Facing a series of corruption charges, some of them borne out by audit reports and police probes, the last thing that the United Progressive Alliance regime would want is to reinforce in the public mind the image of being a government that seeks to restrain independent agencies from going behind its policies and decisions to look for evidence of wrong-doing. Remarks by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram at a conference organised by the Central Bureau of Investigation are likely to create such an impression. When Dr. Singh said it would not be appropriate for a police agency to sit in judgment over policy formulation without any evidence of mala fides, he may have been voicing serious concern that treating an administrative decision that goes wrong as criminal misconduct may lead to policy paralysis. However, with Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram taking the cue from him and cautioning the CBI and other authorities like the Comptroller and Auditor-General against “overstepping their limits,” it is difficult not to see a pattern. The government is clearly uneasy with recent developments: the CBI wishes to be seen as being independent and wants to scrutinise decisions such as those relating to allocation of coal blocks, and there is greater public and judicial support for granting it functional autonomy.
The UPA government is perhaps not wrong in highlighting the complexities involved in decision-making in the era of economic liberalisation. Also, it has sought to place in perspective the issue of granting autonomy to the CBI: its operational freedom should be distinguished from the need for accountability and executive oversight. If all it wants is that errors of judgment during decision-making should not be misconstrued by an investigating officer as crimes, there should be no quarrel. However, the government itself administers the safeguards available in law and the judicial system that can protect honest policy decisions and honest officials against vexatious enquiries. The requirement that prior sanction is needed before prosecution is launched is intended to filter out misconceived charges. Experience shows that corrupt deals do take place in the garb of overtly proper administrative decisions, while policies and norms ostensibly serving the public interest are on many occasions framed in such a way as to suit vested interests. Great caution is required while seeking amendments to provisions that currently criminalise actions that procure pecuniary advantage to any person without any public interest. Protecting the honest civil servant who makes risky judgment calls is one thing; sweeping dishonest decisions under the carpet of policy-making is quite another.