Who would have thought that an institution regarded as the pride of the nation for its relentless fight against corruption, which had raised hopes of a better and cleaner administration in Karnataka, would itself turn into a den of corruption and an object of public ridicule?
The Karnataka Lokayukta under Justice Santosh Hegde was a role model for the rest of the country, putting fear in the hearts of corrupt officials, exposing a massive scam in illegal mining and even forcing the resignation of a chief minister involved in a bribery scandal. The CBI is still pursuing many of these cases in several courts.
Hegde’s ‘golden term’ as Lokayukta ended in 2011, and after struggling to find the right successor for two years, Karnataka settled for Justice Yerabati Bhaskar Rao, a retired high court chief justice in his 70s who took charge in February 2013. His candidature, though lackluster, was pushed through by the then governor H.R. Bhardwaj, who prevailed upon the BJP’s shaky chief minister Jagadish Shettar, to accept Rao and give him a 5 year term.
The Karnataka Lokayukta under Justice Santosh Hegde was a role model for the rest of the country, putting fear in the hearts of corrupt officials, exposing a massive scam in illegal mining and even forcing the resignation of a chief minister involved in a bribery scandal. The CBI is still pursuing many of these cases in several courts
It was clear that Rao was a bad choice, as the office of Lokayukta turned completely docile under him. Even as complaints piled up, raids on corrupt officials reduced to a trickle and with no pressure from the top, the police wing, which exclusively handled cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act, also went to sleep. Rao generally shunned the media as he had little ‘achievements’ to boast of.
But behind this seeming lull – it was revealed much later – that some officials of the Lokayukta had formed a coterie to turn the institution on its head: Instead of identifying and punishing corrupt officials, they were ‘targeted’ in a blackmailing and extortion racket that went on systematically.
Syed Riyaz, the powerful PRO who had entrenched himself in the Lokayukta office for 18 years and ‘served’ five Lokayuktas, was the kingpin who drew up the list of cash cows who could be milked. Using insider knowledge gleaned from the dossiers of corrupt officials, Riyaz and his gang would contact them and allegedly demand huge bribes if they wanted to be spared ‘raids’ and ‘traps’ that could land them in trouble.
Most shocking was that Justice Bhaskar Rao’s middle-aged son Ashwin, was an important member of this gang. Many of the victims were called to the Lokayukta’s office and even residence, where the deals were struck.
The scandal burst into the open when an upright executive engineer M.N. Krishnamurthy, who was allegedly asked to pay a bribe of Rs 1 crore, approached the Lokayukta SP Sonia Narang in the first week of May, with his complaint.
According to Krishnamurthy, one ‘Krishna Rao’ called him to the Lokayukta’s office and he was asked to pay up or face investigation. Krishnamurthy told his interlocutor that he had done nothing wrong and was ready to face the inquiry. The demand was subsequently scaled down to Rs. 50 lakh and even further to Rs. 25 lakh, but Krishnamurthy left the office without making any commitment.
When Narang received the complaint, she made her own enquiries and learned that Ashwin had used Krishna Rao as his pseudonym. This was confirmed by Krishnamurthy who identified Ashwin from photographs. Narang sent a detailed report to the registrar. But when neither the registrar nor the Lokayukta acted on the report for over a month, Upalokayukta Subhash Adi ordered Narang to continue her investigation and report back to him.
In four days, Narang was able to gather information on how Riyaz, Ashwin and a few other middlemen ran the extortion racket from the Lokayukta’s office and some 5-star hotels. She even seized CCTV footage from some hotels. It was estimated that the gang had raked in at least Rs. 200 crore from around 160 ‘victims.’
As protests were held demanding the Lokayukta’s resignation, an alarmed Bhaskar Rao ordered Narang to suspend her enquiry and wrote to chief minister Siddaramaiah, asking him to set up a special investigation team (SIT), in an attempt to buy time. The chief minister, who was grateful to Bhaskar Rao for closing some of the complaints pending against him in alleged land denotification deals, quickly agreed.
Suspecting that the Upalokayukta was continuing to back Narang’s enquiry, Bhakar Rao’s lawyers approached the High Court to stay the internal enquiry as the government had set up the SIT. But in a dramatic development, Narang filed an FIR in the High Grounds police station naming Ashwin as accused No.1 in the extortion case, just an hour before the issue came up before the court.
