As ‘Coalgate’ Fire Intensifies, The Government And The CBI Seem Scurrying For Cover

This is my third write-up on Coalgate case before the Supreme Court (SC), following the one on May 1, 2013, titled Coalgate fire ignited, CBI Director feels the heat; does a somersault’.

Continuing from where it had left, the Supreme Court began the day’s (May 8, 2013) proceedings in a whirlwind fashion, yet again, flagging off a number of issues and questions directed both at the CBI and the Government. In the process, without mincing words, the SC took the two to task for their indulgence in having deliberately, with wrongful intention, shared the CBI’s probe status report and also for making some significant changes therein.

Some of the observations and remarks of the SC were so stinging and forthright that the Attorney General (AG) fielding them appeared absolutely clueless as to how to react and respond to them. On his part, however, the AG on whom the Law Minister had earlier sought to pass on the blame for calling the CBI Director for a meeting submitted before the SC that it was at the suggestion of the Minister that he had met the chief of the investigating agency.

Supreme Court Of India

Now let’s take a look at the SC’s observations and remarks. Some of them may seem implied with deeper meanings and may also serve to elicit compulsive thought provoking. First, about the observations/remarks on the CBI:

  • It’s a sordid saga, CBI is a caged parrot, has many masters.
  • Job of the CBI is to interrogate, not interact.
  • How can CBI have regular interaction with Govt official as stated in the CBI Director’s affidavit?
  • What business the two Joint Secretaries of PMO and Coal Ministry have in visiting the CBI office to peruse the report? They are not part of the team of the CBI.
  • How can officials under the scanner interfere in probe?
  • We gave you power to be like a rock 15 years back, now you are like sand.
  • We want thorough and qualitative investigation in this case.
  • CBI must know how to stand up against all pulls and pressure by the Government.
  • No substantial progress made in the probe after registration of the case.
  • CBI is acting for the corrupt and it cannot go on.
  • How on earth could you make your report available to others?
  • Probe report is not a progress report to be shared with Government.
  • If any change is to be made, CBI would come to the Court.
  • No one will be allowed to peruse the CBI report.
  • No interaction with any person without permission of court.

The SC’s remarks and observations for the Government read as under:

  • Minister can ask for status of probe but cannot interfere in it.
  • No external pressure, no intrusion in CBI must be ensured.
  • While making CBI answerable to the Government, no part of probe can be touched.
  • What about law to free CBI from Government clutches.
  • How can you give justification instead of accepting your mistakes?
  • Heart of the report was changed on suggestions of Government officials. Law Minister along with the two Joint Secretaries in the PMO and Coal Ministry saw the report and made substantial changes.

Turning specifically towards the Attorney General (G E Vahanvati) and the Additional Solicitor General – ASG (U U Lalit), the court noted thus: ‘Word of mouth won’t convince us. Tell us, as CBI lawyers what efforts would be made to give credibility to probe’. To ASG’s submission to the effect that the CBI officials are not versed with crimes of technical nature, the court quickly reacted by saying that ‘since inception you could have asked us’.

Concluding the proceeding for the day, the court gave 3 options to the CBI:

1.     Whether a retired judge be appointed to supervise the probe?

2.     Will the CBI team require more technical experts for investigation?

3.     Nobody except Director, Investigation should see the report.

CBI has been asked to revert on the above questions by July 3, 2013, and the case is listed for next hearing on July 10, 2013. On CBI’s behalf, it was, however, assured to the court that its directions shall be followed in letter and spirit.

In a significant development, in course of the proceeding, was the SC ordering for restoring the services of former CBI officer, Mr Ravikant to be head of the investigation in the present case. It may be recalled that earlier in the midst of the Coalgate investigation, Ravikant was shifted to Intelligence Bureau.

SC’s one specific observation that ‘Heart of the report was changed on suggestions of Law Minister and Government officials’, would need to be elaborated here. What was/ were heart of the report anyway? The answer is: (a) CBI’s draft report  about finding about the Coal Ministry’s ‘Screening Committee’ not preparing any broad sheet/chart for comparative evaluation of applicants; and (b) A sentence about legality of allocations while amendments in the law (introducing auction) were in process – were suggested to be deleted and stood deleted in the end. Any discerning observer can easily read between the line of any such suggestions and the Apex Court has rightly caught hold of the neck of the Government and that of the CBI for such wrongful act.

Notwithstanding the hard hitting remarks and observations of the Supreme Court, look at the manner in which the government of the day have preferred to react. Later in the evening, appearing before the TV news channels, Mr. Manish Tewari, Union I & B Minister of State had this to say:

a)    UPA government never used, abused and misused CBI at all

b)    Government will respond to Apex Court after studying today’s order

c)    Congress credibility not diluted by SC rap on CBI

And Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar (Indian National Congress) chose to say that there is no indictment of the Government, no order of the Supreme Court yet.

Attempting to analyse the Court’s proceedings for the day, I thought the way case was discussed, both the Government and the CBI would probably be scurrying for hiding and seeking some escape routes to save themselves from the public glare. While the CBI’s response was a prompt one saying that the SC’s directions will be adhered to and followed in letter and spirit, the one that came from the Government was a stubborn one. The UPA II seems to keen on clinging on to the power come what may and have become so much so thick skinned that every criticism and abuse, coming as they did from the Apex Court, got deflected from its end. They seem to be buying time for the current crisis to pass over. One wouldn’t, however, know if such stance of the party currently in power is politically correct or is otherwise. The time, in the near future only, will provide us the answer.

Till then, we wait for next hearing on July 10, 2013, for the Supreme Court to take up this case again.

Parting Shots:

May 8, 2013, turned out to be a mixed day for the Government at the centre in a manner that the two news, at one stage, seemed to dilute each other’s impact, if not cancelling each other. The good news was: by midday, belying the political analyst’s calculations and its own expectations, the Indian National Congress had recorded a thumping win (121/223) and had easily dethroned from Karnataka the BJP that could manage a bare 40 seats and were bracketed at second position with JD (S). Corruption was an issue here that perhaps did both BJP and its erstwhile leader, Yeddyurappa’s KJP (only 7 seats) in.

The bad news was: by close of the working hours, the Supreme Court had given a bit of its mind in no uncertain terms to both the Government and the CBI that both may take some time to come to terms with. Here again, corruption is at the forefront of the ongoing Coalgate case but the Government chose to look at it differently.

Many expected a few heads to roll on this day – Railway Minister, Mr Pawan K Bansal for his role in now called ‘Railgate’ and Mr Ashwani Kumar, Law Minister, for his adventurous, wrongful interference in CBI’s probe status report. That it did not happen so was perhaps to buy some more time to stay alive to fight another day.

Narendra Bhagat

Written by

A retired I.A.S. officer, Mr. Narendra Bhagat spends part of his time to blog and write for our magazine. He has authored two books.

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