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STATE SCAN : Normalising corruption

The secrecy with which the new Lokayukta of Madhya Pradesh has been chosen points at the process by which corruption has been institutionalised in the State

I was Deputy Commissioner Hissar when Haryana was formed in 1966, and thus was with Haryana from the very beginning.

A raging political storm over appointment of Madhya Pradesh Lokayukta provides enough and apt indications as to how the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government has been striving to ‘normalisze’ corruption in the State over a decade.

The ‘normalisation’ process has hidden (purchasable opposition leaders and mediamen) and not-so-hidden (corrupt bureaucrats down to the ground level) stakeholders. Judiciary is, of course, not its part but some of the judges’ actions have aroused suspicions in public from time to time. Ruling party members and RSS volunteers are open and brazen collaborators.

The Chief Minister had realised early on that it required special skills to normalise corruption. When dumper case involving him and his wife surfaced in 2008, Chouhan was quick to blame the accusers of harbouring grudge against a farmer’s son who wants to earn honest money by doing some clean business. The Vyapam scam, according to the Chief Minister, would not have been probed, had he not acted as a first and foremost whistle blower. The needless brouhaha about corruption in the Rs 5000-crore Simhastha 2016 extravaganza was attributable to anti-Hindu mindset shown by the Congress people, the Chief Minister would have the world believe. In his eyes, farmers’ unrest that has crippled the State’s agrarian economy, is handiwork of anti-social elements.

In sum, Chouhan’s contention is that all those who level allegations of corruption against his government are either enemy of the State’s development or votaries of the feudal forces who don’t want to see a humble farmer’s son succeed in taking Madhya Pradesh to a dizzying height. This is BJP’s dominant narrative vis-à-vis charges of corruption. A section of media lapped it up with alacrity and fostered with huge government advertisements. Scenario has changed a bit though. But the Chouhan government is unrelenting in its efforts to normalise corruption.

Now the process has reached such an extent that an ex-Lokayukta has cynically dismissed requirement of the anti-corruption ombudsman in Madhya Pradesh as unnecessary. Former Lokayukta justice Faizan Uddin says dignity of the august office he held between 1998 and 2003 has been so severely compromised by this government that it has become virtually irrelevant.

Madhya Pradesh to a dizzying height

Former Lokayukta justice Faizan Uddin says dignity of the august office he held between 1998 and 2003 has been so severely compromised by this government that it has become virtually irrelevant

A year-long farce that preceded sudden appointment of Justice NK Gupta as Lokayukta on October 16 amply underpins Justice Faizan Uddin’s cynicism. One can discern roles of several stakeholders of the ‘normalisation of corruption’ syndrome in the drama called ‘search of Lokayukta’. It began in June 2016. In his seven inglorious years as Madhya Pradesh Lokayukta, Justice PP Naolekar had set so many egregious examples of bailing out the Chouhan government on corruption that a similarly malleable successor was hard to find.

Although an amendment in the Lokayukta Act in 1999 had hugely widened the scope for picking up a successor, finding another Naolekar was still a problem. The amendment did away with the requirement of selecting Lokayukta only from among retired Supreme Court justices and High Court chief justices. The change opened the post for retired High Court justices too. Even then, choosing someone to match Naolekar’s record was a tall order. The former Lokayukta had many qualities which immensely suited the Chouhan government. First, he was from a hardcore RSS sympathisers’ family from Jabalpur. Second, he had absolutely no qualms in blithely rejecting complaints against the Chief Minister, his cabinet colleagues and powerful bureaucrats.

Justice PP Naolekar

He disposed of complaints against eight ministers just before the assembly election in 2013. The only complaint against the Chief Minister that the Lokayukta had to deal with pertained to the ‘dumper case’ which was admitted and probed by his predecessor, Justice Ripusudan Dayal. Expectedly, Naolekar painstakingly weakened the case against Chouhan and Sadhna Singh before it was put up before a special court. The judge was so taken in by the Lokayukta’s dilution work that he exclaimed on record why would as high a post holder as the Chief Minister indulge in such a petty corruption when he could have easily made millions using his office!

The dumper case surfaced in 2008, months after Chouhan assumed the Chief Minister’s office. It was alleged that the Chief Minister’s wife Sadhna Singh purchased four dumpers (loading trucks) worth Rs 2 crore surreptitiously and had them enrolled on hire in the JayPee cement factory in Rewa.

