‘Sealed Envelope’ Procedure Helps to Hide Facts

4 Min
<strong>‘Sealed Envelope’ Procedure Helps to Hide Facts</strong>

Atul Cowshish

Perhaps the term is still in vogue. ‘Sealed envelope’ or the Hindi expression ‘Band Lifafa’ always alluded to bribe. The bribe amount would be given in an envelope, not necessarily closed or sealed, and anyone accidentally witness to the transaction would hopefully not presume that an immoral monetary transaction had taken place.

Of course, bribes have been paid in more upfront and daring manner. Poor Bangaru Laxman, then president of the BJP, was caught on camera in a sting operation accepting a sum of Rs one lakh which, as recorded on camera, he quickly threw into the drawer of his desk. The money he received was for the party he said, while the sting operation by Tehalka suggested that it was offered to facilitate a defence deal.

Whatever the truth, Laxman was soon made to resign as the BJP president. He died in March 2014 weeks before the BJP was to rise to power.

There have been many sting operations pertaining to alleged bribes to politicians or influential people but as far as one remembers there has been no sting operation on money paid as bribe in a sealed envelope. The reason could be simple: Even if there is footage of a sealed envelope being handed over to a politician or anyone else, for that matter, it cannot be called a proof of money having been paid for immoral purposes.

Allegations of subterfuge in offering bribes—using ingenious ways—have also been made. Maverick politician and lawyer, Ram Jethmalani had alleged that P.V. Narasimha Rao, as prime minister, had received a hefty bribe of several lakhs in a suitcase delivered at his official residence in New Delhi. It sounded bizarre but such was the atmosphere then that it generated enough credence to create anxious days for Rao and the government he headed.

The purpose of recalling these anecdotes is not to suggest even remotely that the ‘sealed covers’ submitted in the courts have something to do with illegal gratification or bribe money. But just as bribe is almost always given in a hush- hush manner in the hope that the transaction does not attract public notice, a submission in court in a sealed envelope is designed to prevent the public from knowing the truth about something.         

The government has found it a useful practice that hides uncomfortable facts that the Opposition raises and prevents the public from knowing the truth—though there will inevitably be guesses. The procedure of handing over information in a ‘sealed cover’ or ‘sealed envelope’ is a useful political tool, if nothing else.

In the current political storm over the Adani-Hindenburg controversy, the apex court refused to accept information given by the government in a ‘sealed cover’ on setting up a panel to probe the controversy which seems to have rattled the government.

The court did not think such a procedure would be accepted as credible because the names of most of the panelists would have come from the government which is alleged to have favoured billionaire Gautam Adani who the Hindenburg report has accused of stock market manipulations on a massive scale in order to race to the top rung of world’s billionaires.

The ‘sealed cover’ procedure itself is neither new nor unacceptable in jurisprudence. But it shot to prominence and got entangled in political crossfire in 2018 when the government had submitted certain details in a ‘sealed cover’ to the Supreme Court about the controversial Rafale jet fighter deal with France.

The government was not willing to disclose publicly these details, allegedly for reasons of defence and security. According to the government, the information sought and withheld from public on pricing of the jets was a subject of a CAG report which has been examined by the Public Accounts Committee.

It is not understood what harm the nation’s defence and security would have come if details of the revised Rafale negotiations concerning the price offered by India were to be made public.  

That shows how transparency is denied by the practice of submitting in a sealed envelope details or information sought by the courts. It is understandable when the government refuses to share with the people certain information that has a bearing on the defence and integrity of the nation, or even friendly relations with foreign countries. If the reason is genuine and not prompted by partisan or political considerations it will be accepted, though perhaps after making some routine protests.

Court petitions on the Adani controversy were filed undoubtedly by those who are political adversaries of the prime minister. They are asking the government to furnish details of the role of the country’s most powerful and the alleged favours shown to Adani as his fortunes climbed up spectacularly in a matter of few years.

A straight answer would be either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but in no case will it amount to betraying a secret that will compromise the country’s safety in any manner. The secrecy over Adani’s relations with the decision-makers looks unwarranted when few appear to doubt his proximity to the prime minister.  When a government suggests names in a closed envelope of people who will constitute a probing panel it looks like an exercise to pre-empt backlash against it. But will not clear doubts in the minds of the people and the political rivals. Transparency will go for a toss. (SAT)