The investigative agency’s handling of the Parakh affair once again highlights the contentious subject of how it treats the civil services

The Kumar Mangalam Birla affair once again raises fundamental issues with regard to the role of the civil servant in controversial government decisions. Retired Coal Secretary P.C. Parakh is in serious trouble with the Central Bureau of Investigation over the 2005 award of a coal block to Hindalco headed by Kumar Mangalam Birla; a screening committee headed by Mr. Parakh had earlier endorsed the Neyveli Lignite Corporation, a public sector unit, for the allotment. Both Mr. Parakh and Mr. Birla enjoy a squeaky clean reputation, which makes many believe they were wrongly accused of a criminal conspiracy by an impulsive and arbitrary CBI. Interestingly, to the relief of the two, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) itself has now taken the public stand that the choice of Hindalco was based on merit. This at least partially clears Mr. Parakh and Mr. Birla, although the CBI investigation has to come to the same conclusion after scrutinising the papers it demanded and got from the PMO.

Investigating the boss

Contrary to earlier speculation, the PMO’s defence makes it clear that in this episode the buck stopped with the Prime Minister, who held the coal portfolio at the relevant time. This is commendable transparency and swift owning up of responsibility for a much-assailed decision. This should warm the hearts of many a bureaucrat. It is an entirely different matter that a badly cornered PMO possibly had no option but to put the record straight. What is still not clear, however, is whether the Coal Secretary fell in line after he had been spoken to by the PMO, or whether he was coerced. Equally important is whether he had brought on record any oral instruction received from the PMO. Only a scrutiny of the file would clarify this important point, and whether this was a case of the PMO simply overturning the Secretary’s recommendation and taking its own decision. We also need to know whether the Prime Minister’s ultimate approval was communicated in the form of a speaking order, or it was just a cryptic order that did not detail the rationale for the award in favour of Hindalco. In any case, the CBI has its job cut out here because, technically speaking, the agency has to investigate its own boss. Also, it cannot have anything other than a thorough and credible investigation, because the probe is being closely monitored by the Supreme Court.

Taking into consideration all facts available in the public domain, I believe it would be unfair to attribute any mala fide to the PMO. Also, the CBI will have to prove any quid pro quo between the decision-maker and the beneficiary, and establish any loss caused to the public exchequer from the award in favour of Hindalco. The whole case fails if neither is established. There are already reports that the CBI may now back off.

What is of utmost interest is whether Mr. Parakh changed his position on his own, or only after he had been advised by the PMO to do so. Whatever be the case, did he go on record to show how the screening committee’s stand got changed? Mr. Parakh is now repeating parrot-like that the decision was approved by the “competent authority.” The CBI had, while drawing up the first information report, refused to name who this “authority” was. This was strange and dubious. Following the PMO’s statement in defence of the decision, we are now in no doubt as to who this ‘competent authority’ was.

The affair brings to the fore once again the contentious subject of how the CBI handles the civil services. At least one friend who is an IAS officer has complained to me that the CBI has been brash in the case and this kind of approach could demoralise the All India and Central Services, especially the IAS.

The honest officer

The grievance is legitimate. There is every need for the CBI to be extremely circumspect so that no hasty conclusions are drawn about an officer’s integrity or pliability to political manoeuvres. It is a reputation, as in the case of Mr. Parakh, built over three decades, that is involved in investigating an officer who retired at the level of a Secretary.

Having said that, we must also remember that there is a sizeable number of officials who are willing to crawl before the political executive for receiving out-of-the way benefits, including a post-retirement job. A few have also been suspected of feathering their own nests, either on their own or in collusion with a minister. My feeling is that it is this small coterie which has to be scared of the CBI, and not the upright one. Normally speaking, an honest officer need have no fears. It is the one who does not put down his note in clear language, especially when an improper demand is made on him by his Minister, who usually comes to grief. Also necessary is to leave a note on file why an earlier decision was being replaced or modified. This is why I never tire of repeating that reducing one’s stand in writing in a file, however distasteful the opinion, is the best way to deal with a dishonest Minister and handle any future CBI enquiry with a clear conscience.

I can already hear some of my IAS friends branding me impractical. But then there is no other way you can operate at the highest levels in government, especially in the present times when sleaze is the order of the day. Gone are the days when sheer past reputation could come to the rescue of a thoroughly honest officer. Strangely, he has to prove continuously that he remains honest.

(R.K. Raghavan is a former director of the CBI.)

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