Alleging quid pro quo between one of the factory owners, Sunny Gaur, and the Chief Minister, the then leader of opposition, late Jamuna Devi, had approached the Lokayukta. The scam reverberated nationally but a year down the line was forgotten. The Lokayukta buried the matter. Anyway, Justice Naolekar, self-admittedly, used to see dishonesty down and not up the power structure.

HE had already said soon after assuming the office that corruption at Patwari level was what concerned him most. And he remained true to his words all through his tenure. No wonder, a grateful Chouhan cabinet took an unprecedented decision in 2015 to extend Justice Naolekar’s tenure by a year. But he could not have remained for life on the post, much as the Chouhan government may have so desired.

The Lokayukta finally retired in June last year, necessitating search for his successor. After much deliberations the Chief Minister zeroed-in on Justice NK Gupta, who had retired from Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2016. Before he became a High Court judge in 2010, Justice Gupta was the Chief Minister’s legal adviser and, therefore, a confidante. Chouhan was so unwavering on his single choice that he did not think it proper to present a panel of probables for the post to the MP High Court Chief Justice, even for a semblance of fairness.

However, a couple of glitches put paid to the Chief Minister’s plan then. The Lokayukta Act provides for consent of the leader of opposition and the chief justice on one name from a panel of probables sent by the state government. The leader of opposition in the State assembly, Satyadeo Katare, was undergoing treatment in Mumbai for cancer. He eventually died in October 2016.

Senior Congress MLA Bala Bachchan was officiating in place of Katare. Bachchan held the post till the Congress high command finally appointed Ajay Singh as the full-fledged leader of opposition in February this year.

Also, the MP High Court did not have a full-fledged Chief Justice then. After Chief Justice AM Khanwilkar’s promotion as Supreme Court judge in May last year, Justice Rajendra Menon was holding charge as acting Chief Justice.

Although the acting Chief Justice and the acting leader of opposition too were not legally barred from giving their accent, if convinced, on Lokayukta’s name, the Chief Minister was apparently not too sure how the two would react to the single name he had in mind. Justice Menon, who was later promoted as Bihar High Court Chief Justice in March this year, is known to be tough and upright. So, the Chief Minister kept the Lokayukta appointment process in abeyance. Instead, he devised a plan B to forestall resentment over non-appointment of Lokayukta by appointing Justice UC Maheshwari as Up-Lokayukta. Hours before he retired, the outgoing Lokayukta administered the oath of office as Up-Lokatukta on June 26 last year.

Justice Maheshwari was serving as a judge of the MP High Court’s Gwalior bench. Soon after being informed about his new assignment, he left Gwalior and arrived in Bhopal. He resigned as justice, the post he was set to retire from in November 2017. The post of Up-Lokayukta had been unoccupied since previous incumbent Justice Chandresh Bhushan completed his term in February 2014.

Up-Lokaukta’s appointment provided the government enough leeway to try and get consent of the leader of opposition and the Chief Justice to the single name of Justice NK Gupta as Lokayukta. Attempts were made to get approval on the name from acting leader of opposition Bala Bachchan. Concerned officers from the Chief Minister’s office chased Bachchan at his residences in Indore and Bhopal for the purpose, but were unsuccessful. He refused to oblige them, saying he would not approve a single name. He wanted a panel of probables to choose from, as he had grown suspicious about the government’s insistence on one name. Bachchan disclosed all this behind-the-curtain shenanigans of the government after the announcement of the Lokayukta.

With Bachchan unyielding and Justice Rajendra Menon unpredictable, the government decided to bide time till both were succeeded. In February, Ajay Singh was elected leader of opposition. A month later, Justice Hemant Gupta was sworn in as MP High Court Chief Justice. The collegium for Lokayukta‘s selection was thus truly in place.

Now the time was opportune for the Chief Minister to move the file to get his former legal adviser appointed as the next anti-corruption ombudsman. The Chief Minister, however, let six more months elapse since Up-Lokayukta UC Maheshwari was not posing any problems for the government.

But one powerful IAS officer in the Chief Minister’s office thought differently. The bureaucrat suspected that, of late, the Up-Lokayukta had been taking particular interest in a complaint filed against him, alleges State Congress spokesman KK Mishra. According to the Congress leader, this IAS officer played a key role in the sudden appointment of NK Gupta as Lokayukta. He reportedly convinced the boss to expedite process of the pending appointment.

