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30 April, 2013

Not playing by the rules

BRP Bhaskar
The joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probing the 2G scam has run into a stalemate. The chief of the Central Bureau of Investigation has admitted to sharing with the political executive a progress report on the coal scandal probe which was prepared on a Supreme Court directive. Parliament has transacted little business in recent days with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party stalling the proceedings demanding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s resignation on the issue of interference in the coal scam investigation.

All these indicate that the government and the opposition are not playing the game according to the rules.

The JPC was set up to look into allegations of corruption in the allotment of 2G spectrum. Several criminal cases in connection with the scam are under investigation or prosecution, and the accused include A Raja, a former minister belonging to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and several senior officials.

JPC chairman PC Chacko recently circulated a draft report which pins the blame solely on Raja and absolves the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister who were apparently aware of his actions. To beat Chacko’s plan to push the draft through the committee, which is equally divided, with his casting vote, the opposition members have written to Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar saying they have lost confidence in him and asking that he be removed. To gain majority in the committee, Congress members have asked her to disqualify three opposition members citing conflict of interest. 

The JPC mechanism was first tried in 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi’s government faced allegations that the Swedish company Bofors had paid $12 million in kickbacks to secure an order for howitzers. Opposition members pulled out of it saying the chairman, B. Shankaranand, was acting in a partisan manner.

Alladi Aruna, of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which was then an ally of the Congress, stayed on and added a dissenting note to the committee’s report. He said later that Congress members were engaged in a cover-up effort. They did not follow the procedures properly and denied members enough time to study the documents.

The JPC failed to identify the beneficiaries of Bofors payments. The Central Bureau of Investigation, which probed the matter, too could not find them. Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian businessman and friend of the Gandhis, whose name came up during the investigation, slipped away.

Between 1992 and 2003 there were three more JPC probes, all into irregularities in the financial market or the commercial sector. Since no member of the government was under the scanner, the committees could complete their work without any hitch. However, there was no meaningful follow-up action.

The 2G JPC has generated more acrimony than any previous probe. Raja offered to testify before it but Chacko turned down the offer. Chacko also rejected the BJP members’ suggestion to summon the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister.    

The poor record of JPCs notwithstanding, political parties still demand setting up of such committees when allegations come up. A proposal to set up a JPC to probe reports of kickbacks in the Agusta Westland helicopter deal, approved by the Rajya Sabha, is awaiting the Lok Sabha’s concurrence.    

CBI director Ranjit Sinha’s admission, in a sworn affidavit, that the agency had shown Law Minister Ashwini Kumar and senior officials of the Prime Minister’s office and the Coal Ministry a report on the progress of the coal scandal investigation before it was submitted to the Supreme Court may prove more troublesome to the government than the confrontation with the opposition in the JPC.

In this investigation, the Coal Ministry is in the position of a suspect since what is being looked into are its alleged wrongdoings. Sharing of the report with officials of the ministry was, therefore, an act of gross impropriety. Since Manmohan Singh personally handled the Coal portfolio at one stage his office’s interest in the investigation cannot be viewed as innocuous.

Sinha’s affidavit does not say whether the agency made any changes in the report at the instance of those who were shown it.  The court is not likely to overlook his silence on this crucial aspect.

The Supreme Court has been keen to ensure that the CBI has functional autonomy, especially in dealing with cases involving members of the political executive. An adverse finding by it on its handling of the coal probe report can have far-reaching consequences. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 30, 2013.

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