CBI needs to ponder over how it got it so wrong
The CBI deciding to drop its cases against then Sebi chief CB Bhave, then member KM Abraham, former coal secretary PC Parakh and Aditya Birla Group chairman KM Birla is not just a matter of vindication for these gentlemen, it is a matter of utter shame. Not just does the CBI have egg all over its face, the questions for the government of the day are, one, how it plans to protect civil servants while doing their job and, two, how are corporates expected to remain honest. Despite the seizure of unexplained amounts of cash from the Birla office and a diary whose contents allegedly suggest political payoffs were made—the company will have to deal with both allegations separately—this newspaper has consistently asked how the Birlas, or any other corporate for that matter, were supposed to get coal mines if there was no transparent policy for allocation; the same principle applies to other minerals, even telecom spectrum and aviation bilaterals.
Which is really the point made by then finance minister P Chidambaram last November when he said that there has to be a distinction between policing and policy-making; indeed, Chidambaram even spoke of mens rea—that is, just because a policy helps a certain group, in this case, Birla—it doesn’t mean the bureaucrat had a criminal bent of mind. The argument was taken further by Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi in July when, while recommending the government approach the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling that government permission was not required for the CBI to prosecute senior bureaucrats, he said it ‘is a matter of inference of corrupt motive for the decision, with nothing to prove directly any illegal gain to the decision-maker’.
While that means the government has to look at transparent allocation policies, it has to be kept in mind it is difficult to keep the private sector from trying to influence the government if there are shortages in the economy. If the government does not free up gas prices, or allow merchant coal mining, and there is a shortage, two things will happen. Either prices will shoot through the roof, or private players will try to influence government, and legitimately so—a fertiliser unit running on gas is within its rights to petition government when, due to a shortage of gas, it changes the order and decides city gas units will get first charge over cheaper gas. Similarly, you can’t have a corruption-free India as long as the government has the power to behave in an arbitrary manner, to take away or grant tax breaks, to allow some licences to be rolled over and others not. This case is about the CBI getting it totally wrong, but it is not just about the CBI.