"If BJP leaders have any evidence against me, they are free to approach the Lokayukta," the chief minister said this week, adding: "We are among the leading states in the country to set up Lokayukta and it would be further strengthened by bringing the necessary changes."
The chief minister's assertions came when BJP leader and two-time chief minister Dhumal questioned the Congress' silence on the payoff allegations against Virbhadra Singh, saying: "Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should act now lest it's too late."
But political observers say the chief minister's political acumen has left the BJP stumped.
"The chief minister knows that his predecessor Dhumal and his family got a clean chit from the Lokayukta over allegations of acquiring assets disproportionate to their known sources of income," an observer said.
"If Dhumal now says the Lokayukta is a defunct body, it will be an embarrassment for him. So he sticks to his demand for the CBI probe," he said.
Asking the Central Bureau of Investigation to expedite an inquiry into the allegations against Virbhadra Singh, Dhumal claimed that the promoter of Venture Energy and Technology, given an extension for a hydropower project by the present government, made cheque payments of Rs.3.5 crore "to Virbhadra Singh and his wife, Pratibha Singh".
He further alleged that the money was shown as a loan, and Virbhadra Singh and his family had become shareholders in another firm belonging to the power firm's promoter.
"The chief minister has been advising the BJP to move the Lokayukta, but in reality it lacks strong and constitutional powers," said an official.
"It even lacks powers to take suo motu cognisance on allegations against public servants, including the chief minister," he added.
Rejecting the chief minister's suggestion, Dhumal said the allegations were of serious nature, involving financial transactions worth crores of rupees, and the CBI would be the appropriate agency to inquire into them.
On being asked to move the appropriate court to get the matter inquired into, the former chief minister told IANS: "We don't want it to hang fire."
Official sources said Justice (retd) Bhawani Singh, who retired as Lokayukta in May 2011, absolved Dhumal of charges of disproportionate assets and misuse of power as chief minister in his two stints - 1998 to 2003 and 2007 to 12.
Former additional director general of police B.S. Thind, in his complaint before the Lokayukta, had said the tax returns filed by Dhumal in 2001 showed an annual income of Rs.1.89 lakh but in 2009 he and his family's assets were valued at Rs.19 crore.
Thind, who himself faced probes during the Dhumal regime, however, died during the pendency of the complaint.
The report of the Lokayukta, tabled in the assembly in 2011, said most of the allegations were based upon conjunctures. Even allegations with respect to properties purchased or held as 'benami' can't be investigated on account of a jurisdictional bar.
Interestingly, the previous government headed by Dhumal had, in 2012, passed amendments to the Himachal Pradesh Lokayukta Act of 1983 - in the absence of the opposition Congress in the assembly - to not only give the ombudsman constitutional and comprehensive powers but also contempt of court powers on a par with the high court.
"The bill sent to the president for consent by the previous government has been withdrawn by the present government," said an official.
The government is now aiming to bring another bill in the coming budget session of the assembly which will seek to repeal the existing act and replace it with another to make it more effective in dealing with corruption, he added.
Justice (retd) L.S. Panta is currently the state's Lokayukta.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at email@example.com)
--IANS (Posted on 10-01-2014)