One hopes that the hotly contested Lokpal Bill will reach its final denouement at this Winter session of Parliament.  In fact, the entire debate on anti-corruption in Parliament as well as in media has focused upon the single demand for the establishment of an omnipotent institution of the Lokpal with its triumvirate powers of enforcing the citizens charter, establishing State level Lokayuktas and encompassing the entire bureaucracy from peon to head of the department.  It has been trumpeted to be the panacea for the systemic ills that plague our body politic. The citizens are being assured that the institution would root out corruption from Panchayat to Parliament and from the local office of Patwari (village level worker) to Prime Minister.  We overlook the fact that the devil always lies in the details and it is here that the Lokpal will hit upon its Achilles heels.  All said and done this oversimplified and hurried attempt to plug the structural loopholes of a failing anti-corruption apparatus is in reality short-circuiting procedural and legal complexities that will challenge the very edifice of the proposed Lokpal.

It is important to pause and classify the scales of corruption.  It is undisputed that the large scale corruption is largely within the domain of political masters and key public servants.  There is no doubt that the corruption exists at the cutting edge level which hurts the common man directly.  But the two different classes of corruption need not be tackled with similar degree of untamed fierceness.  Having worked in the system for about 44 years, I can observe with degree of  credibility that the lower level of corruption can be tackled effectively if the senior bureaucracy, political masters and some of the endemic systemic ills like corruption in our electoral process, unearthing of black money, seizure of illegitimate assets and benami transactions are effectively rooted out.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution.  I appeal to all the well-meaning actors to accept the Lokpal as an effective institution to tackle “grand” or what is known as higher level corruption associated with senior politicians and bureaucrats.  Having a clear mandate with specialized powers and select cracking staff will strengthen its ability to effectively tackle corruption in the top echelons of the Government machinery.  The country is not determining the institutional reform for the last time.  It can add and amend on the basis of experience gained.

Petty corruption or what we usually associate as small amounts of bribes paid to the odd 57 lakh Group C and D government employees can be handled by the existing institutional apparatus of the Departmental Vigilance Wings, with the Central Vigilance Commission at helm, exercising overall supervision over this bureaucratic set-up.  The length and breadth of this country, the population of Government employees, the complexities of laws and rules governing the different cadres cannot be brought into one single definition.

What the current Lokpal does is to encompass within its jurisdiction all and sundry, in effect turning itself into a behemoth, in the first place.  With a highly-decentralised administrative structure like ours, it would be a logistical nightmare for a centralized institution like the Lokpal to handle all cases right from high-profile scams and scandals to ‘speed money’ paid to lower level public officials.  With the danger of functional overreach, there is an added risk of the Lokpal collapsing under its own weight.

To handle the millions of complaints that would pour in, the Lokpal would need a huge organizational capacity of funds, functions and functionaries.  This presents a mammoth challenge for its capacity would be stretched over a geographical area what is both vast and diverse.  Covering all corrupt practices within its mandate would result in diffusing its power and functions, leaving little room for specialized intervention, focused action and systemic reform.  Further, to be able to carry out its functions effectively, it would need sufficiently numbered and adequately trained staff.  In doing so, there is a possibility of the Lokpal becoming another parallel bureaucracy, with the remedy being worse than the disease itself.

Being a mega-sized organization has its own set of human resource management issues especially concerning human integrity and ethical conduct of officers.  This is particularly pertinent in the context that the institution will be staffed with the very same venal and imperious officers, who form the backbone of existing government departments and ministries. The various models of Lokpal Bill do not throw light on how its staff operation and functioning will be different from normal government protocols of service.  It is difficult to imagine or believe that the DNA of staff stationed in Lokpal office would be any different from the rest of the Government machinery.  The hope is largely because the select team of Lokpal would supervise the overall functioning.  Perhaps, we can instill similar sense of responsibility with the administrative leadership.
More fundamentally, the Lokpal in the name of ending endemic corruption is abrogating the uniquely federal character of the Indian polity, one which decentralizes power and privileges collective action. Acts of corruption are localized and commonplace, therefore, responses and solutions to address it need to be sought through a multi-pronged, bottom-up process involving local citizens and stakeholders.  The Lokpal, with its top-down approach, is likely to become yet another officialdom that will superimpose its authority from above, overriding regional and sub-regional actors, voices and approaches.

The Government has already published the draft Citizens Grievance Redressal Bill.  Perhaps, the very nomenclature is faulty.  It should be Citizens Services Bill offering certain specified efficiency in the delivery of services.  There is no need to bring it under Lokpal. It can be a standalone act. Lokyuktas and the State level Citizens Services Bill should respect the federal character of our Constitution.  It is best left to the States to enact such legislation as per the guidelines that could be issued by the Government.  The Judicial Accountability Bill can be strengthened, but it should not be under Lokpal domain.  Any attempt to subordinate judiciary to Lokpal would endanger our democratic safety valve as well.  The CVC institution can be revamped and made autonomous to tackle the junior bureaucracy.  The Anti-corruption Wing of the CBI should be placed under the Lokpal.  Finally, the post of Prime Minister should not be under Lokpal as he is the country’s representative not within the country but outside and must enjoy the total mandate and support of the country when he visits abroad, meets foreign dignitaries and while providing the leadership to the national agenda.

To conclude, a single institutional approach is just one part of the larger systemic changes that are needed to end corruption. The danger of viewing anti-corruption initiatives solely through the prism of the Lokpal issue is that we are left with a myopic and blinkered understanding of the dynamic causes of corruption.  The Lokpal does not address what gives rise to opportunities of corruption in different socio-economic contexts; it simply attends to its symptoms or effects leaving the deep-rooted nexus untouched. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the Lokpal meets its fate as a still-born baby or as the mighty Goliath.