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Corporate May 9, 2013

Coalgate scam: Careful, Mr PM, the fig leaves are falling off...

By Venky Vembu

It's only the early days of summer in New Delhi, but there is already a distinct autumnal feel to the political air in the Delhi durbar. That's because the fig leaves that were hiding the nakedness of the UPA government in the ongoing court drama over the Coalgate scandal are steadily falling off. The sight of a denuded government, stripped of any residual sense of morality and propriety, is far from edifying to anyone who cares for decorum in public life, and yet the courtiers of the Manmohan Singh government are brazening it out, unwilling to acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes.

The Supreme Court's observations on Wednesday, while hearing the CBI Director's affidavit on the agency's conduct during the investigation into alleged criminality in the allocation of coal blocks, were markedly restrained, even if individual remarks sounded harsh in the extreme.

For instance, the court made no direct censure of or even make an observation on the conduct of Law Minister Ashwani Kumar, who - it has now been established - convened a meeting in his office to get the CBI to make substantive changes (not just "grammatical changes") to its draft report of its preliminary enquiry into the coal block scandal. And even in respect of Attorney-General Goolam Vahanvati, who has been shown to have wilfully misrepresented facts (lying, in other words) in an open court, the court pointedly did not address the petitioner's case for initiation of proceedings for making false statements.

How long can Ashwani Kumar dodge responsibility?  PIB

How long can Ashwani Kumar dodge responsibility? PIB

And yet, taken in their totality, the court's observations have the effect of establishing that the UPA government was actively looking to interfere in a criminal investigation in which it was the primary accused, so to speak, and thereby obstruct the due process of justice. What's worse, the court's observations have exposed the web of lies that top law officers of the government wove at the behest of the political executive, evidently to cover their tracks once the court was alerted to the fact that much mischief was afoot with the objective of derailing the CBI investigation.

Even for a government that has so lowered the bar of accountability to which Ministers ought to be held in a democracy, the court's observations should have amounted to a distinct rap on the knuckles. But courtiers of the government are claiming that since observations by the court don't amount to a formal passing of strictures, there was no overarching compulsion for either the Law Minister or for the law officers to resign or otherwise submit themselves to public accountability.

Alongside all this, we see another sordid saga unfolding - of Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal being drawn inexorably into the corruption case against his nephew, who is being investigated by the CBI for receiving bribes to secure plum railway postings, which he evidently boasted, his mama could deliver. There too, the Congress has taken the untenable view that Bansal - whohas effectively disowned his nephew - doesn't need to resign.

The Supreme Court's observations on Wednesday were focussed on the CBI's unwillingness to exercise its autonomy from political interference in the manner in which a Supreme Court ruling in 1997 empowered it. The court observed memorably that the investigating agency had allowed itself to become a "caged parrot" with "many masters" - and sternly forbade it from sharing any more details of the investigation into the coal block allocations with the political executive.

But, somewhat quizzically, while coming down harshly on the CBI, the court was overly restrained in addressing the flip side of the case, which is that if the CBI feels enslaved today, it is because it is the slavemaster, in this case the political executive, who wields the authority over it. It's true, of course, that the court has directed the government to report back on the measures it plans to put in place, including bringing in legislation before Parliament, to ensure that the CBI investigations are immune to political interference. But in this express case, it has stopped well short of going to the root of what amounts to brazen interference by Ashwani Kumar, evidently to shield Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, by securing a self-serving preliminary report from the CBI (and then getting the top law officers to lie about it in court).

It is this that the Congress and its courtiers cite as the last residual fig leaf to claim that no shame adheres to the UPA government.

But read between the lines of the court's observations, and you will see that even the court has tangentially called even the Prime Minister to account for the cover-up into the effort to sabotage the CBI investigation. Everyone wants to make changes to the Preliminary Enquiry 2 report, in respect of the coal block allocations made between 2006 and 2009. Why, it wondered, would the Joint Secretaries in the Prime Minister's Office and the Law Ministry go over to the CBI office to vet the draft report of its investigations?

These observations acquire significance because it was Manmohan Singh who served as Coal Minister between 2006 and 2009, and it was under his direct watch that the mala fide allocations of coal blocks were made. And the unstated premise of the entire "sordid saga" - as the court put it - is that everyone around, from the Law Minister downwards, is looking to ring-fence Manmohan Singh from personal culpability in the scandal.

Which leads to the Rs 1.86 lakh crore question. If, as the UPA government claims, there was no wrongdoing in the allocation of coal blocks, why did the Law Minister and officials from the Prime Minister's Office go to such elaborate lengths to doctor the CBI's draft report? And why would they get the Attorney-General and the Additional Solicitor-General to lie in court about the extent of their involvement in the vetting of the report?

And just how small does the fig leaf have to get for the Manmohan Singh government to realise that it is certifiably nude?

by Venky Vembu

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