It is after a very long while that I have read a considered piece by someone owing allegiance to the left. In today’s Indian Express, Dipankar Mukherjee (CPI-M, Rajya Sabha) justifies the need for a CBI inquiry into the sale of the two Centaur hotels in Mumbai. The article can be found here.
The case for a preliminary enquiry exists. That much was, I think, clear even when one went through the 3-part ‘anticipatory defense’ by Mr. Shourie (writing in the same newspaper a few days ago – see here). He had, in his inimitable style, not just decimated a number of uninformed (or under-informed) reporters who posed silly questions to him but had extended the discussion to covering “why I did what I did”. And it is in this that he needs to pause and reflect whether he himself is not using an “elastic foot-ruler”: had this been an instance of a Congress-I disinvestment minister and Arun Shourie, the journalist that he used to be, his conclusions would be quite different than what they are now.
Mr. Mukherjee has made more detailed points in his article (and has of course succumbed to the temptations of exaggerating some accusations) but the core issues are these: One, that these units were to be sold as going concerns and in each of the Centaur examples, not just the actual actions after the event but also the discernible intent in advance point to them being speculative transactions. Two, in respect to the encashment of bank guarantees, why the laxity shown to Mr. Kerkar? After all, is it not for such infringements that Mr. Shourie (the journalist) would reserve his most passionate moral indignation? Why allow the two extensions to Mr. Kerkar, if the agreed procedures were that, should he not pay up, the guarantee is to be forfeited; or, if a DoD official has already opined that the incremental bank guarantee has "infirmities", what business is it of DoD to have the bankers come over and redraft the guarantee – shouldn’t Mr. Kerkar’s company be responsible for submitting a guarantee that meets with DoD’s requirements?
I am completely one with those who believe that Mr. Shourie brought a degree of probity rarely encountered in the executive branch of our government. However, that does not imply he is above the law and/or should have any special privileges in respect to scrutiny of his actions. And when he makes such a big deal of the possibility of an enquiry: “We should look upon allegations and inquiries as one of the ‘conditions of employment,’ so to say; as one of the things we will have to put up with—like transfers to out-of-the-way places—as the price of doing good work in the India of today” Mr. Shourie forgets that others have been living this reality for years, it has always been a ‘condition of employment’ and countless bureaucrats have had to walk through this hell already.
What is to be gained by perpetuating the mistakes (motivated/ unnecessary enquiries) of the past? Just this: our criminal justice system needs a thorough shake-up (on the twin poles of independence for investigating agencies and counterbalance in some shape to check excesses and/or provide some measure of possible relief to those who will be incorrectly charged/implicated in wrongdoing) and unless that happens, the standards should be applied uniformly. Also, note that even this argument presupposed Mr. Shourie’s innocence in terms of both commission and omission. But, isn’t it entirely possible that Mr. Shourie’s placement was a mask (to use the unfortunate term that got Mr. Govindacharya expelled) behind which other, more powerful elements were continuing in their shenanigans? Isn’t it also possible (though less so, I think) that Mr. Shourie was blind to procedural issues (and/or implications) in his zeal to “reform the system”? (If so, he should’ve had spoken up for – and acted towards – reforming the procedures and not to circumvent them and expect the world to applaud.)
And, finally, there is one nugget buried in Mr. Mukherjee’s piece that deserves greater attention. He writes, “The CAG report has been labeled ‘unworthy of the high constitutional authority’, ‘elastic foot ruler’, etc., by those who claim to be the upholders of parliamentary democracy in the country” and then reminds us “If Laloo Prasad Yadav talks about the Election Commission, everybody including the media takes exception. Yet, no one bats an eyelid when CAG is so ridiculed”. Indeed: let us not have our own “elastic foot-rulers” to judge people differently. I am no fan of Mr. Yadav's style of business - but he deserves only the same opprobrium as we are prepared to deliver, in similar instances, on others of his calling.