The ongoing investigations into wrongdoing in the allocations of coal blocks for captive mining are far from complete. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has so far filed five FIRs, naming, among others, a Congress member of Parliament, Vijay Darda. Mr Darda and his brother Rajendra Darda, who is education minister in the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance government in Maharashtra, have been named for criminal conspiracy and misrepresentation of facts. Rajendra Darda has denied links with the named company, and has refused to resign. More such cases are reportedly in the pipeline; the CBI has requested the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) for a little more time to conduct its investigations. These investigations were spurred into motion by the CVC just over three months ago, and the CBI wants an extension because of the “complex nature” of the case. Central Vigilance Commissioner Pradeep Kumar – who was, incidentally, special secretary in the coal ministry in 2006 – is due to meet the CBI chief to discuss how the investigations are proceeding.
While the entire process of coal block allocations shows how India’s institutional framework gets some processes very wrong, the investigation shows how that very framework can also get things done. A complete lack of accountability on the part of the political and bureaucratic elite is, perhaps, a thing of the past. Several institutions have been visibly active in working towards bringing irregularities in the coal block allocations to light. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report created a political storm enabling investigation into possible criminality, for example. Some active members of Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hansraj Ahir in particular, waged a campaign that included writing letters to the CVC; the CVC, in turn, directed the CBI to begin investigation. In this sequence of events, a certain systemic strength is evident in India’s procedures of accountability that is a fairly recent development. In effect, the presence of autonomous decision-making centres, disconnected from the political dispensation of the day, has served as a slow but effective check on law-breaking. In the CBI’s activism when supervised by the CVC, as in this case, or by the Supreme Court, as in some other high-profile cases, it is possible to glimpse the vast improvements in public accountability that would result from making the body genuinely independent of the government. If the CBI were awarded constitutional status, or the independence of appointment and functioning that has traditionally flowed from constitutional status, this new systemic solidity would be considerably strengthened.
What is worth noting here is that India’s political class appears to be considerably behind the curve. Many political leaders appear to be slow in figuring out how India has changed. The Right to Information Act and an increasingly intrusive media mean indiscretions cannot be quietly buried. Assertive institutions, many of which enjoy protected status, are willing to carry out uncomfortable investigations. India appears to be living through an era of unprecedented corruption. However, it is equally possible that it is living through an era of growing transparency and increasing accountability. And it seems the last people to work this out are those in power.