Of honesty, that is. Even the most apparent epitome of clean conduct can have a blemish or two.
The summons issued to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the case of alleged coal block allocation scandal has a lot of merit. Aditya Birla group chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla asking for the Talabari II block for his company Hindalco and getting it through the then premier’s exercise of discretionary powers indicts both the apparent crony and his benefactor. “The PM desires that this matter (KM Birla’s letter) be pursued on priority so that a decision is arrived at on this long-pending matter (allotment of coal block) at the earliest so that the employment and revenue potential of the project is fully achieved,” one file noting quoted in the court order said. Singh, the court said, had allowed the coal block allocation to be “reopened” although he had initially permitted approval of the minutes of the 25th screening panel recommending allocation to Neyveli Lignite Corporation Ltd. As per the court’s observations, Birla “tapped all his political channels” to secure the block, including persuading Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to write a recommendation letter to the then prime minister. The judge is convinced, however, it was not Patnaik, but Singh who ensured that “Talabira II, reserved for the public sector, ended up being allotted to a private firm and therefore his actions “prima facie resulted in loss to NLC and facilitated windfall profits to a private company…” In doing so, the court notes, Singh disregarded the opinion of senior PMO officers KV Pratap and Javed Usmani. Remember that serious judicial pursuit had begun after the Supreme Court-appointed special public prosecutor RS Cheema submitted to the court last November that there was enough evidence to take cognisance of offences against Birla, former coal secretary PC Parakh and others. Simply, if Birla is accused of pushing the then government for a block, how can Singh be not guilty of yielding to the pressure? As for law, Section 319(1) CrPC states, “Where, in the course of any inquiry into, or trial of, an offence, it appears from evidence that any person not being accused has committed any offence for which such person could be tried together with the accused, the court may proceed against such person for the offence which he appears to have committed.” Hence, the argument that the CBI had not found enough evidence against Singh initially does not wash.
The accusation that the present government is indulging in a witch-hunt against its political adversary sounds like a drowning man catching a straw. First, the much maligned CBI had only hinted at Singh’s role in the scam; it was Singh who owned up the decision that the court finds misplaced. Second, it was a junior investigating officer, hardly a political player, who had insisted before then CBI director Ranjit Sinha that Singh must be questioned. We all know now how ‘impartial’ Sinha was, thanks to the efforts of activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan. Third and most important, it is the court that has asked the CBI to examine Singh. The investigating agency may be accused of being a “caged parrot”, the court is not. This is no case of political vendetta or witch hunting. It is clear from the demeanour of the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and spokespersons that they are not gloating over the summons served to the former prime minister. Indeed, as the news about the special CBI judge’s order spread, there was palpable sympathy in the ruling party ranks for the former PM. “Whatever else you may hold him guilty of, his integrity cannot be questioned,” said a senior minister, surprising many engaged in an intense debate over the merits of the order. If we must turn the debate political, it can also be speculated that the Congress is rallying behind the accused lest he should spill the beans in case he feels marginalised or deserted in his party! In fact, political executives across party lines in different States will be indicted if the investigation is thorough and prosecution unrelenting.
Anyway, what stand a political party would take on a given issue is that party’s prerogative. From a neutral perspective, it must be said that our society’s fascination for angels and demons must end. Leaders from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to Manmohan Singh to Arvind Kejriwal have been deified and demonised by rival political camps. It is time we realised we are all ordinary mortals, capable of making bad judgements and even turning corrupt, and the Gandhis, Singhs and Kejriwals have risen from our midst. At best, a Singh can betray more integrity than many; that does not make him an unquestionable saint.