A tryst with clean administration? When Prime Minister I.K. Gujral made an impassioned plea for a fight against corruption at a meeting with top industrialists and followed it up with his Independence Day address from Red Fort, he appeared to be just mouthing the mandatory rhetoric. But two days later Gujral followed up his promise with a concrete step by setting up a cell within the Prime Minister's office (PMO) to deal with anti-corruption cases.
The 'low-profile' cell will be coordinated by the prime minister's principal secretary N.N. Vohra, a former home and defence secretary who authored the 'Vohra report' on the politician-criminal nexus and is familiar with the working of enforcement agencies and government departments. The day-to-day work of the anti-corruption cell will be under the charge of a joint secretary, who will be assisted by two other officials. On an average, the PMO receives 4,000 corruption-related complaints everyday; the cell will have to sift through these and forward any complaint where a prima facie case can be made out to the appropriate agency.
To show that he means business, Gujral has also directed Vohra and cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramaniam to ensure that all corruption-related cases pending clearance with the government for the last 10 years be cleared forthwith. On August 21, he held a review meeting to oversee steps for a time-bound disposal of cases and their monitoring on a regular basis. In fact, Vohra spent the whole week holding detailed discussions with CBI chief R.C. Sharma and chief vigilance commissioner S.V. Giri to expedite cases.
But how will the panel function? Suggestions that it be made a single-window cell open to the general public were turned down as that would entail long queues, making the whole operation unwieldy. Instead, the cell will be something of a 'clearing house' for cases, particularly those which involve contracts exceeding Rs 500 crore. Without any legal charter or authority to prosecute, the panel will coordinate between difference government agencies like the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate, the Intelligence Bureau and allied agencies and follow up cases to their logical conclusion. The PMO has also sounded off chief ministers in this regard, asking them to hold a meeting in Delhi and telling them to adequately brief the several hundred, often inefficient, anti-corruption bureaus.
But besides administrative inputs, setting up yet another official agency to deal with one of the biggest malaises afflicting the country requires a great deal of political will. Which begs the question, does the prime minister have what it takes? Says CPI(M) politburo member Prakash Karat: "It is a good step. We think that any step to counter corruption will be welcome. How the cell will work is quite another matter. We will have to wait and see." Besides political parties, bureaucrats are also happy with the step. "Any such step is welcome," says Kiran Bedi, special secretary to Delhi's lieutenant governor. "I think the fact that the prime minister has mooted the idea on such an important day speaks volumes for itself. "
Several questions, however, remain unanswered. Will it go the way of other specialised agencies? Will it merely duplicate the work of other anti-corruption organisations? A former cabinet secretary, requesting anonymity, says enough powers are vested with the cabinet secretariat to check corruption: "The cabinet secretary himself is all-powerful. He can begin investigations. He can stop them. No single important file or contract is cleared without his approval. In addition, he has a total of seven directorates under him, including the Directorate of Public Grievances, which handles the same nature of work that is going to be undertaken by this cell in the PMO. And what about the corrupt secretaries to the government? Can Gujral revert them back to their state cadres?" For his part, Vohra says he is optimistic about the cell but declines to get into a discussion on the subject, saying, "all would be clear soon".
But investigators say that for any anti-corruption cell to function effectively requires solid political will and support. They point to Gujral's directive on 'clearing' cases pending for the last 10 years. Among them are several high-profile cases like Bofors and HDW in which political meddling over the years has left the original FIRs largely redundant, with the cases meandering away into semi-obscurity.
From the CBI itself, there are a total of 150 requests to the government for granting of permission to prosecute politicians. These include corruption charges against several 'heavies' like Satish Sharma, Sheila Kaul, Sukh Ram and P.K. Thungon. Interestingly, in cases such as allotment of petrol pumps by Sharma and shops by Sheila Kaul, requests for government sanction have been pending for nearly three months. In addition to piling up the backlog, such lack of sanction has hampered investigations. "Unless we get the clearance, we are unable to proceed further. Though a reminder is sent once every fortnight, it seems to fall on deaf years," says an official long connected to the agency.
A classic in this line of governmental dithering is the Czech pistol case where the CBI made a request in 1993 for launching prosecution charges against an additional secretary and joint secretary in the Home Ministry. The request was finally turned down in 1997. Similarly in the Bofors case, the CBI's plea to prosecute former bureaucrats Gopi Arora and S.K. Bhatnagar after intensive interrogation has so far not been okayed by the Home, Defence and Personnel ministries.
AND if you add the plethora of cases pending before the Central Vigilance Commission, the ensemble is complete. Well-placed sources in this premier anti-corruption body say that dozens of complaints are received by them daily but very few of them actually end in conviction. As per the latest count, more than 2,000 cases are pending with them and in some of the cases requests for prosecution are not cleared even when it concerns officials who have long retired after a monetarily fulfilling life. As for the vigilance departments in the states, they are virtually handmaidens of the incumbent chief minister.
No wonder there is a measure of cynicism over the PMO cell. Says the BJP's K.R. Malkani: "It is not my impression that the prime minister is serious about corruption. After all, his main backer, Congress chief Sitaram Kesri, is on record saying that communalism is a more important issue than corruption. Look at the way Laloo Yadav is wallowing in the government's captive luxury in Patna. Are these signs that corruption is being met head on?" And with Malkani's opinion echoed among politicians and the public alike, the panel has much to live up to.