Bhaskar Rao found it increasingly difficult to carry on his normal activities as protesters blocked his entry into the office for several days, forcing him to seek police help. Claiming that his son had no role in the extortion business, he refused to step down. Reporters who kept vigil on Lokayukta’s office noticed that Bharkar Rao carted away truck-loads of files for two consecutive days, before he went on forced leave.
Meanwhile, the SIT headed by ADGP Kamal Pant found that the CCTVs installed at Lokayukta office did not have stored footage, but he collected enough damning evidence to swoop down on Ashwin at his apartment in Hyderabad on July 27. The SIT also arrested Syed Riyaz and six others, all of whom have been remanded to judicial custody by the special Lokayukta court.
The scandal burst into the open when an upright executive engineer M.N. Krishnamurthy, who was allegedly asked to pay a bribe of Rs 1 crore, approached the Lokayukta SP Sonia Narang in the first week of May, with his complaint
Justice Santosh Hegde and the 97-year-old Gandhian HS Doreswamy joined public demonstrations demanding Bhaskar Rao’s resignation. Hedge demanded that the case be handed over to the CBI as the state police machinery could not be trusted.
But Bhaskar Rao would not budge. The state Bar Council, which had been demanding Rao’s resignation, suddenly changed tack and wanted the SIT to probe Rao’s role as well. Bar Council chairman PP Hegde said, “Ashwin’s dealings could not have happened without Rao’s blessings and knowledge. The SIT should treat him as an accused and arrest him, if need be.”
Hegde pointed out that under the Constitution, only the President of India and the Governors enjoyed immunity from prosecution when they were in office and even the prime minister did not enjoy such cover. “That being the case, where is the question of any immunity for the Lokayukta, who is a public servant, from the provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act?” he asked.
Bhaskar Rao hung on to his office knowing well that under the Karnataka Lokayukta Act enacted during Ramakrishna Hegde’s tenure in 1984, he could be removed only through an impeachment as applicable to the judges of the Supreme Court. Impeachment was a cumbersome and time-consuming process.
The state government came under pressure to simplify the procedure for the removal of the Lokayukta, as all parties were agreed that Bhaskar Rao could not be allowed to hang on like a leech, when his office had virtually become defunct.
But political parties have never been comfortable with the Lokayukta wielding enormous powers, especially after it sent illegal mining tycoon Janardhana Reddy and his associates to jail and forced B S Yeddyurappa to resign as chief minister following a bribery scandal.
Therefore, on the pretext of amending the Lokayukta Act to ensure Bhaskar Rao’s easy exit, the Siddaramaiah government planned a whole lot of changes to keep the chief minister, ministers and the legislators out of the Lokayukta’s reach. The government proposed that any complaints against elected representatives should be referred to the legislature for approval before being taken up by the Lokayukta. After considerable public criticism, these provisions were dropped.
The BJP has begun a signature campaign among its legislators and the legislature is expected to be convened for a two-day special session in the first week of September to vote & unseat Bhaskar Rao
But it retained the dilution of qualifications for the appointment of Lokayukta. While the earlier provision prescribed that only a retired Supreme Court judge or a former chief justice of a high court could become Lokayukta, the new provision allows any high court judge with 10 years’ experience also as a qualified candidate.
For the removal of the Lokayukta, 75 members of the Assembly and 25 members of the legislative Council need to write to the Speaker and the Chairman respectively. Once the motion is accepted, the Lokayukta will be ‘debarred’ from discharging his administrative duties and responsibilities.
The Speaker will then write to the Chief Justice of the High Court requesting him to conduct an investigation on the complaints against the Lokayukta. The task can also be entrusted to his colleague. The court has to submit its report to the Speaker in two months.
In case of an adverse report, the legislature will meet, and with two-thirds majority in both the Houses, can vote for the removal of the Lokayukta.
The BJP has begun a signature campaign among its legislators and the legislature is expected to be convened for a two-day special session in the first week of September to vote and unseat Bhaskar Rao. The inglorious innings of Bhaskar Rao, who tarnished the image of Lokayukta, is surely coming to an end.
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