The final JPC report absolves Union finance minister Manmohan Singh, but fails to identify the real scamsters
Ram Niwas Mirdha was a worried man on 8 December, when the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) was to meet to approve the draft report on the security scam. He faced one of the most embarrassing moments of his political career, and he didn’t know how it would all end.
All of the week before, the 30-member JPC was divided on a couple of questions. Was Manmohan Singh personally scandal? And if he was, should the JPC pass strictures that would leave a proud man like Singh with no alternative but to resign?
And what of the involvement or negligence of the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), S.Venkitaramanan, in the run up to the revelation of the rip-off? And what role did senior officials in the finance ministry, the RBI, the State Bank of India (SBI) and public sector manual funds play in the scam?
And yet, the question that should have hogged the headlines was buried by the speculations about the fate that awaited Manmohan Singh. Harshad Mehta had alleged in June this year that he had paid Rs 1 crore to the Prime Minister for election spending, and consequently a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry had been launched.
The JPC had to determine whether Mehta was speaking the truth, and check out the CBI investigations. In the meanwhile, the CBI had cleared the Prime Minister, and the JPC had to judge if this was the correct assessment.
But, inevitably, there was a role reversal. And it was Manmohan Singh’s survival that became the centre of fevered speculation. The buzz in the congress was that the commerce minister, Pranab Mukherjee, would gladly take his really P.V.Narasimha Rao, when, ironically, he was himself being investigated.
Of course, this was not the cause of Mirdha’s embarrassment. Since the JPC had been constituted on 7 August last year, he had shown himself to be not quite comfortable with either Manmohan Singh or his economic reform programme. But until 8 December, he played more of a balancing role.
The trouble began when the two draft reports, one prepared by the JPC secretariat and the other by a sub-committee of members, ran foul of some Congressmen in the committee. The first report was shoddy and was rejected outright. The second one contained what congressional representatives like Mani Shankar Aiyer felt were unpardonable comments about the finance minister.
There was one para in the second draft report, allegedly authored by Jaswant Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a prominent JPC member, that was most criticized. Manmohan Singh had said in Parliament that while the government was interested in a healthy stock market, he couldn’t be expected to lose sleep the stock markets went up on one did and fell on the other.
This was twisted, and para 17.16 XXX on the draft report read: ” It is good to have finance minister who does XXX lose sleep easily, but one would XXX that when such cataclysmic change take place all around, some alarm would ring to disturb his slumber.”
That last word enraged the Congressmen on the committee. Mani Shankar Aiyar brought in several amendments and others like Murali Deora arranged dinners with MPs to swing support for Singh. Much later, Mirdha had to intervene and prepare his own version of events.
This became known as the Mirdha draft. Before the slammer paragraph, certain remarks were added which at first the Opposition considered as dilution of Manmohan Singh’s criticism. The scam period was enlarged from 91-92 to 1986-92.
And of equal significance were additions to observations in the Goldstar scam. It was alleged that Hiten Dalal, he one of the scamsters, had advanced they to one of the Prime Minister’s on, Prabhakara Rao. The Mirdha draft at in a para that the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) had called for further investigations before conclusions could be drawn.
Until last fortnight, Mirdha had hopped that this draft would gain acceptance. But as Parliament went into the short winter season, it became clear that on the JPC report hung the face of Manmohan Singh. And as it became evident that he would resign on the slightest personal criticism, the Congressmen in the committee grew determined to block the lines even in the draft.
On the other hand, most Opposition members didn’t really feel the need to attack Manmohan Singh personally. Even die hard critics of the reforms like Gurudas Dasgupta of the Communist Party of India had to reason to question his personal integrity.
But Dasgupta and other Opposition members of the JPC such as George Fernandes, Ram Naik, S.Jaipal Reddy and Jaswant Singh were not willing to either give a clean chit to the finance ministry or absolve Manmohan Singh of all blame. The argument was that the scam had occurred, and that someone ought to own up to it.
For the first time in 16 months, there was a feeling that the JPC would split on party lines. Earlier, on at least two occasions, two Congressmen, S.S Ahluwalia and Jagesh Desai, had taken the lead in reining in the more voluble of their partymen to prevent to prevent a break-up, But now, this seemed inevitable.