Subsequent developments, which happened at breakneck speed, corroborate the Congress leader’s allegation. In less than a month, due process was completed for the appointment which had been hanging fire for over a year. The process was set in motion with leader of opposition Ajay Singh writing a letter to the Chief Minister on September 19, asking for filling up the Lokayukta post. In next one week, the Chief Minister completed consultation with Singh and chief justice Hemant Gupta. On October 6, the Chief Minister informed Singh that the Chief Justice had agreed upon the single name of Justice NK Gupta. Four days later, Ajay Singh too sent his approval on the name. On October 16, Lokayukta’s appointment was announced and two days later justice NK Gupta took oath for the post. All this happened under a veil of secrecy. Not a single meeting of the collegium took place.

Justice NK Gupta
Justice NK Gupta

News of the Lokayukta’s appointment triggered a political storm as soon as it appeared in the local media. Not only did the suddenness of the appointment, but also the choice of candidate raised hackles of the opposition as well as the civil society. While the news sprung surprise on others, it came as a huge shock for the Up-Lokayukta because his would-be boss is six years junior to him. This is unprecedented. But, a clever Maheshwari willy-nilly reconciled himself to working under his junior, saying he was indeed hurt but not so much as to quit the job. His protest was limited to boycotting the oath-taking ceremony of the Lokayukta.

The Congress felt cheated by its leader Singh’s capitulation before the Chief Minister on the appointment. Congress Rajya Sabha member and AICC legal cell head Vivek Tankha wondered aloud how Singh signed on the dotted line without verifying the seniority of Justice NK Gupta. A stung Singh hit back by saying if Tankha was so concerned about irregularity in the appointment, he better moved the Supreme Court against it. Singh’s barb might cost him dear as Tankha is indeed contemplating to move the apex court over the matter. He says he is in talks with party’s senior lawyers P Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal to explore legal points on which the Lokayukta’s appointment could be challenged in the court.

After much deliberation the Chief Minister zeroed-in on Justice NK Gupta, who had retired from Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2016. Before he became a High Court judge in 2010, Justice Gupta was the Chief Minister’s legal adviser and, therefore, a confidante

FORMER Speaker of the Madhya Pradesh Assembly, Srinivas Tiwari, and several other party leaders felt that Singh had forfeited the right to lead the Congress party in the Assembly.

Speculations are rife in the state Congress as to why Singh did what he did. One conjecture is that he may have struck a deal with the Chief Minister to have a defamation case against him withdrawn. The Chief Minister has sued Singh, demanding Rs 1 crore as compensation for defaming him and his wife, Sadhna. The case was filed following Singh’s allegation in May 2013 that the Chief Minister’s wife bought a currency counting machine to count the couples’ ill-gotten money. He had said this in a press conference in Sagar.

Significantly, barely three weeks earlier (September 21), Singh consented to justice NK Gupta’s name (October 10), the Chief Minister and his wife had their statements recorded in the court of the chief judicial magistrate, Bhopal, in connection with the defamation case. Their appearance in the court lent tremendous weight to the defamation case.

Congress leader Ajay Singh (centre)

A section in the Congress ascribes Singh’s action as signs of frustration borne out of changing dynamics in the party wherein Jyotiraditya Scindia has emerged as a clear winner for projection as chief ministerial candidate. This conjecture is plausible because Singh had earned the spurs in his first stint as leader of opposition between 2010 and 2013. He was aggressive and unrelenting against misdeeds of the Chouhan government. He was then cherishing hopes to succeed Chouhan, if the Congress won in the 2013 assembly polls. In his second innings, Singh is a pale shadow of his first stint’s combative persona.

The Congress felt cheated by its leader Ajay Singh’s capitulation before the Chief Minister on the appointment. Congress Rajya Sabha member and AICC legal cell head Vivek Tankha wondered aloud how Singh signed on the dotted line without verifying the seniority of Justice NK Gupta

Singh’s supporters, on the other hand, give benefit of doubts to their leader. They point out that the single name for the Lokayukta had come to him from the Chief Justice. So, the blame for overlooking the fact of the Lokayukta being six years junior to his deputy should be laid at the Chief Justice’s doorstep. Singh himself advanced this contention in his defence, saying how he was supposed to be familiar with gradation list of High Court judges.

While intra-party bickering in the Congress is on, the Chouhan government is mighty pleased with its success in getting the chosen nominee appointed. The government hastily bailed out Singh by issuing a statement that all rules and norms were properly followed in the selection process.

New Lokayukta NK Gupta has refused to comment on the developments leading to his controversial appointment. He says he was completely unaware of the process of his appointment.

Starting his six-year stint as the Lokayukta amid thick clouds of scepticism, Justice Gupta looks rather conscious that his every decision will be scrutinised with a tooth and comb by people. But he has the example of his predecessor, PP Naolekar, to brazen it out, should the opposition accuse him of bailing out the Chouhan government.

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