Last week this column dealt with the government's cover-up of the HDW Submarine and Airbus scams. Reference was made to incriminatory audiotapes in possession of the government's investigative agencies, despite which appropriate action remains to be taken. Names of the persons taped were not disclosed. Propriety demanded this.
On the day the article appeared, I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister sharing the information in my possession. In my letter I requested him to reopen the investigation in both these corruption cases.
The names of the taped conversationalists may now be revealed. Five people were taped in conversation. They met on more than one occasion. Their names are Mr. and Mrs. Satish Sharma, Mr. RK Dhawan, Mr. SS Siddhu, and the late Mr. Charanjit Singh who owned the Meridian Hotel. Some of the meetings were held there. At present Mr. Sharma and Mr. Dhawan are Congress members of parliament. Mr. Siddhu is a Governor. The investigators inferred from the conversation that Mr. Dhawan and Mr. Sharma were unaware they were being recorded. Consequently, both spoke more freely than Mr. Charanjit Singh and Mr. Siddhu. After their probe the investigators concluded that Mr. Siddhu and Mr. Charanjit Singh conspired jointly to record Mr. Sharma and Mr. Dhawan. The tapes were discovered accidentally in a bank locker operated by a relative of Mr. Dhawan. If the taped conversation is to be believed, Mr. Dhawan and Mr. Sharma, apart from alleging corruption by others, made incriminatory disclosures about themselves.
Several names figured in their conversation. These included Lord Swaraj Paul, Mr. Fotedar, Mr. Vijay Dhar, Mr. Arun Nehru, Mr. Arun Singh and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Some names were mentioned in passing, without allegations of criminal wrongdoing. Regarding other names the talk contained incriminatory allegations implying corruption. In deference to the laws of defamation, which are often ignored by current media investigators, no allegation merits revelation. It was all hearsay. Even the self-incriminating remarks recorded could have arisen from empty boasting.
What is relevant is that detectives had identified the participants in the conversation, that the circumstances under which their conversation was recorded made it credible, and that the inadvertent disclosures required investigation. And if the investigation vindicated the remarks, guilt would have been established. All the guilty parties behind the two corrupt deals would have been exposed.
The CBI had named Mr. Siddhu in the court case as a witness who required further questioning to wind up the investigation, which had reached its final stages. Mr. Siddhu, it may be recalled, was personally close to the Nehru-Gandhi family during Rajiv Gandhi's tenure as Prime Minister. He was in the Defence Ministry when the HDW Submarine deal was clinched. He was Secretary in the Civil Aviation Ministry when the Airbus deal was clinched. The CBI questioned him for possible involvement in both cases.
Unfortunately, Mr. Siddhu became victim of a grave personal tragedy. Several members of his family died in a fire that broke out in the Uphaar cinema hall in Delhi. The questioning was postponed. When the NDA government assumed power, little attention was paid to the case, and it was allowed to gather dust. Shortly after the UPA government was formed, Mr. Siddhu emerged from the shadows to be appointed Governor of Manipur. As Governor he could not be investigated. Four months after he assumed office the CBI closed the HDW probe on the plea that, as Governor, he could not be questioned further.
The question is, why, in the light of this background, did the Prime Minister appoint Mr. Siddhu as Governor? To give the Prime Minister full benefit of doubt, it may be argued that details of the cases had escaped his memory. But now that he has received a letter to refresh his memory, what choice is he left with?
Article 120- B Section 1 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) reads:
'Whoever is party to a criminal conspiracy to commit an offence punishable with death, imprisonment for life or rigorous imprisonment for two years or upwards, shall, where no express provision is made in this Code for the punishment of such a conspiracy, be punished in the same manner as if he had abetted such offence.'
Article 120-B, Section 2, reads:
'Whoever is a party to a criminal conspiracy other than a criminal conspiracy to commit an offence punishable as aforesaid shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding six months or with fine or with both.'
Lawyers can doubtless find more laws to nail a public servant who knowingly protects conspirators defrauding the state. In other words, if the PM does not reactivate investigation in the HDW and Airbus corruption cases he runs the risk of himself being seen as abettor, and part of the conspiracy. In effect, then, he is already on trial in the court of public opinion. If he fails to take appropriate action, there could emerge endeavors to obtain the President's permission to move against him in a court of law. In such a situation, the President's own response to the plea for permission would put him on trial in the court of public opinion. And if events do lead eventually to court proceedings, the Supreme Court itself will be on trial in the court of public opinion. The Supreme Court, it might be recalled, did not acquit itself satisfactorily in the Jain Hawala case. The Chief Justice who presided over the Bench hearing that case pleaded subsequently, after retirement, for reopening of the case.
The reopening of these cases could damage this or that living or dead national leader, or leaders. But that is not the goal. Corruption is so widespread that it cuts across the entire political spectrum. Damaging one party or one leader would be of little consequence. All political parties are corrupt because the system itself has come to rest on corruption. For democracy to survive, and for progress to continue, the system must be cleansed. Just one or two exposures are unlikely to achieve that. But if success is achieved in these celebrity cases, a general amnesty for all cases of political corruption before a cut-off date could be considered. As in the Black Bonds scheme, secrecy of confessions may be maintained, and punishment given through recovery of assets. For those who do not comply before the cut-off date, and for those involved in political corruption thereafter, zero tolerance could be observed.
It is imperative to demonstrate that the existing law is adequate to fight corruption and preserve democracy. It must be used transparently, taking the public into confidence all the way.