Struggle over anti-corruption agency
The past month has seen an intense and ongoing struggle between the Delhi government and the Centre. One of the issues central to this conflict is that of the Anti-Corruption Branch (ACB) – as to its scope, whom it can investigate, who would head this branch of government. In addition to the above conflict, the two governments have been in court with each other on three matters related to the ACB – the FIR filed by the ACB on the pricing of natural gas from the Krishna-Godavari Basin, the matter of whether the anti-corruption agency has the authority to investigate and arrest officers of the Delhi Police and the constitutionality of the Union Home Ministry’s notification that attempts to curtail its powers. As this conflict escalates, one wonders why one department of the Delhi government seems to be making headlines every day.
While the controversy seems to have escalated, the impending conflict around the ACB was sealed on 11th February, 2014. On that very day Arvind Kejriwal – then in his first stint as the Chief Minister of Delhi – announced the registration of an FIR against a sitting Union Minister Veerappa Moily, a former Union Minster Murli Deora and one of India’s largest industrialists, Mukesh Ambani, by the Anti-Corruption Branch of the Delhi government. Interestingly - though not surprisingly - the actions of the Central government from then on have been focused on this very end: to try and take away the mandate of the ACB to pursue corruption cases against the Central government.
When the ACB was formed in 1993, it was given the mandate to investigate and prosecute corruption that took place in Delhi. This effectively meant that the Delhi government could potentially investigate matters of corruption of the Central government since they took place in the territory of Delhi. Of course, this provision was never used by any government, till the formation of an Aam Aadmi Party-led minority government in January 2014. Coming out of a nationwide anti-corruption movement, the Aam Aadmi Party regarded the ACB as one its central arms of governance.
What the FIR against two political leaders (Veerappa Moily and Murli Deora), a former senior bureaucrat (VK Sibal) and the head one of India’s largest business groups’ (Mukesh Ambani) did was to hit at the very heart of the nexus between the political class, bureaucracy and big business, which drives the current form of Indian democracy. Democracy in India – and the world over – is driven by the funding given to political parties by large corporate houses. Elections are fought on high expense media and advertising campaigns that require large sums of money. This money comes from big and small businesses, either legally (via donations to the party) or illegally (as kickbacks in the form of black money). So why are these businesses donating these sums to politicians and political parties? Obviously it is not to promote democracy in India – though there might be some exceptions to this – but to promote their businesses. When these political parties form governments they become custodians of the public wealth and resources and acquire the power to hand them out to private businesses. Senior bureaucrats, who play a significant role in inking the contracts that hand over these natural resources to private corporations for throw-away prices, often end up in high-paying positions in these companies soon after their retirement!
And this is precisely what has been happening in India for the past two decades. This very fact was brought to the forefront of our consciousness by the 2G and Coalgate scams. In a report three years back, the Comptroller Auditor General (CAG) had pegged the notional loss to the country’s exchequer, by improper allocation of coal blocks, at Rs 1.86 lakh crores. This was validated by the proceeds of the coal black auctions, where the estimated inflow to the government in just the first two rounds of auctions is around 2 lakh crores. This would have been pocketed by the private players to whom the coal blocks had been allocated.
The FIR against Veerappa Moily, Murli Deora, VK Sibal and Mukesh Ambani brought forth this very nexus, in the specific case of pricing of natural gas from the Krishna-Godavari Basin. While these were policies and contracts of the central government, by virtue of having been inked in Delhi they fell under the purview of the Delhi ACB. And it is precisely this possibility – of corruption and cronyism of the Central government being investigated by the Delhi ACB – that has led to the chain of events that we are witnessing today. There can be nothing else that can explain the almost bizarre lengths to which the Central government has gone to curtail the powers of the Delhi ACB; from an MHA notification in July 2014 stating that the city-state’s anti-corruption agency will be limited to Delhi government officials, to a claim in the Delhi High Court in August 2014 that the KG Basin FIR is invalid because of retrospective application of the July notification, to a sheepish back-tracking by October 2014 where the government had to concede that the notification can only have prospective effect (and hence the FIR remained); from another notification in May 2015 preventing the ACB from investigating corruption of Central government officials, to a case in a Delhi High Court protecting a Delhi Police constable caught taking a bribe and the attempts to replace the head of ACB in the past few days. This could sound like the long-winding plot of a comedy film, but it is a reflection of a tragic malaise that affects our political system, where the beneficiaries of a corrupt system will go to any lengths to protect their vested interests.
(Atishi Marlena is a social activist and policy researcher, who is a member of the Aam Aadmi Party. Views expressed are personal)