Two Indian court verdicts of last week bear out the old dictum “You win some, you lose some.”
First, the success: the Supreme Court eased out of office the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, PJ Thomas, who was installed at the top of the anti-graft machinery while he was an accused in a corruption case.
Now, the failure: a Delhi magistrate’s court allowed the Central Bureau of Investigation to close the case against Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, an accused in the Bofors case, which was the country’s biggest corruption case until the 2G scam surfaced.
In March 1986 the Swedish Radio reported that arms manufacturers AB Bofors had paid kickbacks to Indian politicians and middlemen to obtain Rs14.37 billion order the previous year for the supply of 400 howitzers.
The government’s claim that there were no intermediaries collapsed when the media published documents relating to transfer of funds by the company to several unknown entities, and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had to quit.
Bofors representative Win Chadha, the Hinduja brothers with business interests in India and abroad, and Quattrocchi, a family friend of Rajiv Gandhi, were said to be among the beneficiaries of the deal.
The CBI caught up with Quattrocchi twice - in Malaysia and Argentina - but could not get him to India.
Inability to apprehend foreign offenders is a glaring weakness of the Indian judicial process.
Apart from Quattrocchi and Martin Ardbo, both of whom figured in the Bofors case, former Union Carbon Company chief Warren Anderson, accused in the Bhopal gas tragedy case, and Jean Claude Pingat of the Canadian SNC-Lavalin Group, wanted in the Lavalin case in which Communist Party of India-Marxist state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan is also an accused, are among the foreigners who have dodged legal proceedings.
In 2004, nearly 13 years after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the Delhi high court quashed the charges against him in the Bofors case.
So far, the government has spent Rs 2.5 billion on the investigation of this case.
“How long can we allow the hard-earned money of the aam aadmi (common man) to be used for this case?” asked Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Vinod Yadav while allowing the CBI to end the Quattrocchi chase.
The Edamalayar case had dragged on for 25 years before the Supreme Court last month awarded a year’s rigorous imprisonment to former Kerala minister R. Balakrishna Pillai and two others.
The palmolein case in which the ousted Chief Vigilance Commissioner is an accused has been around for 20 years without going beyond preliminary hearing.
The Lavalin affair, dating back to 1998, is still in the investigation stage.
Against the background of inordinate delays, a decision in the case of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner within six months of Thomas’s assumption of office is a refreshing change.
However, questions about the quality of justice remain.
The Supreme Court quashed Thomas’s appointment, as he is accused No. 8 in criminal case CC 6 of 2003.
The case was registered 12 years after the palmolein deal took place but the trial could not be continued during the past four years as the apex court had stayed the proceedings on a plea by the main accused, former chief minister K. Karunakaran.
The stay was vacated two months ago after Karunakaran died at the ripe old age of 93.
The pending case did not prevent Thomas from moving up the ladder and becoming chief secretary under Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, who had been pursuing the case since he was Leader of the Opposition.
This strengthens the suspicion that his was a case of collateral damage in the war between two political potentates.
If the criminal justice system was reasonably fast the case might have been disposed of years ago and Thomas would have ceased to be accused no. 8.
He might have been found guilty and sent to jail or found not guilty and cleared of all charges.
In the latter case, there would have been no bar to his becoming the Chief Vigilance Commissioner.
Was this then a case where justice was done? Or was this a case where justice was delayed, and consequently denied?
As these lines are written, the “law” is waiting helplessly outside the home of former Kerala State Electricity Board chairman S. Ramabhadran Nair, who was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment along with Balakrishna Pillai.
Aged 81, he is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and does not know he has been convicted.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 7, 2011.