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Centre loads graft gun for trust debate

Parliament House. Picture by Prem Singh

New Delhi: The government on Thursday secured the passage of two bills aimed at strengthening the anti-corruption architecture, appearing to set the stage for the BJP to corner the Opposition on corruption during Friday's no-confidence debate in the Lok Sabha.

The government deferred the introduction of the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill after Congress president Rahul Gandhi threw his weight behind the transparency advocates fighting the proposed changes.

According to the activists, the bill represents an attempt to weaken the RTI edifice and bring it under the Centre's direct control.

The bill had been listed for introduction as the first item of legislative business in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday. It had been discussed at the customary leaders' meeting in the morning.

But before the House met for the day, Rahul tweeted: "Every Indian has the right to know the truth. The BJP believes the truth must be hidden from the people and they must not question people in power. The changes proposed to the RTI will make it a useless Act. They must be opposed by every Indian. #SaveRTI."

To the Opposition, the best-case scenario would have been to force the government to refer the bill to a select committee. But they were taken by surprise when House Chair Venkaiah Naidu took up the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2013 - listed as the second item - for consideration and passage.

No explanation came from the Union minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pensions, Jitendra Singh, for the change in schedule. Several Opposition members, however, criticised the government's alleged bid to dilute the RTI law during the discussion on the corruption bill.

During this time, the Lok Sabha debated and passed the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018, which the government had drafted following the embarrassment it faced when bank-fraud accused Nirav Modi fled the country.

Apart from these two bills, meant to demonstrate the government's intent in fighting corruption, the BJP's arsenal on Friday will include the chargesheet against Congress senior P. Chidambaram in the Aircel-Maxis case and the arrest of British businessman Christian Michel in the AgustaWestland case.

Jitendra, however, also struck an accommodative note, acknowledging the corruption bill as an initiative started by the previous government - as though the Centre had a parallel plan to placate the Opposition before the trust vote.

Acknowledging the work done by its predecessors has been rare for this government. Jitendra, however, went one step further and took on board some of the changes to the bill that Opposition members had suggested.

The Opposition had more reservations but opted not to press with them lest it all end up blocking the bill.

One concern that many expressed, and Jitendra accepted in principle, was about the lack of a clear distinction in the bill - which seeks to also punish the bribe giver - between "collusive and coercive bribery''.

Another suggestion the government accepted was for an alternative arrangement to sanction a probe against a public official in the absence of the Lokpal or the Lokayukta.

The bill mandates the Lokpal's clearance for a probe against a central government functionary but Opposition members argued this was aimed at ensuring the probe never took off, since there is no Lokpal now.

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