No kangaroos in Karnataka

The zeal to prosecute corrupt public officials must be matched with tight adherence to the law

You might have missed it in the din surrounding the recent state assembly elections but the Karnataka High Court’s decision in B S Yeddyurappa v. The Lokayukta of Karnataka and others provides an important counterpoint to the clamour for a Lok Pal.

Mr Yeddyurappa had filed a writ petition challenging the Lokayukta’s filing of corruption charges against him, on account of which he was forced to step down as chief minister of Karnataka. Earlier this week, the Karnataka High Court allowed this petition because in its view, Mr Yeddyurappa “was condemned unheard and there is serious violation of the principles of natural justice..”. Now you can go into the text of the judgement for the details but the jaw drops considering the High Court held that the Lokayukta did not follow one of the most basic legal processes.

The High Court further noted that “there is no material placed on record to establish that the petitioner has shown any official favour to the companies” and “suspicion cannot be a ground to tarnish the image and reputation of a person holding a constitutional post”. The jaw drops further.

There are three issues here: first, that the state ombudsman did not give the accused a chance to defend himself. Second, that it didn’t even produce enough evidence for a prima facie case to be registered against him. Third, by leaking its report to the media “a lot of dust was created in the political circle” causing Mr Yeddyurappa to resign as chief minister.

This is not about whether Mr Yeddyurappa is truly guilty of corruption or not. This is not about whether public opinion believes him to be corrupt or not. This is about whether a quasi-judicial entity entrusted with being an anti-corruption watchdog could produce evidence and follow due process to establish his guilt. This is about whether its zeal was matched by its competence, meticulousness and respect for the principles of natural justice.

Now Justice Santosh Hegde, the high-profile Lokayukta who indicted Mr Yeddyurappa is both a experienced judge and an upright person. If the ombudsman could make such a mistake under him, we can only imagine how bad a less experienced and less upright person can be. All it would need to get rid of public officials would be public opinion, a leaked report and a compliant, complicit or conniving governor. Since people believe that all politicians are corrupt, the media loves to conduct trials and governors are loyal servants of the ruling party in New Delhi, it is not difficult to see that a “strong” Lokayukta, untrammeled by the higher judiciary, will be just another political plaything.

Mr Hegde’s own reaction to the High Court verdict is unfortunate. Claiming that his professional experience gives him the knowledge of what constitutes natural justice and when to give the accused a chance to defend themselves, he said “There were three Chief Ministers, two ministers and 797 officers who were indicted in the report. If I was legally required to issue notices to them, it would have stretched on like the Ayodhya case.”

It is hard not to be disturbed by Mr Hegde’s comments. However learned, experienced and well-meaning a person he is, it cannot be left to an individual to decide when an accused should have the right to defend himself. Also, to argue that cases will take too long to conclude if everyone was allowed to defend themselves takes us into kangaroo territory. Whatever the levels of outrage in the media and public discourse over corruption, you can’t dispense with the principles of natural justice.

This episode should remind us, once again, that there are no short cuts or miracle cures to fighting corruption. The populist demand for the Lok Pal comes with a thinly disguised contempt for constitutional processes and legal niceties. Attractive as it may appear to the outraged, once you destroy the latter, you lose the basis to distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate, but with powerful inquisitors at large. It is a far better idea for us to insist that watchdogs and prosectors match their zeal with competence, humility and meticulous attention to legal processes.

Let them go on pilgrimages

A state of moral welfare

The government of Karnataka, we are informed has “taken a decision to introduce a scheme to conduct pilgrimage tours for poor people.” People below the poverty line (BPL) qualify. (But the last time the Karnataka government tried to compile a list of BPL families 91% of them applied.) According to the New Indian Express, “the government will provide bus, boarding, lodging and darshan facilities at Kollur Mookambika Temple, Sri Krishna Temple at Udupi, Dharmasthala, Soudatti and other places at a subsidised cost.”

Here is a government that takes care of citizens’ welfare—in this world and the next, in this life and the next—for a trivial Rs 10 crore (presumably, every year). That’s not all. Should you residents of Karnataka find it extremely difficult to get a place to stay in those strange, foreign climes of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state, relax in the knowledge that your government “has approved a plan for construction of a 500-room guesthouse and 25 cottages for VIPs at Tirumala in Tirupati.” This, for a trivial Rs 110 crore.

The floodgates have been opened wide.

Related Post: Andhra Pradesh’s state-subsidised tours to the holy land

Bangalore attacked

Serial bomb blasts come to town

Rediff’s Vicky Nanjappa reports seven bomb blasts in and around Bangalore, killing three and injuring at least 20 people. (via email from Gautam John)

The Indian Express quotes the city police chief:

“Explosives were hidden in places which are refugee prone and on roadside. All six blasts were of low intensity,” said Bangalore Police Commissioner Shankar Bidri.

“The Bangalore police is fully capable of dealing with the situation. We request the people to carry on with their routine life. The affected areas have been sealed and completely cordoned off,” he said. [IE]

Dear Bangaloreans, you deserve lousy infrastructure

The government we deserve

Lousy infrastructure. Poorly managed public services. Quixotic city planning. The city at the heart of India’s new economy suffers from the worst failings of its old politics.

But the sheer apathy with which the city’s voters treated the recent assembly elections—after several years of frustrating political logjams and venal political leadership—suggests that Bangaloreans deserve the mess that they are in.

So my dear Bangaloreans, enjoy some more years of Deve Gowdas, Kumaraswamys and Dharam Singhs. But don’t complain too loudly. You are yourself to blame.

Related Link: Dear (South) Mumbaikars, you deserve your own kind of mess too