A couple of days before the Padma awards were to be announced, The Indian Express reported that Sant Chatwal, the controversial NRI hotelier, was on the list. The Express listed Chatwal’s colourful background (a brief stint in jail in 1997, two charge-sheets, bank fraud cases etc.) and expressed surprise at his inclusion.
As Chatwal’s antecedents have long been the subject of discussion in the capital, the report caused a stir in political circles. And because the Express is a respected paper, taken very seriously by the PMO, I imagined that the government would rethink its decision to put Chatwal on the list.
No such luck.
When the awards were announced, Chatwal got his Padma Bhushan.
The reaction was instantaneous. The BJP denounced the award and demanded an explanation. The Times of India reported that Chatwal’s name had not been on the original home ministry list of awardees. Business Standard wrote a thoughtful editorial on the process of handing out these honours. At HT, my colleague, Amitava Sanyal, recalled how Chatwal would always dodge questions about the bank fraud cases. And soon every newspaper in the country — and most TV channels — focused on the award and the controversy it had engendered.
Stung by the bad press, the home ministry took the unusual step of issuing a statement defending the award. The statement referred to Chatwal’s role in swinging the nuclear deal. This was news to most people because the deal was pushed by George W. Bush whereas Chatwal is aligned with the Clintons who are bitter political opponents of Bush. At best, Chatwal may have influenced a few Congressmen or senators but this hardly seems enough to justify a Padma Shri, let alone a Padma Bhushan.
Intriguingly, the home ministry statement actually confirmed that Chatwal had been nominated by the PMO and listed the various cases against him arguing, however, that he had now been cleared.
The statement did nothing to quell the growing tide of outrage. One measure of the indignation was the response on Twitter. When I tweeted on Republic Day that the award sent out the wrong message (Rob a bank: win a Padma Bhushan!) there was enormous resonance and fellow Tweeter Pritish Nandy suggested we file an application under the Right To Information Act to find out how Chatwal got on the list. I agreed and on January 28, Pritish and I sent off our application by registered post.
But more was to come. On January 30, the Express revealed why the government could say “there is nothing adverse on record” about Chatwal. It turns out that, during the life of the UPA government, the CBI “rejected the advice of a string of investigators — including a Special Director and Joint Director — and decided not to appeal his discharge”. In other words, this government let him off.
In a meticulously researched story, the Express revealed that the cases against Chatwal for defrauding Indian banks in a multi-crore rupee scam had been on the CBI’s books for over a decade (Chatwal went to jail in 1997). But in 2007, under the UPA, the CBI ignored numerous recommendations (from a Special Public Prosecutor, a DIG, the Reserve Bank, a Joint Director, its Special Director, its Deputy Legal Adviser, its Additional Legal Adviser and many others) and went with the view of one man, S.K. Sharma, the CBI’s Director of Prosecutions, to bury both charge-sheets against Chatwal.
There is a pattern to this. Wrote Ritu Sarin in the Express, this is “remarkably similar to what happened in a string of politically sensitive cases”. Each time investigators wanted to prosecute a well-connected person, S.K. Sharma was wheeled out to recommend closing the case, over-ruling the investigators and protecting the powerful.
So now we know why Chatwal is not being prosecuted: this government dropped the case!
In the light of all this, you don’t have to look very hard to see why so many people have a problem with the decision to award Chatwal the Padma Bhushan. Even if we take the incredible position that Chatwal reached across the US political divide and somehow influenced the Bush administration to okay the nuclear deal, there is still no case for giving a man with his record a Padma Bhushan. Whatever his nuclear achievements — and in this case, they seem mythical — there is simply too much against him in his past.
I’ve dwelt at length on the Chatwal case because the government seems determined, for some mysterious reason, to brazen it out and it’s important to expose the hollowness of its claims.
But Chatwal is not the problem. He is merely a symptom. The real problem (as I wrote on this page two years ago) is the method by which we select the Padma awardees.
Do you know how it’s done? My guess is you don’t because successive governments have shrouded the process in needless secrecy.
Now, however, thanks to RTI applications, we have some idea of how the process works. We know now that the home ministry appoints a secret committee that is given a list of nominations and asked to choose. But it is only provided the background information that the government wants to provide (not a record of criminal cases against a nominee, for instance) and has only a few hours to choose from over a thousand names.
Besides, the home ministry has traditionally taken the line that even after this committee has met, the PMO can add or delete names at its discretion. Successive presidents have complained about the process. In 2004, A.P. J. Abdul Kalam wrote to the Vajpayee government expressing concern about the choices. And before that, when K.R. Narayanan was vice-president, he headed a committee that recommended cleaning up the system. Many of the committee’s recommendations were simply ignored.
So, the problem did not begin with Chatwal. Nor will it end with him. Some of the NDA’s awardees were also similarly undeserving. In fact, I would argue that Manmohan Singh’s essential decency has actually worked towards cleansing the system — except for such exceptions as Chatwal.
In Britain, the political system is cleaner than ours. Even so, the Honours system has been subject to intense scrutiny and even a Scotland Yard investigation in which the Prime Minister’s top aides were interrogated about dubious decisions.
I’m not suggesting that we need a similar investigation here. (Besides, who would conduct it? The CBI? Ha!) But what we do need is a measure of transparency in the system. We need to know how the winners are chosen and who makes the decisions.
Each year, dozens of deserving people get Padma awards. Most get them purely on merit without any kind of lobbying. But a single dodgy award given to a fraudster or a crook has the effect of diminishing all the genuine awards and making the deserving winners seem smaller.
A single insect can spoil a bushel of grain. A single crook can destroy the credibility of the awards.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)