It s been a long day that started with meetings at Udipi in Karnataka at 9.30am. But when Nitte Santosh Hegde, Karnataka Lokayukta (the state level ombudsman) and member of the joint drafting committee on the Lokpal Bill, walks into Delhis Karnataka Bhavan 12 hours later — after a delayed flight — theres no sign of fatigue on his face. Hes had to deal with one television channel at the airport, another at the entrance of Karnataka Bhavan. And then theres me, waiting for one and a half hours.
I have come only to scotch rumours about a rift (with other civil society members of the committee) and to assert that I am with Anna (Hazare), he says as he settles his portly frame into a sofa in his suite. In black shirt and trousers, his hair and moustache just beginning to show traces of white, his 71 years sit lightly on him.
Hegde wasnt planning to be in Delhi that day for this weeks two-day meeting of the drafting committee, which has finally ended in a stalemate. He had prior commitments and he doesnt like cancelling one programme to accommodate another. Though the attitude of the government team — they were saying no to everything — also weighed on his mind, it was his other engagements that made him decide to skip the meetings.
Unfortunately, a letter he wrote to Anna Hazare explaining his absence was misinterpreted. In that, he had requested Hazare to not go ahead with his plans for a fast from August 16. It wasnt a mistake, but turned out to have been one, he laments. The media went to town about his having walked out of the committee, Team Anna having split and that he objected to Hazares fast. With phone calls from various quarters pouring in, he rescheduled the meetings at Udipi on Monday and drove straight to Mangalore to catch the Delhi flight.
I have always been justifying Annas protest; it is this weapon of satyagraha that got us independence. Peaceful protest, he points out, is a constitutionally accepted method of showing ones opposition to any particular decision of the government. He was only suggesting an alternative — that Hazare should travel across the country to mobilise people for the fight against corruption.
Hegde is sometimes described as the only sane voice among the civil society members of the committee (the others are Anna Hazare, the father-son lawyer duo of Shanti and Prashant Bhushan, and Right to Information activist Arvind Kejriwal). Apart from his legal background (he donned the black robes in 1966 and was advocate-general of Karnataka, additional solicitor-general, and then solicitor-general of India and Supreme Court judge) he brings to the table his hands-on experience as Lokayukta of Karnataka since 2006 (he retires in August).
He calls his stint a bitter-sweet experience, with some satisfaction and some disappointments. He had resigned in 2010, saying the government was not acting on his recommendations on curbing illegal mining, but took the resignation back after appeals from across the political spectrum, including Union home minister P. Chidambaram and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani. He regrets that there were many things he couldnt do and he is trying to get some of those lacuna addressed in the Lokpal Bill.
Thats my cue for an oft-made point — can one institution end corruption? No, he admits. I myself have said yes, I have not reduced corruption in Karnataka. But I have contained corruption, he claims, adding that one newspaper has called it the most feared institution in the state. The Lokpal will contain corruption and go deeper with the powers which I dont have, if these are given.
Theres concern, though, that some of the powers being sought arent quite in line with the Constitution and will require its amendment. Absolutely not, he asserts before going into details about why not. I also know a bit of the law, he says with a wry smile. Team Anna, he says, was interested in getting the Lokpal Bill enacted at the earliest, while a constitutional amendment would take at least two years. Will we suggest that option? That will be idiotic on our part.
He doesnt see why the judiciary or the Prime Minister should be kept out of the Lokpals jurisdiction. If any institution or post were to be kept out of Indian law, the Constitution would have provided for it. The Constitution has such a provision only for the President, he points out. Laws relating to corruption have applied to the judiciary since before Independence, he says. It was only because of a 1991 Supreme Court ruling that no criminal case could be registered against the higher judiciary without the permission of the Chief Justice of India, that no action can be taken.
And the government wont come to a standstill if a Prime Minister has to step down when there is an investigation against him, he insists. Prime Ministers have died suddenly, without notice, he observes sarcastically. A successor has been appointed and the government continues. If a calamity had to happen without a Prime Minister, it would have happened when Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi died in office. If you want to imagine an unimaginable situation, you can give any excuse. The Prime Minister was under the Lokpal in the governments bill in October, 2010, he points out. What happened between then and now for that to change?
The phone rings for the fifth time. This time it is Swami Agnivesh saying hes relieved hes in Delhi. They fix up to meet the rest of Team Anna the next day ahead of the drafting committee meeting. Should a small coterie be deciding a law with huge ramifications?
He recalls some Congress leaders calling them non-elected, non-electable tyrants. Elected politicians, he points out, are supposed to discuss serious issues in legislatures. In 2008, 17 bills were passed in 12 days. One of them was an amendment to the Prevention of Corruption Act that removed three sections that helped the prosecuting agencies. I met an MP who didnt even know this. These are the people we should trust? In any case, he argues, they are not the true representatives because most of them dont even get 50 per cent of the votes cast.
Such contempt for the political class is a bit surprising for the son of a former Lok Sabha Speaker — K.S. Hegde, who quit as Supreme Court judge in 1973 after Indira Gandhi appointed a junior judge as Chief Justice of India superseding him and some others. He doesnt have to agree with his father, he points out. I have no faith in the political system in India. I have no faith in any political party.
Are you the real representatives of the people, I cant help asking. He is unfazed. Yes, we have not been elected by anybody. But did anyone else prepare a bill contrary to the one prepared by the government in 2010? Nobody came forward. Nor did anyone compete with us in preparing a bill. We didnt say no one else should draft an alternative bill. The more the merrier. Ever since Team Annas draft was put on the website of India Against Corruption, it has got immense support from the public, he points out. Isnt that an indication that India wants a Lokpal Bill?
Perhaps, but can deadlines be set for the passage of bills? He smiles. If you dont put pressure on the government, nothing ever happens. Bills, he admits, have to go through a certain process. If the government is really interested, it can get a bill passed in a week with no difficulty, he adds.
The fasts by Hazare and Baba Ramdev and allegations about their links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have hurt the image of those in the forefront of the anti-corruption movement, I point out. Dont bring Ramdev into this, he shoots back, I am not going to talk anything about Baba. Hes quite certain that Hazare is not aligned with the RSS or any political party or political philosophy. This, he says, is all part of a slander campaign against Team Anna to cripple the anti-corruption movement.
Hegde himself has been dubbed a BJP man by senior Congress leaders, a charge that leaves him both aghast and amused. BJP president Nitin Gadkari, he says, dubbed him the opposition leader in Karnataka. My answer was, yes I am. A Lokayukta should always be a critic of the government when it is wrong. He has not been appointed to sing its praises.
The Congress, he says, is attacking him because he has been unable to proceed on one allegation against Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa made by the Janata Dal (S) because of a writ petition in the High Court and there has been some delay in his report on illegal mining because some figures are being cross-checked. This is irritating them. They could have used it to bring the government down. But I cant help it. I am not going to help the Congress play a political game.
The Congress, he says, has no other stick to beat him with. His assets and liabilities are up for scrutiny on the Lokayukta website. I have no children who can do any mischief.
Could he, perhaps, be looking for a political role for himself? I have no political ambition. I have said repeatedly that if I ever stand for election, dont give me a vote, but hit me, he says playing upon a Kannada word for hit which rhymes with vote.
So what happens after August 2, when he ceases to be Lokayukta? Nothing. I have achieved things that most Indians may not have. I have that satisfaction, he says. He had told Hazare that he would travel with him to raise awareness about the Lokpal Bill once he demits office.
With the stalemate over the bill, perhaps thats all he can do.