UPA’s crumbling credibility

By E A S Sarma
11 Jul 2011 10:43:00 PM IST

UPA’s crumbling credibility

If the executive wantonly chooses to commit improprieties and abets illegalities, it cannot find fault with its legal advisers for not defending it successfully. Gopal Subramaniam’s offer to resign from
the office of solicitor general of India is certainly a wake up call to the prime minister and his colleagues on the manner in which the UPA government has conducted its affairs during the last seven years. The resignation of the second highest legal officer of the government comes in the
wake of a series of cases before the apex court in which the government’s actions have come under judicial scrutiny for good reasons.
But for the intervention of the apex court , the people of this country would never have known the enormity of the loss to the exchequer caused by the then telecom minister in the infamous 2G scam
in which he drew strength from the silence of those who could have intervened. When the apex court asked the government to file an affidavit on alleged “inaction” by the prime minister in preventing Raja from going ahead with his dubious deals, instead of reacting responsibly to the
court’s concern, the government asked the attorney general to take the place of Gopal Subramaniam to defend its indefensible inaction.

The scam became more vexatious by the revelations about the arbitrary manner in which the seniormost functionaries of the government selected P J Thomas as the central vigilance commissioner.

The government initially tried to ward off the complaint by offering unconvincing excuses but was finally driven to admit its folly.
The executive is only the creature of the constitution and its legitimacy depends crucially on whether its own conduct is compliant with the norms and the values laid down by the constitution.

If that is not the case, the citizens of the country have no other alternative than to look to the judiciary for help. If the executive chooses to breach the statute frequently, the judiciary will find it
necessary to invoke its constitutional responsibility to intervene and correct the executive’s actions.

If the executive questions frequent judicial interventions in such circumstances, it amounts to the executive disowning its own responsibility.

That is what exactly happened when the prime minister, while addressing a Commonwealth law officers’ conference in January, questioned judicial activism and exhorted the judiciary “not to erode the legitimate role of the executive”, conveniently ignoring the fact that it was his own
government’s conduct that eroded the its legitimacy in the recent past.

It was not as though it was the first time that the PM tried to find holes in judicial activism. When the apex court observed last year, “when food grains are rotting and people are suffering from deprivation, then some way should be found to ensure that the food needs of the deprived sections are met”, Manmohan Singh advised the court that it “should not go into the realm of policy formulation”. The people of the country are fully aware of how foodgrains are still being allowed to rot, long after the apex court’s observation.

The UPA government seems to be consistent in targeting all those that deliver sane advice. When the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), an authority appointed under Article 148 of the constitution, pointed out the irregularities in the 2G spectrum sale and provided an estimate of the losses, the telecom minister who succeeded Raja questioned the veracity of the findings.

When the CAG submitted yet another report pointing out improprieties committed by Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas and Director General of Hydrocarbons in enforcing some oil contracts with private companies, one would have expected the government to take CAG’s findings seriously,
examine their implications carefully and draw lessons from it, rather than castigate the authority of the CAG.

The course chosen by the government was exactly the opposite. In his much publicised meet with the press in June, Singh was quick in targeting the CAG saying: “It has never been in the past that the CAG has held a press conference as the present CAG has done. Never in the past has the CAG decided to comment on a policy issue. It should limit the office to the role defined in the constitution”. The PM’s response is not only factually inaccurate but also bizarre. First, as a constitutional authority, the CAG is answerable only to Parliament and no one else. For someone else to question its bona fides is patently inappropriate. Secondly, to question the CAG’s press disclosure of his findings is to question the citizen’s right to know under Article 19. Evidently, this government has no respect for the citizen of this country. A 2005 judgment of the Madras High Court upheld the right of the CAG and its functionaries to brief the media on the contents of reports prepared by them. The prime minister should have verified his facts before casually questioning the CAG. Finally, when the executive adopts policies that involve improprieties and significant losses to the public exchequer, a constitutional body like the CAG has every right to identify the flaws in policy and bring them to the notice of Parliament and public.

It has become commonplace for the government to blame the Opposition for trying to gain ‘political mileage’ from the various scams, when its own functionaries have no compunction in plundering public resources at will. It has become equally a common practice for the government to lambast the media whenever they uncover a scandal.

The government should know that the 2G spectrum affair, the CWC scam, the controversy
surrounding the oil contracts and the more recent revelations about the indiscriminate allotment of coal blocks to private parties represent only the tip of the iceberg of corruption in the country. If UPA is really serious about the need to fight corruption, it should be the first to get investigated, the large number of project clearances granted by the Ministry of Environment & Forests during 2004-07 when Raja was heading it, the hasty and controversial clearances given to POSCO and other mining projects, the bubbles created in the name of SEZs and the more recent defence contracts, valued at billions of dollars, awarded through unregistered Indian agents. If the government remises once again, as it has happened all the while, others will fill the vacuum on behalf of the people of the country and bring UPA’s actions under public scrutiny. Every such instance of inaction on the part of UPA would only further erode its crumbling credibility.

E A S Sarma is a former Union power Secretary

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