Millennium Post

How crony capitalism kills it!

So low has the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) fallen under the impact of numerous corruption scandals that the more it tries to cover them up, the more it discredits itself by getting tangled in a spiral of manipulation and lying – and yet more scandals. Worse, it undermines institution after institution and inflicts lasting damage upon India’s embattled and poorly governed democracy.

The latest example is law minister Ashwani Kumar’s blatant interference with the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) inquiry into the allocation of coal blocks (or Coalgate), in which Attorney General Goolam E Vahanvati also became complicit.

CBI director Ranjit Sinha told the Supreme Court on oath that he ‘shared’ the agency’s confidential report on the coal scam with Vahanvati, Kumar, and officials in the coal ministry and the prime minister’s office (PMO). Four ‘significant’ changes to the draft were made at their behest, including one that alters the scope of the inquiry. He also said that coal ministry and PMO officials were ‘in regular interaction’ with the CBI officers conducting the inquiry. This clearly indicates that Messrs Kumar and Vahanvati’s earlier statements before the court were false.

All this is so utterly revolting and violative of elementary democratic norms that all those involved must be summarily sacked. Law minister Kumar had no business whatsoever to ask to see the CBI chief and alter ‘the heart’ of its report. In democracies, ministers must leave police agencies alone so that they can do their work impartially. Kumar fragrantly breached this cardinal principle.

Sinha demeaned his agency by answering Kumar’s summons and by willfully permitting ‘regular interaction’ between its officers and PMO and coal ministry officials. Under the official rules of business, a minister may ask to see an officer not belonging to his department – in this case, the ministry of personnel under which the CBI administratively falls – but cannot issue orders to him. This applies with even greater force to police agencies like the CBI.

Yet, the CBI allowed itself to be dictated to by the coal and law ministries. The conflict of interest couldn’t be more odious given that the principal target of the CBI’s investigations was none other than the coal ministry’s decisions on coalfield allocations, which caused a massive loss to the exchequer, estimated at Rs 1.86 lakh crores by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). It’s futile to claim that the concerned ministers/officials committed no impropriety because they didn’t remove the names of suspects or accused from the CBI’s draft. They had no business to see the report in the first place, leave alone change it. They must be punished for this.

What of the Attorney General (AG) himself? His is a high constitutional office. He is meant to offer independent and sagacious advice and legal opinion to the government as its topmost law officer, not act like its hatchet man. The AG holds a very special position. He has an office on the second floor of the Supreme Court building and the right to be heard in any court in the country. He is the only unelected official who can address Parliament.

But what Vahanvati did is simply unpardonable for someone who is meant to be the government’s conscience-keeper. He interfered with, and compromised, the CBI’s independence. By vetting its draft report, he subverted the rule of law.

Lest it be thought that India has always had only hatchet men as AGs, it is relevant to recall luminaries like MC Setalvad, C K Daftary and Niren Dey in the pre-Emergency era. It’s only later that highly compromised or partisan individuals were appointed to the office.  

Vahanvati is considered close to various politicians with dubious reputations, including Messrs Sharad Pawar and Ahmed Patel, as well as shady business houses. He is believed to have tailored his legal opinion to suit the government’s objectives, as in the disproportionate assets matters concerning Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati, not to speak of cases involving powerful corporate groups. Vahanvati had the distinction of being India’s first AG to be grilled in the witness box – in the 2G telecom scam case, by former minister A Raja’s lawyer.

Vahanvati’s defence in the Coalgate issue – that he doesn’t possess a copy of the CBI draft – is palpably flimsy. This is equivalent to former US President Bill Clinton’s claim, [I smoked marijuana], ‘but I didn’t inhale’, and must be treated with utter contempt. The only honourable course left for the AG, if ‘honour’ is the right word for merely averting further disgrace and ignominy, is to resign.

Yet, the UPA, in particular the Congress party, is adopting a cynical attitude towards these scandalous disclosures, despite its sacking the tainted ministers and officials. It still believes it can brazen out gross wrong-doing on their part, as with Ashwani Kumar and in the bribery case involving railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal’s businessman nephew Vijay Singla.

Singla was caught red-handed by the CBI accepting Rs 90 lakhs as the first instalment of a Rs 10-crore bribe from Railway Board Member (Staff) Mahesh Kumar for being appointed Member (Electrical), a position that yields control over thousands of crores in contracts for the purchase of costly equipment and funding of lucrative public-private partnership (PPP) projects.

One such project proposed by Kumar is a Rs 19,000-crore part-elevated part-underground railway line from South Mumbai to Virar. This is hideous private gain at public expense, with a vengeance. After all, the CBI comes under Singh’s administrative charge as minister for personnel. Singh also held the coal portfolio during the allocation period. He is finding it difficult to refute Raja’s charge that he was fully kept in the picture on the 2G spectrum allocation. No minister should ever resign unless proved guilty beyond doubt by a court. This makes nonsense of the democratic principle that holders of public office should resign once a prima facie case has emerged against them, and not wait for their final humiliation by the law courts.

All these recent scams are serious. But by all accounts, Coalgate is even greater in magnitude than 2G – because the Rs 1.86 lakh crore loss isn’t merely notional, as in the telecom case, but a real quantifiable drain on the exchequer.

All recent governments, including the BJP’s in 1998-2004, have been guilty of underselling public resources, including coal, telecom and airwaves. So the BJP is being sanctimoniously hypocritical in claiming that the UPA is uniquely culpable. IPA
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