJP had also stressed that this violated the federal structure of governance designed by the Constitution.
The Prime Minister had earlier offered a spirited defence of this portion of the Bill, arguing that federalism cannot be an impediment in the war against corruption as essential services in the states is the "bane" of corrupt practices. Moments later, a leader from Ms Banerjee's party rejected that position. "Don't undermine the rights of the state legislatures. Does the present legislation not take away the rights of the states?" Trinamool Congress MP Kalyan Banerjee asked. The BJP's Sushma Swaraj made the same point in her speech at the start of the Lokpal debate. But defending the government, Kapil Sibal said that to meet the needs of an international treaty (in this case the UN Convention Against Corruption), Parliament can under Article 253 make a law for the whole country or any part of it.
If the Bill had not been amended, the Lokpal Bill would have over-ridden similar legislation passed in places like Karnataka and Uttarakhand, where Lokayuktas have been created already.
The government has also dropped Section 24 of the Lokpal Bill which allowed action to be taken against MPs and ministers even before they are tried for complaints of corruption. The Lokpal would have sent its report to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or the Vice President who is the Chairman of the Rajya Sabh, who would have been obliged to explain the action taken against the MP or minister to the Lokpal. MPs said that this severely undermines the supremacy of Parliament.
Other amendments grant exemption from the purview of the Lokpal to the Armed Forces as well as to trusts that receive public funds.