The news-reports of suicide committed by BK Bansal, an official in the corporate affairs ministry and his family members, following the raids and enquiries by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), have shocked the country. Since there will be no question of a court case now, the final truth will come out, if at all, when the enquiry is conducted by the CBI in the allegations of excesses, maltreatment and atrocious behaviour of the investigating officers. But, the larger issues posed by this case need urgent attention and should not be pushed under the carpet, as has been the case so far.
Corruption is like a terminal cancer in India. Irrespective of which political party is in power in the states and the Centre, India has not found any answers to the affliction of corruption. In this matter, snail’s pace has become a norm. The Law Commission in its 166th report (1999) had observed:
“The Prevention of Corruption Act has totally failed in checking corruption. In spite of the fact that India is rated as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, the number of prosecutions and more so the number of convictions are ridiculously low.”
The progressive deterioration in the working of CBI has been studied and commented upon by a number of committees and commissions which include, among others, the LP Singh committee, the Shah commission of inquiry in its report on the excesses in the Emergency, the National Police Commission, and the estimates committee and other committees of Parliament, from time to time. The question of a separate legislation for the CBI had figured in Parliament way back in 1970 when YB Chavan, the then Home Minister, had told Parliament that framing a legislation was being examined in consultation with the law ministry. Due to the opposition of the states, this subject has languished since then. After toiling for 14 years finally the goods and services tax legislation is at last on its way to fruition but enacting a legislation for the CBI has not been pursued by any of the governments in power at the Centre.
Public memory is proverbially short. Highly adverse comments on the working of the CBI made from time to time by the Supreme Court have been forgotten. If this is the fate of the pronouncements of the highest court in the land, there is nothing much one can expect in a crucial area of governance, namely eradication of corruption.
Narendra Modi government, on coming to power in 2014, has announced that it would be committed to the dictum of less government and more governance. An important ingredient of such a programme will have to do with eradication of corruption. But, the ball is yet to start rolling.
I had comprehensively examined the various facets of this question in my book, Good Governance Never on India’s Radar and had suggested a national charter delineating 26 action points. I had also emphasised the need for introduction of the inquisitorial system on the pattern adopted by European countries, as opposed to the accusatorial system based on British pattern adopted in India. This will meet with the repeated public demand in several cases that the investigation of the sensitive cases be carried out under the supervision of the higher judiciary. I had also urged that an independent directorate of prosecution should be established to pursue the major cases vigorously, without permitting any political influence to come in the way.
Yet another ingredient of the programme to fight corruption was to entrust the supervision of the CBI to an independent statutory authority, namely the central vigilance commission. This suggestion was made by the Supreme Court itself in the Hawala case but has been resisted by the CBI. Neither has the government been keen on it for obvious reasons. If the Supreme Court finds it important to apply its full weight in the re-organisation of BCCI in the interest of the game of cricket, there is no reason why matters pertaining to waging an all-out war against corruption be permitted to languish for lack of political will and by vested interests.
Public life in the country has become far too muddied over the years since independence. The question of nexus between the politicians, bureaucracy and criminals has been talked about in hushed tones in the corridors of power. The NN Vohra committee report submitted in 1994 is brandied about in this connection. But the background papers on which its conclusions were based have not been made public yet. “Dirty tricks departments”are no longer operative only in the government. Corporates are equally, if not more, in the game! Appointments of malleable officers at the behest of business houses has been a common practice in India for a long time.
In the recent years, allotment of portfolios of ministers too has been done on this basis. Consultancy firms are being employed to influence policy making in the government. Engagement of retired senior officers as consultants is a fig-leaf which is widely prevalent now. In the post-liberalisation environment, even eye-brows are not raised when corporate houses raise issues of their right to privacy against enquiries into their wrong-doings. Politicisation of higher civil services has made a mockery of the pattern of British civil service adopted by India at its independence. This brings out the very many nuances of the problem of tackling corruption in the higher echelons of the government.
Currently, some former secretaries to government of India, with impeccable reputation for integrity and honesty, are being investigated by the CBI. From what is in the public knowledge, mostly, these cases pertain to matters which involve use of discretionary powers. Questions are often raised about the bureaucratic red-tape and delays in decision-making processes in India. It is time we take note of the fact that this is because of our enviable system of transparency, and accountability, not just to Parliament but also to the audit institutions, society at large by honouring the right to information, and openness to the media. Governments in a number of countries do not necessarily operate under these exacting standards. This has meant holding officers responsible for their actions, even long after their retirement. Further, the same standards of rectitude are not applied to the ministers and political executives. In allotments of coal fields, for example, ministers have hardly ever been held responsible.
In the notorious Adarsh co-operative housing society case in Mumbai, successive chief ministers have been permitted to get away with a plea that they were misled by their officers!! How such cases of decision-making at the highest level of government should be investigated and the evidence evaluated needs to be examined afresh. This is not a mere police function. Application of mind must be by an independent outside agency such as the CVC or the Lok Pal, when established, before a case is filed in the court. Are we prepared to go to the basics? Without doing so, it will be futile to expect speedy decision-making and out-of-the-box thinking by the bureaucracy. Rather than remaining engaged with individual cases, it will be much more productive if we address these larger policy and institutional issues.
The author is a former union home secretary and secretary, justice.
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