No babu-protection can also hit decision-making
Given how many bureaucrats have tended to go along with the political leadership on unsavoury deals—and this is despite the Constitutional protection they get—the Supreme Court’s verdict on Section 6A comes as a major relief both to the CBI as well as to the lay public. In this idyllic world, the moment news comes in of a corrupt bureaucrat—through a citizen complaint?—the CBI swoops in to investigate him, and justice gets done. The corrupt bureaucrat, to carry on with the narrative, realises he no longer has any political cover, so it is either quit or stick to the straight and narrow.
Real life, however, tends to be a bit different. If you look at the number of cases where the government has withheld permission for a probe, they aren’t really that many, egregious as each individual instance might be. Though the system of the government granting permission to the CBI to probe senior bureaucrats has certainly been abused, it is important to look at the damage removing this can cause. In the case of the obviously corrupt, there is little doubt the Court has struck a blow for justice. But there are several cases, some of which the CBI is probing at the moment—the interrogation of former coal secretary PC Parakh being the latest example—where you are dealing in not just grey, but shades of grey; when private sector firms like Hindalco are also producing for the country, why should coal blocks be reserved for just public sector ones, and as it happens, firms which are not as efficient either. Should Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL) be privatised—to take the case against former disinvestment minister Arun Shourie—without the specific permission of Parliament? The government took the decision aided by the legal opinion it got, but the Supreme Court later ruled—in a different case, though—such permission was required. Any reasonable person looking at the shape HZL was in, and how it has been turned around since it was privatised, will agree Shourie did the right thing. But, were CBI permission to probe be given easily, or not required at all, which bureaucrat will take a decision in either the Hindalco or the HZL case?
Not only do such situations arise regularly, the entire gas pricing issue is a live example of the problems that blanket permission for CBI probes can result in. In this case, various people, including some in the media, have carried on a campaign that the gas hike was aimed at benefitting just Reliance Industries. As this newspaper has pointed out, the government and ONGC gain more and, more important, the alternative to higher gas prices is to import more, often at double the price. Even with a government cover, the bureaucracy is dilly dallying over raising prices—imagine what it would do if there was no such cover and it lived in constant dread of the next Prashant Bhushan PIL.