A JPC without documents, investigations or even an FIR on which to base its inquiry in the AgustaWestland bribes case cannot perform a meaningful role

The solution offered by Congress leaders on how to uncover the truth behind allegations of bribery in the acquisition of helicopters from AgustaWestland

is that a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) be formed which should, among other actions, chase the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to register a First Information Report (FIR).

Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Kamal Nath and Mr. K. Keshava Rao of the Congress Party mooted and defended this idea despite a walkout by the Opposition over the suggestion of a JPC. Irrespective, a JPC on Choppergate has been announced with 10 members from the Rajya Sabha and 20 from the Lok Sabha, and backed by the United Progressive Alliance, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party.

Past experience

In reality, a JPC on this alleged defence bribery case can achieve little going by the experience of other JPCs — particularly the JPC on the 2G scam headed by Congressman P.C. Chacko, and the politics of its internal functioning. The most crucial aspect of the investigation of the alleged bribery case relates to identifying the money trail, since both the country of origin and the amount of bribe are known. But this is hardly a task for the JPC, since it has neither the investigating power nor the powers to liaison with international governments to establish the route or recipients of the alleged illegal payments.

Second, unlike the 2G JPC which was formed nearly one year after the FIR was filed in October 2009, and post the Supreme Court order of December 16, 2010, to monitor the CBI investigation, the defence scandal has nothing to offer except a Preliminary Enquiry (PE). The proposition that the JPC should chase, direct or question the CBI to file an FIR, is simply unworkable and also reverses established procedure — converting the JPC into a reporting authority for the CBI, which it is not.

Additionally, the JPC on 2G, whose meetings have been marred by walkouts, disagreements and sharp divide, shows that it began its sittings after thousands of pages of documents and files from the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry were made accessible to it. This included the over 1,300 pages of annexures produced by the Shivraj Patil One Man Committee.

Though the JPC is under no compulsion to take cognizance of Supreme Court judgments or the Comptroller and Auditor General of India reports, the availability of such reports and judicial orders offer invaluable guidance since Constitutional bodies and professionals have already delivered verdicts based on which the inquiry of the JPC becomes meaningful and contextual. None of this exists where the alleged bribery case is concerned.

Material available

Neither the Congress nor the CBI has offered any real defence on why a matter that was first raised by a private TV channel in March 2012, has not led to the registration of an FIR. Congress spokespersons have hinted that there may not be enough material to register an FIR. This is plain, simple wrong.

Just as in the case of the alleged bribery case, where the wrongdoers are yet to be identified, the 2G FIR, which was just seven paragraphs across two pages, in the absence of specific names was registered on October 22, 2009, in the name of “unknown officials of Deptt. Of Telecommunication, Govt. of India, Unknown Private persons, Companies and Others.”

Since no details were available, the charge was limited to “the concerned officials of DoT in criminal conspiracy with private persons/companies by abusing their official position, granted UAS Licenses to a few select companies at nominal rate by rejecting the applications of others without any valid reasons, thereby causing wrongful loss to the Government of India and a corresponding wrongful gain to private persons/companies estimated to be more than Rs.22,000 crores.” A bald — without names — charge of wrongdoing, with a mere estimate of loss. Further, it levied offences under 120-B IPC r/w section 13(2) r/w 13(1)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1998 against unknown persons.

These scant details were sufficient to turn out two detailed charge sheets, including a 63-page charge sheet filed 18 months later on April 2, 2011, naming former Telecom Minister, A. Raja and five other government and private sector individuals. A second charge sheet was filed later in the year in which the CBI revised its loss figure to Rs.30,984.55 crore while levying several new sections of the IPC including 420, 468, 471, 109 and 19(1)(a) which were absent during the FIR. This shows that nothing prevents the CBI from immediately registering an FIR in the arms scandal.

Diluting scrutiny

In effect, a JPC without documents, investigations and a basic FIR cannot perform a meaningful role, which amounts to a tactical victory for the Congress by diverting from the real issue of investigating the money trail and seeking international cooperation, for which the registration of a case in India and an alignment with international treaty of that country are condition precedent.

Regardless of the Congress’s assurances, that the JPC will conclude its investigation in a short period of time, the JPC is not bound by slippery political platitudes and makes its own rules. Even if the JPC meets within March, its work can easily be extended, as in the case of 2G, to next year, an election year which will make its functioning conveniently irregular.

Finally, the politics within the 2G JPC shows that even the most important prime accused (Mr. Raja) has been successfully kept out of the JPC, at least till date, while additionally blocking the appearance of the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister, both of whom are very germane to the mandate of the JPC and its outcome.

Deft politics

Ironically, what should have been a win for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has left them in an embarrassing situation, wherein after stalling the house for over a month while demanding a JPC on the 2G scam, the Party is now seen opposing the setting up of a JPC on the alleged bribery case, while the Congress, led by Mr. Kamal Nath is only too keen to grant them one.

JPC blocks RTI

The JPC also conveniently moves the attention away from televised national debates. The JPC works perfectly for Congress as it is not only secretive in its proceedings, except for media briefings by the Chairman if he so chooses, but is well within its right, as in case of the JPC on 2G, to impose a blanket ban on all information by invoking Section 8(c) of the RTI Act, which specifically, with respect to the JPC and its privileges, can exempt “information, the disclosure of which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the State Legislature.”

The JPC now becomes the magic wand to shut any evidence-based discourse either in Parliament or outside in the alleged arms bribery case, aided by the CBI, which is in no hurry to either file an FIR or show results, even after an FIR is filed, as in the 2G matter.

shalini.s@thehindu.co.in

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