Normally a great admirer and defender of the CBI, this one time I am a little queasy about the manner in which it has gone about nailing an industrialist of great repute. My unease is mainly about the language and tenor of the FIR. I am not at all comfortable with the term used: ‘criminal conspiracy’. That is the expression permitted by criminal law, and one which is normally employed to describe apparent collusion between individuals who had had a meeting of minds to the detriment of public interest.
I am rather nonplussed with the CBI’s omission (read reluctance) to identify the ‘competent authority’, who gave the final nod to the proposal to sanction a coal block to Hindalco headed by KM Birla. This is where the CBI has been squarely accused of timidity and a show of favouritism to people in high places. Was this failure to identify the person, who is behind the legal entity, tendentious, or was it an inability to come to a firm conclusion as to who that personality was?
There are only two guesses here. Was it the Minister of State for the coal ministry or was it the Prime Minister who was the full-fledged minister holding the portfolio at that time? Only a physical scrutiny of the file in question would shed light.
According to one speculation, the file never went up to the Union minister but stopped with the Minister of State (MoS). If this was the case, you cannot hang the PM. It is the MoS to whom the blame should attach.
There is also a controversy, as in the 2G case, over the CBI’s apparent reluctance to question the Prime Minister. The latter is not above law, either in office or after he demits office. He does not enjoy any immunity. A man of unimpeachable integrity, Manmohan Singh would actually volunteer to be examined by the CBI, if only to clear his name. Also true is that it is the investigating agency that would decide when to go across to him to get facts clarified. Remember the Prime Minister is the CBI’s ultimate boss as the Department of Personnel functions under the former.
Indian industry is rightly incensed over the CBI action. By all accounts Birla enjoys a huge reputation. But then the law does not draw a distinction between the mighty and the lowly. In this context, the recovery of Rs25 crore in cash at one of the Hindalco offices does not enhance the reputation of the group. We know that in our country very few can conduct business without liquid cash that normally does not enter books of record. When such cash reaches staggering heights, as in this particular case, eyebrows are naturally raised. But it would be unfair to link this discovery with the allotment of a coal block.
CBI-baiters are once again hyperactive, accusing it of rash and mindless action. This I think is unfair. The agency is under obligation to produce quick results following the apex court’s unhappiness at its tardiness in Coalgate. You must remember that the action against Birla was a sequel to a sustained Preliminary Enquiry (PE). If this had yielded solid facts which showed impropriety, the CBI had no alternative but to register a Regular Case (RC). Only an RC would permit the conduct of searches and effecting of arrests. So you cannot fault the CBI for what it has done. I am at the same time relieved that it has not resorted to any arrests.
This alone would point to a certain logic, propriety and sanity. I understand the former Coal Secretary PC Parakh is also a man of great reputation. Any peremptory action against him would send the wrong signal to the entire civil service. He should be allowed to explain himself. The problem is the written word is supreme, and if documents do not support any claim that he had been pressured to revise the Screening Committee’s decision, he will have to face the music all by himself.
The author is a former CBI Director