This morning, I read (with a slight shock) about the Karnataka Assembly adopting a motion to impeach the State’s Upalokayukta (the deputy anti-corruption officer). Subhash Adi, the Upalokayukta, is being accused of “misuse of office, misconduct and overstepping jurisdiction“. I haven’t interacted directly with the Lokayukta’s or Upalokayukta’s offices, but I do know that Subhash Adi was quite respected within some of Bengaluru’s lake conservation circles. In fact, I’d recently seen a petition against his removal, containing several testimonials from lake conservation groups.
I am not familiar with the Lokayukta Act to know if Adi is indeed guilty of misconduct or overstepping jurisdiction. However, his removal implies two interrelated consequences. First, as opposition leader Jagadish Shettar noted, the removal of the Upalokayukta is taking place at the same time as the removal of the Lokayukta (the chief anti-corruption officer) as well as the retirement of another Upalokayukta. This means that the offices of the state government’s prime anti-corruption wing will be completely vacant, holding up investigations and slowing down proceedings against acts of corruption within the government.
The second implication is that Adi’s removal will mark the complete downfall of the Karnataka Lokayukta, an institution which had accumulated much respect over the years, thanks to officers like N. Venkatachala and Santosh Hegde. The office however, has had a tough year. First, Lokayukta Bhaskar Rao’s son, Ashwin Rao, was arrested on charges of extorting bribes from government officers, threatening to initiate proceedings against them if they didn’t comply. Next, there appeared to be some conflict between the two Upalokayuktas, with one, S B Majage, accusing the other, Adi, of infringing on his jurisdiction, though Adi denied any conflict. Finally, proceedings were initiated against Adi.
On a broader note, the accusations against Bhaskar Rao bring up the old, uncomfortable question of who watches watchmen. It’s a question which needs to be seriously debated because the last half-decade has seen a tumultuous national campaign against corruption, culminating in the Jan Lokpal Movement and (consequently) the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Recently, the AAP government in Delhi cleared the Jan Lokpal Bill for tabling in the Delhi legislature, seeking to creating a new and powerful anti-corruption office. However, events in Karnataka should serve as a reminder that the mere creation of institutions, no matter how well designed, is insufficient while tackling issues like corruption.
To me, this question of who watches the watchmen is very turtles-all-the-way-down, unless we can devise ways of ensuring direct accountability to people. At some juncture or the other, oversight depends on an active and discerning public with both willingness and political space to engage critically with institutions of the state. Platforms such as panchayats, ward commitees, and area sabhas – localised bodies of governance created under the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments – were originally envisioned as such spaces of engagement. However, it’s been two decades since these amendments were made, and in urban India at least, the 74th Amendment is acknowledged to have had limited impact.
While I won’t write the amendments off just yet, I do believe we need a lot more debate, discussion, learning, and action before our institutions can be made effective. Phenomena like institutional evolution are complex matters with myriad landscapes of interests and incentives. It will take time and effort before we can confidently design and maintain effective institutions. However, the quality of public debate in India has seriously deteriorated in the last few years. There is little willingness to learn or research, and even less willingness to engage with differing opinions. In such climates, a lot of effort may be needed before we see movements in right directions.