Bringing the Lokayukta’s office into disrepute

The BJP Government picked Justice Bhaskar Rao for the post of Lokayukta in February 2013, claiming it was forced to do so under pressure from the then governor Mr Bharadwaj.

It does not bode well when bureaucrats prefer to keep quiet instead of complaining even after being blackmailed and threatened.

For the first time since its inception in 1986, the institution of the Lokayukta in Karnataka has come under a cloud. Its reputation, built over a near 30-year period, has been sullied to an extent that the damage threatens to be irreparable.
Bringing the Lokayukta’s office into disrepute-1For a State which was the first in the country to set up the anti- corruption body, under the then chief minister, Mr Ramakrishhna Hegde, nothing could be more unfortunate, even damning. While a few states like Madhya Pradesh too established a Lokayukta subsequently, the standing acquired by the Karnataka Ombudsman was something to be envied, at least between 2001 and 2011.

Accordingly, nothing could be worse for a pioneering State to see its law-makers being forced to petition the Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court to probe the irregularities allegedly committed by its ombudsman. Largely, because Justice Bhaskar Rao, the Lokayukta concerned, refused to resign even after his son, Ashwin, was arrested by the Special Investigation Team on charges of extortion. The hapless victims were none other than senior bureaucrats and civil engineers of the Public Works Department.

Ashwin and four of his accomplices were brazenly blackmailing them into paying huge bribes if only to escape a raid by the ombudsman. That all this was happening right in the premises of the august office and the residence of Justice Rao itself, to boot, was a damning indictment of the low to which the all-important office had been forced to sink. No wonder that that former Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde, was forced to publicly express his anger and anguish at the current state of affairs. After all, it was during his tenure that the institution had built up an enviable reputation of fighting corruption.

In fact, Karnataka’s first two Lokayuktas did not really prove as effective perhaps because they were not familiar with Kannada, the local language. The ombudsman’s office, however, came into its own under Justice Venkatachala who during his tenure between 2001 and 2006, gave the institution a public place, fighting corruption.

After that Justice N Santosh Hegde, his successor, not only brought to book over 700 officers and babus who were known for corruption, but also indicted public figures and representatives. These included Mr B S Yeddyurappa, the then State chief minister, in 2011, allegedly for illegal mining.

In fact, between them the two Lokayuktas actually raised the level of respect and credibility that the public began to repose in the high office.

Then came Justice Bhaskar Rao in February 2013. It was during his tenure, until his exit in December this year that the ombudsman’s office came under the scanner like never before.

For the first time this office was charged with encouraging extortion and blackmail. The irony was that Ashwin and his accomplices were using the premises and the residence of the Lokayukta for their nefarious activities. Willy-nilly, many of the victims could be excused if they thought that the devious exercise had the approval of the ombudsman himself. The modus operandi was first exposed by M Krishnamurthy, a civil engineer, when he complained to Ms Sonia Narang, Superintendent of Police in the Lokayukta office, in June 2015.

According to him, he was called by the accused to the premises of the ombudsman’s office and warned that unless he paid Rs 1 crore, the Lokayukta office would raid his residence. It opened a can of worms though Justice Bhaskar Rao remained adamant and unflustered arguing that his son was not involved; even seeking to supercede the probe initiated at the instance of the Upa-Lokayukta, Justice Adi.

Subsequent events and allied investigations by the SIT, coupled with Ashwin’s arrest, exposed the ease with which the disreputable act was being carried out, under the nose of the Lokayukta himself. A conservative estimate by the SIT sources reveals that the extortion racket exceeded Rs 200 crore with scores of bureaucrats being the easy victims.

Serious questions

This, incidentally, also raises a serious question; even the need for a separate probe, considering the willingness of the bureaucrats concerned to pay up, if only to hide their “misdeeds.”
How was it that only Mr Krishnamurthy had the courage to complain while other victims preferred to remain silent? It does not bode well when senior bureaucrats prefer to keep quiet instead of complaining even after being blackmailed and threatened. The Augean stables, obviously, need to be cleaned!

The sordid developments, meanwhile, raise other questions as well. How was Justice Rao allowed to go on indefinite leave, following Ashwin’s arrest? More important though is the question relating to his appointment.

The BJP which picked Justice Rao for the post in February 2013 when it was in power, is now claiming that it was forced to do so under pressure from the then governor, Mr Hansraj Bharadwaj. But, it cannot escape its responsibility for the current mess enveloping the institution.

Likewise, the committee which selects the Lokayukta too cannot avoid the blame as it comprises the chief minister, presiding officers of the State Assembly and the Legislative Council, the Chief Justice of the High Court and above all the leaders of Opposition in the two Houses. Here it is pertinent to point out that the Bar Association of Karnataka had raised serious doubts about the candidature of Justice Rao. Was this taken into consideration?

Now that Justice Rao has resigned, speculation is predictably rife that the aim is to pre-empt any action against him for alleged irregularities. Also, there is the belief that with his resignation, the motion to probe the alleged indiscretions of his office by the Karnataka High Court, would become defunct.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that Karnataka would find it difficult to live down the stigma of having a Lokayukta against whom its law-makers petitioned the State High Court. Especially after the State pioneered the establishment of the institution.

For now though, it would be important to see whether the new Lokayukta is able to restore the pride and esteem associated with the ombudsman’s office. Above all, for that matter, the confidence of the people in that institution.

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