Without Honour


By B.G. Verghese
The Emperor has on no clothes at all. Recent events over the “coalgate” affidavit sought by the Supreme Court from the CBI have shown up the Government as an association of bumblers without honour. Rather than admit an error and resign with honour, the Law Minister has forgotten his oath of office and sought to defend the indefensible and plunge the nation into a situation of confusion and shame.

A document being prepared by the CBI at the instance of the Supreme Court investigating the facts and sequence of events surrounding the coal allocation controversy was illegitimately seen and doctored by the Government. This was brazenly denied, then proven, leading to absurd explanations (“making grammatical corrections”) followed by recrimination and finger pointing. The Additional Solicitor-General resigned,saying he has been made a scapegoat by the Attorney-General who has in turn denied any knowledge or wrongdoing. The Solicitor-General has opined that it was wrong of the Law Minister to have summoned the CBI Director to a conference on his report. The Government has been reduced to a laughing stock and its credibility both at home and abroad has taken (another) severe knock.

The Court has observed that this litany of lies has “eroded trust” and its task must now be to “liberate” the CBI from extraneous political influences. The CBI chief has pleaded the he is “part of the Government” and the CBI is “not autonomous” but part of the “system”, a statement that renders him unworthy of his office. This view has been endorsed by the Government which swears by autonomy but is determined to keep all levers of power in its hand.

Who authorised Joint Secretaries in PMO and the Coal Ministry to scrutinise the (draft) CBI report? Both they and their seniors, who may have so instructed them, and their political masters, the Coal Minister and even the Prime Minister must take the rap. Official duties do not include cooking up the facts or blocking an independent probe of official transactions by the CBI when so ordered by the Supreme Court as has been alleged. What business did these officials have to go over the CBI’s investigation report? Sadly, none had the gumption to hold his/her ground and refuse to do anything that weighed against their conscience. This is because of a tradition on the part of the political class of undermining bureaucratic independence by penal transfers and postings and denying upright officials their due.

The Attorney-General does not appear to have led from the front and as an independent legal adviser to the Government and friend of the Court did not rise to the occasion. Sadly, no one emerges with honour. Not even the Opposition whose primary agenda was to block the functioning of Parliament – a separate issue but a dastardly attack on the democratic soul of India that cannot be extenuated. The next round will unfold when the Supreme Court resumes hearings in a few days. No wrongdoer or fence-sitter should be spared, howsoever “senior” or “eminent”.

Rather than hold the Government to account, the BJP-led Opposition continued its destructive game of blocking Parliament and permitted the government to adopt the budget grants and Finance Bill without a  vote.

The agenda of “liberating” the CBI from official clutches for wholly partisan ends by successive administrationsis all set and the opportunity must not be lost to put matters right, cutting through self-serving alibis and reasoning. The JS Vermacriteria for the appointment and conduct of the CBI Director needs to be revisited and autonomous processes placed beyond ambiguity. The Single Directive that enjoins Government approval to prosecute joint secretaries and more senior officials must go. It has been grossly misused in the name of protecting honest officials from mischievous pressure and blackmail but also from self-serving motives. Those making false charges must be so swiftly and condignly punished as to reduce or nullify any incentive to do so. If this takes time it is largely because due process has become no process. To extend the Single Directive shield to retired officials, as contemplated, would be to compound folly. 

The need for bureaucratic autonomy is again proven by the loud mouthed threat of lawless UP ministers that no policeman shall act without their leave. And now R.R. Patil, Maharashtra’s Home Minster has run wild and assumed powers to promote policemen from the sub-inspector level upwards. This will undermine the authority of the DGP and goes against the grain of the much touted but largely unimplemented police reforms.

Systemic rot more than reform is the malaise affecting good governance. But the political class, which manipulates the system with the aid of criminal elements, will simply not permit any cleansing in the name of “democracy” and “debate”. The Opposition too is deeply suspicious of system-change in the belief that the real intention is to cover up. Procedure has always trumped performance. Honest bureaucrats who stand up to the system are sought to be crushed.

The acquittal of Sajjan Kumar by a lower court of charges pertaining to his alleged rolein the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi has caused widespread outrage. Twenty-nine years after the event the matter inexcusably lingers. Street protests are understandable, but the answer must be to appeal to a higher court and ensure expeditious disposal of the matter. No more adjournments and long dates for the next hearing should be allowed. The acute shortage of judges is a major cause of judicial delays. But why should this deficiency be allowed to persist over decades!

Meanwhile, national attention has moved to two external events where a section of the political class, media and political opinion has irresponsibly exploded in jingoism. The first pertains to the savage attack on an Indian,Sarabjit Singh, an alleged life-sentenced “terrorist”, by fellow-inmates in Lahore Jail resulting in his death. The nation had reason to be angered but careless security rather than a deeply laid conspiracy would seem to be the underlying reason as in the case of the unconscionable tit-for-tat attack on a Pakistani prisoner by inmates in Jammu jail, leaving him seriously injured in hospital.

It is not clear what action the Government could have taken before or since these tragic events. Fanning anger to hysteria and demanding instant “action”, is dangerous and could lead to an escalatory confrontation. Sarabjitwas given an emotional funeral in his home village in Punjab but why with state honours? What message is this intended to send and to whom? The Indo-Pakistan judicial commission on prisoners has fortunately met and decided on future ameliorative measures. These should be impleented speedily and honestly.

The other event is the continuing Chinese intrusion nearDaulet Beg Oldiin NE Ladakh. The Chinese claim innocence and want India to dismantle certain “fortifications” before it withdraws. This is illogical but the Government has rightly kept its cool and the Foreign Minister has not called off his forthcoming visit to Beijing preparatory to the Chinese premier’s visit to India. Here again, calls to disclose India’s options and indulge in sabre rattling is infantile. The best course is to remain cool, negotiate, but press on with on-going measures to strengthen the country’s logistics and defensive capability.



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