The striking thing about the UPA government's alleged "vetting" of the CBI report on the Coalgate scam is the sense that it conveys of how brazen the Congress has become in abusing the investigating agency to cover up corruption charges.
If the Law Minister and the Prime Minister's Office can intervene so blatantly to vet the CBI's probe status report that the agency filed before the Supreme Court, it points to a disquieting lack of concern about propriety in so serious a matter, virtually under the Supreme Court's nose.
Of course, CBI director Ranjit Kumar Sinha, during his interaction with the media on Saturday, did not validate the news report of Saturday that made the sensational allegation. But neither would he deny the report.
"The reports are speculative," Sinha told mediapersons. "We are yet to file an affidavit before the Supreme Court." When he was pointedly asked if Law Minister Ashwani Kumar had summoned him and his team probing the Rs 1.86 lakh crore scam in the allocation of coal blocks to private companies, Sinha refused to comment, and said he would disclose everything before the Supreme Court.
Other news reports on Sunday suggest that the CBI is of two minds on what it will tell the Supreme Court, which has sought an affidavit on the matter.
The Times of India claims, citing unidentified sources, that Sinha has "refused to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court on April 26 to support (the) government's claim that... Ashwani Kumar did not vet the report". Such a move, it added, would give the UPA additional cause for concern.
The CBI chief, it claimed, had been resisting the suggestion from the UPA government that he should deny that he had been called to the Law Ministry to discuss the contents of the status report. If he had indeed been called to the Law Ministry - and the report had indeed been vetted - Sinha would be committing perjury if he denied it in his affidavit.
In March, the Supreme Court bench that is hearing the case of alleged corruption in the allocation of coal blocks to private companies had asked the government if there had been political interference in the CBI investigation. Additional Solicitor General Harin Raval had told the court, in a tone of self-righteousness, that the report was "meant for the eyes of the Judges only", and that the "classified document" was intended only for the court to be informed of the progess of the investigation. Even so, the court had sought a personal affidavit from the CBI chief.
Already, an effort is under way to make Ashwani Kumar the "fall guy" in the episode in order to limit the damage to the UPA government, which is sure to face Opposition heat when Parliament reconvenes.
Media reports suggest that Congress president Sonia Gandhi was unimpressed by Ashwani Kumar's defence of his conduct - that what he did was standard operating procedure - and was in fact livid at his "indiscretion".
Other reports point out that Congress leaders are "perturbed" that the Law Minister chose to be involved in the drafting of the status report. One report quoted a senior government functionary of Ashwani Kumar as saying: "He should have kept a distance."
All this reeks of an effort to ring-fence Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from the spreading fire of the corruption scandal. The scam has its roots in a time when Manmohan Singh was also handling the Coal Ministry portfolio, which is why the allegation that the Prime Minister's Office too pre-screened the report is so easy to believe.
Of course, it didn't need the latest revelation to know that the Congress uses the CBI as a political weapon - to turn up the heat (or turn it down) on corruption cases, depending on who is implicated, and in a manner that advances the Congress' political interests. The most recent manifestation of the "Congress Bureau of Intimidation" at work came when the CBI ordered raids on DMK leader MK Stalin in Chennai the very day after the DMK withdrew support to the UPA government. And when it whipped up a furore, it called off the raids forthwith.
It was, in a sense, a double-fault, which indicated that the raids could be ordered and reined in depending on just political whim.
But even by the standards of such egregious abuse of the CBI, for the Law Minister and the PMO to intervene so blatantly in the investigation into one of India's biggest corruption cases, directly under the Supreme Court's eye, points to the brazenness that today characterises such action.