Government sends Lokpal Bill to House panel; BJP protests

Government sends Lokpal Bill to House panel; BJP protests
New Delhi:  The anti-corruption Lokpal Bill will not be passed in the Budget session of Parliament, which ends tomorrow. The Bill has instead been sent to a select committee of the Rajya Sabha, after the government was neatly cornered by the opposition to propose such a move amid much uproar and the rulebook being waved by both Opposition and Treasury benches, tempers high.

The Bill came up in the Rajya Sabha on Monday evening, with Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office (Pension, Personnel and Public Grievances) V Narayanasamy, standing up to complete what he could not on December 29, 2011, the last day of an extended winter session. He said differences on various provisions had narrowed and several issues raised had been addressed through amendments. He then asked the House to pass the Bill. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is a member of the Upper House, was present in House.

When Samjawadi Party MP Naresh Aggarwal stood up and sought that the Bill be sent to a 15-member select committee of the House - he suggested names - the BJP challenged the move. Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley said, "If they want a select committee, let the government say it but not play games." New Rajya Sabha member and BSP chief Mayawati concurred, adding, amid much thumping of tables, that the government must do its own work and send the Bill to the select committee itself if it so wanted.   

Bowing to pressure, Mr Narayanasamy was forced to change the motion from one seeking that the House pass the Bill, to one that sought its consent to move it to a select committee. The House passed the motion. A select committee is a panel of MPs from the same House - in this case the Rajya Sabha - set up to look into a particular Bill.  

Arun Jaitley said, "The government's amendment was suddenly added in the agenda...Let us keep the credibility of Parliament...This Bill was shaped 42 years ago in a different way. The PM is also here today. We have been postponing it and we almost came to a decision last year on the 29th of December and 190 amendments were made. With regard to (the role of) the investigative agency, removal and appointment of Lokpal, who all will Lokpal cover and establishment of Lokayukta, but there were very many different views, we were told that Parliament cannot sit after midnight...the government is to make the call and say now whether we want a Lokpal or not."

The BJP with its maneouvre in the Upper House scored a political point, emphasizing that it was not in favour of sending the Bill to a select committee. The CPM's Sitaram Yechury objected to a procedural flaw in the SP making the suggestion but said the Left did not object to sending the Bill to a committee for further review.    

That was necessitated by a lack of consensus on several provisions of the Bill; the government held talks with the BJP and the Left parties proposing five amendments. But differences over the role of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and on the creation of Lokayuktas still exist. The equation between the CBI and the Lokpal has been one of the biggest bones of contention - parties like the BJP want the chief of the CBI to be picked by a committee, instead of by just the government - changes like this, they argue, will ensure the autonomy of the CBI.
Also, the government proposed that the Bill be amended to give states the right to pass the bill in their own assemblies. So the Lokpal Bill passed by the Centre will not be enforced upon states. This will help pacify critics like Mamata Banerjee, who said that the bill would violate the principles of federalism if it was imposed upon states.

But the BJP objected saying such an amendment would be unconstitutional. It said such a move by Parliament would need at least two state assemblies passing a resolution on this.  
In December, the government set aside just one day - the last day of the Winter Session of Parliament - in the Rajya Sabha to debate the high-profile bill that creates a national ombudsman or "Lokpal". There was chaos in the House leading to delays that meant the bill could not be put to a vote before the Winter Session expired. The government was accused of ducking vote because it knew it would lose.

The Lokpal's nine members will have the authority to investigate charges of corruption against government servants. The opposition had moved nearly 200 amendments to the bill in December.

Among the amendments that the government has now proposed, the process of removing a member of the Lokpal will now be initiated only if 100 MPs sign a petition supporting the cause. Earlier, any citizen could appeal for action against a member of the Lokpal.  

The role of the CBI in investigating complaints of corruption has been modified slightly. Once the Lokpal receives a complaint from the public and accepts the complaint, it will forward the complaint to the CBI, which will investigate the complaint and then file a charge-sheet or closure report before the court. The agency will inform the ombudsman about what it determines. The closure report or the findings of the investigation, according to the government's third amendment, will now be shared not just with the Lokpal but with the relevant court as well.

The urgent need for a Lokpal Bill was championed heavily last year by activist Anna Hazare and his aides. After an attempt at co-writing the Bill with ministers failed, Team Anna prepped its own version of the Bill. Anna has stressed that the Bill in its current form is designed to fail in checking graft. His camp believes that the Lokpal Bill must apply uniformly to the Centre and all states, if it is to be effective.

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