New Delhi, July 28: The Union cabinet today approved the Lokpal bill after overruling Manmohan Singh, who again advocated bringing the Prime Minister within the corruption ombudsman's ambit.
The higher judiciary, conduct of MPs inside Parliament, and the lower bureaucracy too have been kept out of the Lokpal's jurisdiction.
Anna Hazare, whose civil society group had insisted on all these sections and the Prime Minister being included, termed the draft a "cruel joke" and announced he would go ahead with his threatened fast from August 16.
Asked about Hazare's threat, law minister Salman Khurshid said: "The bill will become the property of Parliament once it is introduced. The members can then make amendments. It is up to the Hazare group members to decide whether they want to challenge Parliament. In that case, those who handle law-and-order problems (home ministry)... they will address that."
Manmohan Singh had reaffirmed his stand at the start of the cabinet meeting but senior ministers, particularly those with a background in law, explained its pitfalls.
The Congress had already decided to keep the Prime Minister out of the Lokpal's reach.
Singh gave in to the majority view and the cabinet decided to allow the Lokpal to look into corruption charges against a Prime Minister after he or she has demitted office.
"We don't want to create an environment of instability in the country," Khurshid said, defending the decision.
While Khurshid hoped India would never have a Prime Minister who would need to be investigated, information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni rationalised Singh's stand, saying: "A leader of his personality and integrity will obviously want no protection."
Officers of under-secretary rank and above have been kept within the Lokpal's ambit though Hazare's team had insisted on covering the entire bureaucracy.
Khurshid said the higher judiciary had been kept out as the Congress wanted a strong and independent judicial system.
On excluding the conduct of MPs inside Parliament, he said: "The members enjoy certain constitutional protection and we were not rewriting the Constitution."
The bill will be introduced in the monsoon session of Parliament, probably within the first two days after it begins on August 1. The bill is much stronger than the original draft proposed by the government.
Asked how many of the Hazare group's suggestions the government had accepted, Khurshid said: "They gave 40 principles and we have accepted 34."
He said the government had benefited through its interaction with the joint drafting committee's civil society members, who made constructive suggestions on a consolidated fund and autonomy for the Lokpal, and the need to free it from the requirement of sanction for prosecution.
The Lokpal will have a chairperson and eight members and can probe corruption allegations against ministers, MPs (sitting and former), Group A officers, chairpersons or members of boards, corporations, authorities, public sector companies, societies, trusts, autonomous bodies established by an act of Parliament, and NGOs wholly or substantially funded by the government.
It will not need sanction to prosecute and can attach any property acquired by a public servant through illegal means. But the government has rejected the demand for summary dismissal of officials, giving them an opportunity to defend themselves.
"We don't want to give unreasonable protection, nor do we want to throw them to the wolves," Khurshid said.
The Lokpal will have its own investigation and prosecution wings but can draw manpower from the CBI till the full-fledged system is put in place. It cannot punish and will refer the cases to the high court.
Every investigation will be time-bound and the Lokpal must seek high court permission for every three-month extension.
There will be a seven-year limitation period for the cases to be taken up, which means a case will be alive for seven years since the date of cognisance of the complaint. In civil cases, there is usually a two-year limitation period.
Asked if the seven-year period was enough as some Prime Ministers can remain in office for two full terms or more, the law minister said a standing committee could look into this matter.
At least half the Lokpal's members, including the chairperson, will be from the judiciary. The chairperson will be a serving or retired Supreme Court judge while the non-judicial members will be eminent people with at least 25 years of service and known for "impeccable integrity".
The Lokpal can be removed only through a presidential reference to the Supreme Court. Anybody who has served on the Lokpal can neither join politics nor contest elections.
The selection panel will include the Prime Minister, Lok Sabha Speaker, leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, a cabinet minister recommended by the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India, a high court chief justice, and an eminent jurist.