New Delhi, Nov. 23: The Supreme Court today chided the Centre for dragging its feet on constituting the Lok Pal, sending a stinging reminder just when the Narendra Modi government was preening itself from its perch on the anti-corruption high horse.
The court referred to the government's repeated promises to "cleanse corruption" and pointed out that it had done nothing to set up the graft-fighting ombudsman despite the enabling legislation coming into force from January 2014.
The rebuke coincided with the Modi government's high-decibel demonetisation drive, the stated objective of which is to combat corruption. Barring some exemptions, the Lok Pal can look into corruption charges against the Prime Minister, too.
The attorney-general, representing the Centre, told the court that Parliament needed time to pass an amendment -- in the process drawing fresh attention to the fact that the Lok Sabha does not have a leader of Opposition now.
No party in Opposition has the minimum required number of 55 MPs to bag the post in the lower House. Although suggestions have been put forward that as a goodwill gesture, the government should offer the post to the leader of the single largest party (Mallikarjun Kharge of the Congress which has 42 MPs), little headway has been made.
"We will not allow a situation when an institution like the Lok Pal is becoming redundant or obliterated. When you say the government is committed to cleanse corruption, then this (the Lok Pal) is the step in the right direction," said a three-judge bench of Chief Justice T.S. Thakur and Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice L. Nageswara Rao.
"Why should there be a feeling the government is dragging its feet... as they say after a great struggle, great andolan (agitation) the act was brought in," the bench told attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi, referring to Anna Hazare's campaign when the UPA was in power.
Rohatgi repeatedly contended that Parliament needed time to pass the amendment for including the leader of the single largest party in the selection process.
The selection committee should have the Prime Minister, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, leader of Opposition, Chief Justice of India or a Supreme Court judge, besides an eminent person.
However, since the present Lok Sabha does not have a recognised leader of Opposition, the Centre today said it intended to incorporate changes to the act to enable even the leader of the single largest party to be part of the selection process.
The court said the NDA government, which constantly talks about reforms in various sectors, should not have any hesitation in expediting the process even if it required an ordinance.
The attorney-general opposed any move by the court to interpret the Lok Pal Act in such a manner to accommodate the leader of the single largest party in the selection process, instead of waiting for Parliament to amend the act.
But, senior counsel Shanti Bhushan, appearing for Common Cause, the NGO that filed the petition, said that if the government was serious about the issue, it could bring in an ordinance.
The court pointed out that when similar amendments have been cleared for making the leader of the single largest party part of the selection committee for picking the chiefs of the CBI, Central Vigilance Commission and the Central Information Commission, there is no reason why the government should have any problem in extending the logic to the Lok Pal Act.
It was for Parliament to decide on amending the provision, which it will do, the attorney-general said, without specifying any time limit.
But the Chief Justice said: "It is not Parliament. It is a government policy. When you are doing reforms internal and external, you need to do something on this also."