NEW DELHI: In a damning acknowledgement that rendered law minister Ashwani Kumar’s tenure precarious and pushed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the brink of a huge embarrassment, CBI chief Ranjit Sinha told the Supreme Court on Friday that the agency was made to share the contents of its status report on coal scam probe with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Kumar and the coal ministry
“The draft of the (coal scam investigation) status report was shared with Union minister for law and justice (Kumar) as desired by him prior to its submission before the Supreme Court,” Sinha said in an affidavit in response to the SC’s March 12 order asking him to clarify whether the agency had shared the contents of the status report with the government before it was filed in the apex court on March 8.
The CBI chief told the court that he had to show the status report also to the PMO and the coal ministry because they too were keen on going through its contents before it was placed before the apex court. “Besides the political executive, it was also shared with one joint secretary level officer each of PMO and ministry of coal as desired by them,” Sinha said.
The affidavit contradicted the assertion made by additional solicitor general Harin Raval on CBI’s behalf in the Supreme Court on March 12 that the probe status report was a “classified document meant only for the eyes of the judges”, and that it was not shared with the political executive. The assurance was meant to allay the apprehension of a three-judge bench headed by Justice R M Lodha about political interference in the probe.
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The confirmation of the undue interest taken by the PMO, the law minister and the coal ministry in an investigation conducted by an autonomous agency has rendered the “scam”-hit UPA vulnerable to a big blow from the court on April 30 when the matter is to be heard.
Congress and government sources agreed that Kumar’s continuation as the law minister may become untenable if the court views his intrusive interest as “serious impropriety”. But their worries extend far beyond what may happen to the law minister. Their real concern is the potential repercussions for the PM. As minister for personnel, Singh is in charge of CBI. Not just that, CBI’s investigations into the Coalgate scam cover allocations made when he had held the portfolio. That the coal ministry, which is at the focus of inquiry, should have asked for and got access to the status report was considered audacious even by Congress leaders.
With the opposition immediately asking for the resignations of the PM and the law minister on the ground that the “vetting” was meant to protect Singh, a worried Congress leadership went into a huddle with UPA allies to review the situation. The weekly meeting of the Congress core group also focused on what the court might do on April 30. Senior regime functionaries were apprehensive that the court may ask for the original copy of the CBI’s draft status report to satisfy itself whether the findings were toned down.
Sources said parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath also called on President Pranab Mukherjee to brief him about the unfolding developments which threaten to thicken the perception of sleaze and scam under the UPA, and make a mockery of the claim about CBI being an independent probe agency.
Importantly, the sequence of events leading to the affidavit go back to the suspicion of political meddling with the coal scam probe that the court expressed on April 12. The court seized upon Raval’s claim of government’s hands-off stance towards the probe by directing the CBI chief to state on affidavit that “nothing contained therein (in the status report) has been shared with the political executive”.
In fact, Sinha, in his two-page affidavit, did a tight-rope walk, stopping well short of spelling out that the status report was vetted by either the law minister or the PMO even as he acknowledged that the agency had to share the contents with Kumar as well as joint secretaries in the PMO and the coal ministry when they expressed the desire to take a peek.
Sinha told the court that he would not share future status reports on investigations with the political executive. “The status report being filed before the Supreme Court on April 26, 2013, is personally vetted by me and that I shall continue to personally vet each status report which may be filed before the Supreme Court… I confirm that the present status report being filed in the Supreme Court has not been shared with any political executive in any manner whatsoever,” Sinha said.