It took more than 45 years, numerous revisions and a sound thumping for a storied political party, but the Indian parliament finally has passed a law authorizing creation of a new agency that may help address entrenched graft by public officials.
Anti-corruption reformers have waged a sustained and successful effort to mobilize public opinion to support the law. Passage represents a potentially new chapter in Indian politics in the run-up to the most important elections in a generation.
The new agency created by the Lokpal law is unlikely to change the occurrence of corruption in India swiftly, but it is a potentially valuable piece of a larger social movement to address corruption. The legislation must be approved by the president and published before it becomes effective.
The agency will act as an ombudsman to investigate corruption charges. The law brings a wide swath of public officials under its authority, including the prime minister, cabinet ministers, members of parliament and employees of certain state-funded organizations.
There are exceptions for matters of national security and other sensitive areas. Corruption charges must be investigated within 60 days of a complaint being made, and a trial must be completed within two years within specially constituted courts. These are fairly tight timelines by local standards.
The new agency could potentially improve the dismal record of existing investigative agencies, who have never successfully convicted a major sitting political figure of corruption.
Passage of legislation authorizing establishment of the Lokpal is as much a calculation of electoral politics as it is a sudden interest in fighting endemic corruption in India. The Congress Party, which leads the current coalition government and has ruled India for the majority of its time since gaining independence, faces dimming prospects in national elections expected in the first half of 2014. The party was hammered in recent elections in several important northern states and received a thorough drubbing in elections for control of New Delhi.
The new law leaves open certain areas of concern. The military, whose readiness has been degraded by corruption, is exempt from the new law, as are graft allegations against private parties and against participants in the public-private partnerships frequently used to fund infrastructure projects.
Russell Stamets is a Contributing Editor of the FCPA Blog. He was the first non-Indian general counsel of a publicly traded Indian company and was general counsel for a satellite broadcasting joint venture of a large Indian business house. He can be contacted here.