Chopper-Gate: Truth Wrapped In Mystery

By Malladi Rama Rao

Like Pontius Pilate, who asked about the Truth, and wouldn’t stay for an answer, A.K. Antony, the Tinopal White Minister, could not let the CBI identify the bribe takers in the Chopper-gate. And opted for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the Rs. 362 crore pay offs.

Antony wants to know the truth. “I want to know the truth, I will not run away. I want to punish the guilty (in the Chopper-gate)”, he told the Rajya Sabha on Feb 27. He asked the opposition not to politicise the issue, saying “We thought to satisfy you and, so we thought we can have JPC”.

But the BJP-led opposition is boycotting the JPC. It is second such boycott in our parliamentary history – the first was when Rajiv Gandhi government constituted a JPC to probe the Rs. 64 crore pay offs in the Bofors gun deal in the eighties. B Shankaranand, a Congress senior from Karnataka, headed the all Congress probe. Years later, he had to appear before another JPC as Minister for petroleum in the PV era, when the country was rocked by Harshad Mehta scam.

Probably, the probe into the securities scandal running into Rs. 3, 5000 crore by conservative estimates, was the most transparent inquiry. Ramniwas Mirdha, a Congress veteran from Rajasthan, created many precedents as head of the JPC, largely because the PV government did not generally stand in his way. He summoned Finance Minister of the day. And grilled who is who of the financial sector.

What was more Mirdha kept the media fully informed of the deliberations. The end of the day briefings often took place around midnight to the horror of pink papers which generally go to bed early. So sometimes to oblige them, he used to hold two briefings – one at mid-session and the other at end-session. Mirdha managed to present a near unanimous report which was a big feat given the fact that amongst the JPC members were stalwarts like Jaipal Reddy ( then with the Janata Dal), TN Chaturvedi, ( BJP, a former CAG), and Gurudas Dasgupta, the comrade who can see a phantom even when none exists.

Yet Mirdha’s labours went unnoticed. The government simply ignored them. Same fate was met by the JPC, the Vajpayee government had constituted to probe the Ketan Parekh scam. The two-year-old parliamentary probe into the 2 G Spectrum scam may fare no better though it is still nowhere at the end of its investigations.

By convention and tradition, a JPC can advice, not command the government. Generally the government of the day is loath to set up a JPC and will not mind to let an entire session drowned in a slanging match.

Rajiv Gandhi did not yield to the persistent demand of the opposition for a JPC on Bofors gun deal for months. He did not even entertain the thought of letting an opposition stalwart from Mahaboobnagar, known for his aggressive style, to head the Public Accounts Committee when it was about to ‘pickup’ for examination the CAG report on the Bofors deal. So, the post went to a parliamentarian from a friendly Dravidian party.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stonewalled the opposition demand for JPC probe into spectrum scandal during the winter session in 2010. Only when it became clear that the budget session (Feb-May 2011) too could be a wash out, he announced that ‘in these special circumstances’ his government ‘agrees to setting up of a JPC’.

The Congress has been using all its fire power to resist the summoning of Singh, who, according to the former telecom minister A Raja, was in the ‘loop’. Now Raja himself is keen to appear before the JPC to ‘expose the half-truths’ and to ‘clear his name’. The wish will remain unfulfilled because of the precedent that Public Accounts Committee did not summon him when it examined the spectrum allocation scandal.

JPC, as an extension of parliament, is a forum where members think and act on party-lines. Grandstanding is a natural corollary. Still, the opposition clamours for a JPC for every governmental misdeed under the sun from IPL-gate to Kalmadi-gate. And mostly, the treasury benches reject the demand outright

For a change, the Chopper-gate has seen a role reversal – the opposition doesn’t want but the government has gone ahead with the constitution of JPC. The opposition case rests on the fact that this is a strange case.

The government itself is helpless in getting information from the Italian prosecutors, who have unearthed the bribes in the first place. There is a bribe giver whose identity is known and has been arrested. Quantum of bribe is also known. Identity of the bribe-taker is also known from the Italians though before the eyes of Indian law they only stand as accused till pronounced guilty.

The ‘scam’ broke out in Italy in Feb 2012. Antony ordered a preliminary inquiry by the CBI in Feb 2013. Why did he take so long? Did the delay allow bribe-takers and their patrons the opportunity to destroy every piece of evidence? These are questions for which there are no ready answers.

As the quick recap of JPC history showed, JPC is a talking wonder that goes nowhere except to keep the media happy with few headlines and the opposition occupied with a few talking points. By temperament the opposition should welcome any talking point but in an election year, when time is running out, it craves for something more than talking points. But Antony and his colleagues are willing to play around truth, as they like it.

“Truth”, said Sir Francis Bacon, the Irish born- English Philosopher, who died in disgrace in April 1626, “may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights”. . It is doubtful whether Antony agrees with the creator of empiricism. His quest may let the truth to remain wrapped in a mystery.

( Courtesy The Hans India, which published the article on March 1, 2013)

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