The finance ministry's response to former Sebi board member KM Abraham's allegations against Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Officer of Special Duty (OSD) Omita Paul is off the mark and in bad taste. It has strengthened the case for an independent Lokpal to look into allegations made by whistle-blowers like Abraham who are often targeted for doing their jobs well. Too well.
Among other things, Abraham had alleged that Mukherjee, Paul and Sebi chief UK Sinha had pressured him to go easy against some corporate interests, including the Sahara Group, Reliance, and MCX. Among other things, Abraham was the author of a strong order against the Sahara group that has received praise from impartial observers for its acuity and strong reasoning.
There are three reasons why the ministry's sharp response to Abraham's leaked allegations are questionable.
First, the allegations relate to the Finance Minister and his OSD. The replies have to come from them directly, and not the finance ministry. By getting the ministry to respond to the allegations, Mukherjee can be accused of trying to hide behind the power of his office. The ministry as an entity is different from the minister and his officials.
Second, the ministry's note does not really address the allegations in any meaningful way. It merely rejects it out of hand. "The recent allegations made by Abraham are defamatory, devoid of any truth and are a complete distortion of facts," the ministry said on Wednesday. If what Abraham alleged were a "complete distortion of facts," what, then, were the real facts? This kind of rebuttal is exactly what politicians proffer when caught with their pants down.
Third, the ministry counter-attacked Abraham in an undignified manner by claiming "numerous complaints were received against Abraham from several sources." It further said: "The complaints (against Abraham) ranged from abuse of power to corruption and purchase of a flat at a concessional rate from an entity that had benefited from the sale of office space to NSE (National Stock Exchange), which is regulated by Sebi and of which Abraham was a whole-time member with the jurisdiction to decide on many issues of critical importance to NSE," the ministry said. This kind of counter-allegation has diminished the stature of the ministry.
Let's be clear. The ministry is Goliath with huge executive powers. It can set the taxman and many other agencies after Abraham for his alleged misdemeanours - and, in fact, has already done that. But Abraham is David, and a whistle-blower. He has no one to fight his battles, barring possibly the media.
Equally questionable is the role of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in this. This is one more case which suggest that Manmohan Singh does not have the political courage to do the right thing. How could he have sent a confidential letter from Abraham to the Finance Minister and his OSD when they are the target of the complaint? This is a possible breach of trust that compromises a whistle-blower's safety - though a recent Mint report tells us that the PMO had offered protection to Abraham and his family, which he declined.
The Mint shows where the PMO went wrong. Quoting RS Sodhi, a retired high court judge, it says: "The PMO should have been discreet. (If) the whistleblower is a senior government functionary who was giving tangible information on corruption, then he should have been protected. There is certainly a legal impropriety."
As for Sebi, the less said the better. Abraham had alleged that Chairman Sinha had told him that the Finance Minister was interested in how certain cases against corporate interests were handled. "While reviewing these cases in his three months as chairman, Sebi, Shri UK Sinha has directly or indirectly referred to how these cases are sensitive and are engaging the attention of the Union Minister for Finance or Smt Omita Paul, advisor to the Finance Minister," the Indian Express quoted Abraham as alleging.
But Sinha's rebuttal was more a personal attack on Abraham. Notes The Economic Times:"Using language rarely spotted in official communication, Sinha accuses Abraham, whose term on the market regulator's board ended in July, of suffering from a 'persecution complex'. (He) appears to be in a deeply disturbed state of mind, suffering from a persecution complex and delusions that everybody is out to harm him."
Sinha claimed that Abraham's "sense of insecurity" had got "aggravated" after some media articles appeared regarding a probe by the Central Board of Direct Taxes, or CBDT, into purchase of properties by him and MS Sahoo, another board member.
But if this is so, Sinha contradicts himself when he admits that he had already given Abraham a clean chit. "Dr Abraham has thanked me personally for being fair and impartial in clearing his name in any property deal irregularity."
If Abraham was "cleared" of impropriety in property dealings, what is the basis for the ministry's sharp attack on him?
Clearly, Pranab Mukherjee has a lot to answer for.
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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 04:15:58 IST