Including Mirdha, the JPC has 30 members. The Congress has 15 seats and the rest are with the Opposition. K.P. Unnikrishnan of the Congress(S) was away in London. He was unlikely to return if voting took place, though he had sent in a message saying that he would. And even if he did, it was very nearly likely that he would vote with the Congress owing to electoral compulsions in this constituency back in Kerala.
The Congress was in no better position. Mirdha had told his partymen that he would not vote, and if that went against the party, it could hardly be helped. So technically, at 14:14 votes, no one stood a chance. Of course, in the crucial hours before the voting, one AIADMK MP, P.G. Narayanan, went missing. But there was equal chance that he would and wouldn’t vote with the Opposition.
And Mirdha, to this extreme chagrin, saw all his effort on his draft going to waste. His aides say that he was embarrassed no less by this prospect. Others however say that he was keener that the committee should not split.
It is then that he played his card. He roped in his good friend in the JPC, H. Hanumanthappa, to play the honest broker. Hanumanthappa apparently first approached the Congressmen, especially people like Murali Deora, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Sharawan Patel and P.C. Chacko, who had forwarded the amendments. He asked them what the bottom line was.
They apparently said that the slammer paragraph had to be dropped. Hanumanthappa then asked Nirmal Chatterjee, Gurudas Dasgupta, Jaipal Reddy, Jaswant Singh and Sukumal Sen if this was acceptable. They said yes, if the RBI and Venkitaramanan were held personally responsible. They also said that they would not agree to the scam period being stretched to 1986.
At first, the Congressmen demurred. But when it was indicated to them that without this, the whole thing would be put to vote, they fell in line. The Opposition, in any case, had capitulated. And there was a good chance that the vote might have gone against them.
Who gained and who lost? At first, George Fernandes declared magnanimously: “It was the best decision in the circumstances.” Ram Naik was more circumspect. Said he:” Yes, Hanumanthappa did playnegotiator. But it is too early to say whether in the end, we charged the Congressmen’s mind or they, ours.”
However, as the hours after the agreement passed and newspapers billed it as a victory for either the Congress or the Opposition, the mood within the committee itself changed. The consensus of 16 months had given way to statements of self-congratulations.
Murali Deora couln’t contain his joy. As he meet a group of reporters outside the JPC meeting room in Parliament Annex, he said: “We had three main points on our agenda: no personal criticism against Manmohan Singh, no further enquiry against S.Venkitaramanan, and the closure of the alleged Rs 1-crore pay-off issue. We have succeeded on all fronts.”
But Naik wouldn’t take this lying down. “Congress members have misunderstood the report, “he said. “Yes, the sarcastic comments about the finance minister have been removed. But Venkitaramanan has been severely indicated. And even if there is no follow-up, I am sure that Pariament will recommend something like that.”
“And as for the allegation of pay-off,” continued Naik, “the report has narrated the entire episode without comments. And while there is no conclusion, it is a fact that the note hangs like a Damocles’ sword. Narashimha Rao has not been acquitted.”
But Ahluwalia, so measured at the JPC, took offence to that. “The recent elections in Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and other states have been a kind of referendum, ” he chortled. “And the people have absolved Narasimha Rao.”
George Fernandes disagreed. “By that token, the people of Uttar Pradesh gave Narasimha Rao the boot,” he observed acidly. “As for Venkitaramanan, he should be jailed. And if I were the finance minister, I would have quit.”
But Manmohan Singh is unlikely to do any such thing. Of course, the JPC still doesn’t know the circumstances in which Manohar Pherwani was appointed chairman and managing director of the scam-ridden National Housing Bank. And Singh has not been able to satisfy the JPC.
And when the report is put before Parliament on 21 December, there is little doubt that it will invite censure but no great trouble for the government. Still, the purists will find many gaps in the report itself.
Like the RBI, the investigation agencies and the special scam court in Bombay, the JPC is no near determining the end users of the laundered funds. There is no figure of the scam itself. And while the report blames foreign banks for their role in the scam, no follow-up action is recommended.
Ram Niwas Mirdha may have herded his flock for 16 months and 96 sittings and five hours daily. And to his credit, the report of the JPC is also unanimous. But if you are looking for the identities of the real scamsters, and you want to know how they did it, the report is the last place to see. And yet, few expected the JPC to do any better.
Ketan Narottam Tanna/ New Delhi