"You are a caged parrot that speaks only what the master says," the Supreme Court had told the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director while hearing a petition from influential retired bureaucrats and other activists, seeking cancellation of all coal blocks allotted to private companies since 1993 besides an independent probe and a court-appointed special investigation team (SIT).
This comparison of the country's premier investigating agency to a parrot won't be forgotten and has become a part of social history and daily conversations.
One of the key focuses was on the role of the Prime Minister as coal minister for the period 2006-2009 for arbitrary allotments which caused windfall gains to the allottees and wrongful losses to the government.
SC instructions violated
Considering the gravity and sensitivity of the probe, the apex court had given categorical directions to the CBI director to keep all status reports or investigations in the Coalgate scam confidential and not share them with anyone in the government. These instructions admittedly were violated by the government and drew scathing observations from the highest court.
A persistent media exposure followed by a massive public outrage led to the law minister's resignation. And now the demand by the opposition is for the Prime Minister's accountability on several counts as pointed out by the CAG in its reports, with the latest being a joint secretary from the Prime Minister's Office attending the law minister's meeting, in violation of the apex court instructions.
The purpose of my writing this piece is to establish that the CBI being compared to a parrot and the union law minister being forced to resign, which caused a huge embarrassment to the government, could have been avoided had the government heeded the people's outcry earlier. Also, what the Supreme Court is instructing the CBI and the government is exactly what the civil society-anti-corruption movement had been urging for.
Putting it in perspective
In July last year, the key focus of the country-wide civil society movement was on an independent lokpal institution. There was also a demand for setting up an SIT to oversee the probe into the coal block allocations, as also into allegations against other ministers. All allegations were based on either the CAG reports or on matters of official record. The coal block allocation issue relied on the CAG reports.
But the people's movement ran out of stream when the government refused to even consider its demands. The movement broke up with a large number of its main members choosing to form a political party of their own.
Again in November last year, the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Lokpal Bill unanimously reported to the Rajya Sabha on the matter. It improved on the earlier drafted bill, which was the target of opposition by the anti-corruption movement.
The select committee, comprising all political parties, unanimously recommended to accord partial autonomy to the CBI by suggesting that all cases referred by the nine-member lokpal be independent of any government interference in investigation. This is also what the apex court intended to ensure for the CBI (to stop being a parrot in the cage and doing only what the master/government wants it to).
Had the government brought the Lokpal Bill in the winter or the budget session, it would have been passed and become law by now and the Coalgate investigation would have been held under it. This is what the Supreme Court is doing now. Hence the embarrassment to the government was avoidable.
Another issue which caused significant damage was the violation of the SC directive; senior law officers of the government examined, scrutinised and amended the status report of the CBI, which annoyed the honorable judges.
This, too, was avoidable had the Lokpal Bill been passed. In the Select Committee bill, there is a provision for independent directorate of prosecution and for the CBI to have its own lawyers approved by the lokpal. This means had the lokpal been in place, the law minister, law officers, and officials of the two ministries could neither have called the meetings on matters under investigation, nor could have they seen the status report prepared by the CBI. The CBI, too, could have declined to attend such meetings and share documents.
Had the government passed the approved lokpal even with partial autonomy with some essential amendments on transfer and financial autonomy, the government could have saved itself from the humiliation.
Therefore, will the CBI get un-caged now? Was the law minister's forced resignation avoidable? Finally, is the lokpal inevitable? The next hearing is in July. Will nature/justice turn full circle?