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More thick-skinned than any pachyderm

Author: A Surya Prakash
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 14, 2013
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/edit/more-thick-skinned-than-any-pachyderm.html

The Prime Minister pretends as if he was never involved. Most distressing of all, the Attorney General of India and the officials who interfered with the process of justice continue in office, as if nothing has happened

 The brazenness with which the United Progressive Alliance has interfered with the working of the Central Bureau of Investigation’s probe into Coalgate has left citizens wondering whether any institution will remain intact when hopefully, someday, this Government and its Prime Minister bow out of office. While the story of the interference of the Prime Minister’s Office, the then Union Minister for Law and Justice, the Coal Ministry and the Attorney General in the preparation of the CBI’s report to the Supreme Court in this matter is indeed shocking, the lies uttered by key players in this episode have shaken public confidence not just in the Ministers but for the first time in the country’s law officers.

 How despicable the conduct of these individuals has been can be gauged from the following facts: The Government allocated coal blocks to its cronies in an irresponsible manner during UPA1. The Comptroller and Auditor-General of India investigated these allocations and said that by not adopting a transparent method of allocation to private parties through methods like competitive bidding, the Government’s actions had caused a humongous loss of Rs 1,85,591 crore up to March 31, 2011 to the public exchequer. This was far more than the loss caused by the unscrupulous manner in which the Government sold 2G Spectrum to private telecom companies.

 When the CAG report became public, Ministers in the Government hurled abuses at the CAG and sought to ridicule the findings of the auditor. Thereafter, the matter came before the Supreme Court and the court directed the CBI to investigate the allocations and report back to it. It was decided that the CBI would file its report in a sealed cover.

 But, such was the respect that the UPA and its former Law Minister Ashwani Kumar had for the court that they insisted on seeing the CBI’s report before its submission.

 The CBI had said exactly what the CAG had said. Its report spoke of the absence of clear cut norms for allocation of coal blocks. Mr Kumar, who had ridiculed the CAG’s findings earlier, had this inference removed from the CBI report. Among those who were involved in this exercise, which smacks of contempt for the highest court in the country, were the then Law Minister, the Attorney General, the PMO and the Coal Ministry. The Minister summoned the Director of the CBI and the law officer to his office to see the report. Alongwith Attorney General GE Vahanvati, Additional Solicitor General Harin Raval attended this meeting. The Attorney General later summoned CBI officials to his home office. Meanwhile, officials from the PMO and the Coal Ministry landed at the CBI headquarters and asked that they be shown the report. All the characters in this drama suggested changes of some kind or the other or approved the line taken by the Minister.

 The CBI was expected to keep its report confidential because the status of the Government in this case is that of a suspect or an accused in a criminal case. Have you ever come across an investigating officer being asked to show his investigation report to an accused before submission in a court? Secondly, have you ever come across an investigating officer changing the contents of the charge-sheet on the suggestions of the accused? This is common sense and very easily understood by India’s 1.2 billion people, but persons in the Union Government are so drunk with power that this simple logic went over their head.

 But, the story does not end here. When news of the Government’s interference in the CBI’s report came into the open, the persons involved resorted to outright dishonesty. Shockingly, Attorney General Vahanvati, the country’s topmost law officer, claimed in the Supreme Court that he had not seen the CBI report before it was presented to the court. The then Law Minister and his friends in Government resorted to a string of untruths to explain what he had done. It was said that he did not call a meeting of the CBI Director and others. Next, he said he had made only grammatical changes in the report, as if that is the job of the Law Minister. Thereafter, it was said that he had not made any “substantial changes” in the report. Finally, in an attempt to brazen it out, Mr Kumar and his friends argued that as Law Minister he had the right to oversee the legal side of the CBI’s work. As the scandalous conduct of the then Law Minister, the PMO and the law officers came to light, the Supreme Court directed CBI Director Ranjit Sinha to file an affidavit stating exactly who had interfered with the report and what changes were made at their behest and why the court was misled on this issue.

 Mr Sinha’s affidavit contradicted the claims made by the then Law Minister and the Attorney General. He said the Minister made two significant deletions in the report, called two meetings in this connection in February and March, and Mr Vahanvati was present at both these meetings. Further, on March 6, Mr Vahanvati called CBI officers to his home office, saw the report, made some observations and suggested some changes. The PMO and the Coal Ministry had also interfered with the status report — which tells us a lot about the respect that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has for the Supreme Court. In addition, Mr Raval, in a letter to Mr Vahanvati, has also confirmed that both the then Law Minister and the Attorney General directly interfered with the contents of the CBI report. Mr Raval, in addition, has exposed Mr Vahanvati’s dishonesty before the court. Mr Sinha’s affidavit and Mr Raval’s letter gives us an idea of the audacity with which the key players lied to the court and the people about their involvement in this case.

In the light of these facts, the court has indicted the Government for its conduct and asked the CBI whether it is a “collaborator or investigator”. No Government has ever got such a tongue-lashing from the Supreme Court. This moment is one of the most shameful in the history of the Union Government after independence. Yet, the Law Minister was screaming and kicking when he demitted office and he remains defiant to this day. The Prime Minister pretends as if he was never involved and, most distressing of all, the Attorney General and the officials who interfered with the process of justice continue in office as if nothing has happened. Never before have we seen so many thick-skinned persons in one Government. Where do we go from here?
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