CBI officers are worried about impediments from within the agency slowing down their progress.
New Delhi: Officers within the Central Bureau of Investigation are pushing hard to get the sanction to prosecute five public servants by 18 December, which is essential to secure the custody of former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram in the Aircel-Maxis bribery case. Of these five public servants, four are IAS officers, of whom two have retired. However, the CBI officers are worried about impediments from within the agency slowing down their progress. Already, the CBI’s slow movement in the Aircel-Maxis case has come for questioning and it will come as a surprise if these agency officers manage to get the required sanctions by 18 December.
These five high-level bureaucrats, former and current, along-with Chidambaram and other private individuals, have been named as “accused” by CBI investigators in the Aircel-Maxis case. This relates to the company getting illegal approval to invest in India when Chidambaram was Finance Minister. Chidambaram has been made “Accused no. 1” in the case.
Of the five bureaucrats, two, Ashok Chawla and Ashok Jha have retired. Of the remaining three, Deepak Kumar Singh is a Bihar cadre officer, while Kumar Sanjay Krishna is presently posted in Assam in the rank of Additional Chief Secretary. The other public servant is Ram Sharan, who was serving as an Under-Secretary in the now defunct Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB).
Official sources said that if the agency is unable to secure the sanctions by 18 December—which will require the movement of files from Delhi to Patna and Delhi to Guwahati—the possibility is high that the case will fall flat on its face and Chidambaram and the other accused will walk free, 2G style. The delay in obtaining the sanctions is all the more glaring as the court had in the past scolded the agency for not being able to secure the required sanctions despite the agency filing the charge-sheet way back on 19 July 2018.
“It is very surprising that the agency has been unable to do so (secure the sanctions) till now. How can the agency explain the fact that despite more than four months of the charge-sheet being filed, it has failed to get the sanctions despite repeated castigation from the CBI court? The only thing which can explain this is that some top officials including within CBI are not serious about moving forward in the case,” said a former CBI official. The influence of Chidambaram, whose defence will be seriously affected were sanctions given to prosecute the five named officials, is known to be pervasive in various institutions. A CBI officer warned that the bureaucrats were the link to Chidambaram and if they were not prosecuted, “there may be no provable connection between the Aircel-Maxis decisions and the former Finance and Home Minister”, who is known to be a favourite of former Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
On 1 October, the Special Court of O.P. Saini had granted seven weeks to the CBI to obtain the sanction to prosecute Chidambaram and other serving or former public servants in the case. It had also pulled up the agency for filing the charge sheet without proper sanction and told the CBI that if the required documents were not filed by 26 November, the day of the next hearing, the court may take appropriate action.
“You (CBI) should not have filed the charge-sheet. It is only increasing the pendency of the court. A lot of time of the court has been wasted due to this,” Special Judge O.P. Saini had said on 1 October.
However, even by the next hearing on 26 November, the agency was unable to secure the sanctions which have to come from the DoPT and the respective parent state governments of the concerned officials.
Judge Saini, in his 26 November order, while giving the second and perhaps the last such “extension” said, “Sanction relating to accused No. 1 P. Chidambaram has been filed. It is submitted that sanction relating to remaining five public servants accused in this case is still being awaited and may be received within two weeks. Adjournment prayed for filing sanction relating to remaining public servants allowed. Accordingly, put up the matter for further proceedings on 18.12.2018 at 10:00 AM, as prayed.”
The repeated failure of the agency to get the sanctions against the IAS officials has led to questions as to whether or not the agency was facing hindrance from within the Central government, or whether the agency was truly serious enough to seek sanctions. If convicted, the offences entail a maximum punishment of seven years.
The CBI’s conduct in the entire case has been “lethargic” from the beginning, as a senior agency official said, as it took the agency more than six years to file the charge sheet, in July 2018, after the case was registered in 2012.
Chidambaram, in his defence, which he has filed in the case, has said that the “FIPB was chaired by the Secretary, Economic Affairs and included four other secretaries (industry, commerce, external affairs and overseas Indian affairs) and the secretary of the administrative ministry. Five of them were among the senior most IAS officers and the sixth was a senior IFS officer of the Ministry of External Affairs. Each one of them had a long and distinguished record of service. The recommendations of the FIPB were submitted to the Ministry of Finance where they were once again examined by the junior officers and then by the Additional Secretary and the Secretary before the file was put up to the Minister. Each file put up to the Minister would usually contain a number of cases and the recommendations of the FIPB and of the Secretary, Economic Affairs.”
In March, this newspaper had written about the role of bureaucrats under watch in the case in the article, Agencies are monitoring Chidambaram’s top babus, naming some of the officials who had allegedly played a key role in the case, including Ashok Chawla and Ashok Jha.
Chidambaram is accused of misusing his office as Finance Minister in 2006 to clear foreign investment deals in exchange of which his son Karti Chidambaram was given kickbacks. The agency alleged that the former Finance Minister had given approval to a foreign firm for a proposal worth Rs 3,500 crore, when only the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs was empowered to clear proposals worth above Rs 600 crore.
The 25-year-old FIPB, which was abolished in 2017, was a single window clearance for FDI proposals and comprised Secretaries from Department of Economic Affairs, Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion, Ministry of Small Scale Industries, Department of Revenue, Department of Commerce, Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. The maximum say in the decision given by the FIPB, sources said, apart from the Finance Minister was of the Secretary DEA.
In May 2007, Duvvuri Subbarao, a 1972 batch IAS officer of the Andhra Pradesh cadre, was appointed as Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) after the retirement of Finance Secretary Ashok Jha. Prior to the assignment, Subbarao was working as Secretary to the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council.
In September 2008, Ashok Chawla, a Gujarat-cadre IAS officer of the 1973 batch was appointed Secretary to the Department of Economic Affairs in the Ministry of Finance. Earlier, Chawla was Additional Secretary, Economic Affairs, from April 2005 to January 2007.
Later on, Subbarao went on to become the Governor of RBI, while Chawla became chairman of the Competition Commission of India and was later appointed as the chairman of the National Stock Exchange (NSE) in May 2016, a position he holds presently.