2g Scam: Cabinet Responsible, Anyone Accountable?
Two events on a single day brought out in obvious relief the distortion in the Indian mindset that renders democracy into a farce. First, giving the ruling on the petition by Dr Subramaniam Swamy on the 2G scam the Supreme Court (SC) blamed the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) for the inordinate delay in giving sanction for prosecution. The court ruled that in future all decisions regarding grant of sanction for prosecution must be within the time frame of four months. This welcome ruling was marred by the unnecessary observation made by the Court exonerating the Prime Minister. The Court said: “We have no doubt that if the Prime Minister had been apprised of the true factual and legal position regarding the representation made by the appellant, he would have surely taken the appropriate decision…By the very nature of the office held by him the PM is not expected to personally look into the minute details of each and every case placed before him…”
Secondly, on the same day Defence Minister Mr AK Antony placed all blame for the dispute related to the Army Chief’s date of birth squarely on the military and absolving his ministry. He said: “For 36 years, two branches of the same institution maintained two dates of birth and that is why this controversy… I don’t agree… that it is a civil-military controversy.” The Army Chief General VK Singh concurred with the Minister. One can sympathise with the SC for being deferential towards the PM. One can appreciate the Army Chief for loyally endorsing his Minister. Both seem to be actuated by the desire to bury controversy and get on with the job. But both are horribly wrong. And unless this wrong is righted there is no hope of reforming India’s flawed democracy and tottering governance.
In a major setback to the government, the Supreme Court on February 2 quashed all 122 spectrum licences granted during the tenure of former communications minister A Raja. It has also said that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) would submit its report on the 2G scam probe to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). The Court has left it to the discretion of the CBI-court whether the then finance minister P C Chidambaram should be taken to task or not. If anything, the verdict makes the points that I had made in this column once all the more relevant.
Just one week before Mr Raja was charge sheeted the recently leaked Finance Ministry note had been prepared on March 25, 2011. The note made clear that Home Minister Mr P Chidambaram, then the Finance Minister, was initially opposed to Mr Raja’s decision not to auction the Spectrum 2G licenses but eventually did not prevent him. That disclosure created an uproar and tension between Mr Chidambaram and Finance Minister Mr Pranab Mukherjee.
Mr Mukherjee subsequently clarified that the note was a background paper intended to achieve a consensual approach by different ministries on the contentious issue of 2G Spectrum licenses. Mr Mukherjee also defended Mr Chidambaram. He said that the note was prepared with inputs from several ministries including Law, Finance and Telecom, as well as the cabinet secretariat and the PMO. It may be recalled that the note was released by the cabinet secretariat in response to an RTI application. Mr Mukherjee’s letter makes clear therefore that all the ministers concerned were in the loop about what Mr Raja was up to. Mr Mukherjee wrote that Mr Raja could possibly “prima facie be held guilty”. However “Mr Chidambaram cannot be accused of any such thing.”
Mr Raja was booked for criminal conspiracy, cheating and forgery under sections 120B, 420, 468 and 471 IPC, and under various sections of Prevention of Corruption Act. In the charge sheet the CBI gave the details of how the conspirators caused a loss of Rs 30,984 crore to the state exchequer. In the light of the note dated March 25, 2011, and Mr Mukherjee’s subsequent clarification, and the fact that it was released by the Cabinet Secretariat creates powerful circumstantial evidence that the PM, the FM and the HM were all aware before April 2, 2011, when Mr Raja was charge sheeted, of what he had done during 2008-2009 when he was issuing the licenses. But it was the Supreme Court and not the government that ordered the CBI to probe Mr Raja. This is what raises the nagging questions.
The Prevention of Corruption Act makes clear that even without direct complicity or motive of profit if any official is aware of the state being defrauded and does not act to prevent it, he or she becomes an abettor open to criminal prosecution. Section 10 of the Act reads: “Whoever, being a public servant, in respect of whom either of the offences defined in Section 8 or Section 9 (defrauding the state) is committed, abets the offence, whether or not that offence is committed in consequence of that abetment, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall be not less than six months but which may extend to five years and shall also be liable to fine.”
The question raging in public debate is which ministers of the UPA government are guilty. In the light of the above facts should not the question be which ministers are not guilty? (RP)
The SC should know that the evidence related to the 2G scam did not require study of minute details to conclude that prosecution was justified. Even a child knew that a prima facie case existed. By its exoneration of the PM and castigation of the PMO the Court legitimised incompetence. If the PM is not responsible for the functioning of his office, who else is? During a TV debate on the subject one journalist endorsing the Court said: “The PM was responsible but not accountable.” Did he consider the absurdity of his remark? If the official responsible is not accountable, should accountability be thrust on someone irresponsible?
Similarly the Army Chief very well knows that he had for years asked the Military Secretary to rectify the divergence of his birth date as recorded in the two departments of the Army. While this had been pending for decades was the Defence Ministry not aware of this discrepancy? Did the Defence Minister not have the authority to intervene and rectify the mistake? What, after all, are the responsibilities and duties of the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister? Or do they have no real responsibilities at all?
And that is what brings us to the nub of the problem. Our system has degenerated to one in which there is power without responsibility, and responsibility without accountability. This distortion has shattered the functioning of democratic governance. It has created the notion that unless an official personally has his hand in the till he is innocent regardless of what his juniors working under him might be doing. This notion has made a mockery of the well-established principle of constructive responsibility that devolves on every minister in the discharge of responsibility. It is this norm of constructive responsibility that ensures adequate performance by officials in any healthy democratic system.
Today the entire Indian nation is participating in a silent conspiracy of furthering hypocrisy that destroys governance. The PM and the Defence Minister are considered decent individuals because everybody knows that they have no real power. The real authority rests with an extra-constitutional centre of power, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. In a recent article in The Statesman Mr MG Devasahayam criticised President Pratibha Patil who as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces did not lift a finger to defuse the crisis involving the Army Chief. That is a start. More and more people need to point out the accountability that necessarily accompanies responsibility. More and more people need to take a good look at the Constitution to appreciate what our political system ought to be and what it has become. India needs a system in which there is power with responsibility and responsibility with accountability. Until that is achieved good governance will elude us.
By Rajinder Puri