At a time when the Modi government is fighting a difficult perception battle over demonetisation, it has been left hugely embarrassed with a high profile minister like Kiren Rijiju, the Northeast's face of Cabinet coming under the graft scanner. Rijiju, the Union minister of state for home; his cousin Goboi Rijiju - a contractor in Arunachal Pradesh - several top officials of North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO), including its chairman and managing director, have been named in a 129-page report by the PSU’s chief vigilance officer.
The report alleges that corrupt practices were employed in the construction of two dams for 600 MW Kameng Hydro Electric Project, one of the biggest hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh. The scam is reportedly worth Rs 450 crore.
What is the alleged Rs 450 crore scam all about?
According to the CVO's report:
- Several fake and inflated bills were used by contractors to allegedly siphon off money in the name of transporting rocks needed for the dam construction.
- The transportation cost was decided arbitrarily and fraudulently. For example, the contractor Patel Engineering Limited (PEL) got more material from quarries located close to the project site, but claimed that most of their material was from quarries located the farthest.
- Many transport challans and records provided by PEL were found to be fake. For example, thousands of tonnes of rocks were found to have been carried to the project site, at least on paper, on scooters, bikes and cars even as several registration numbers provided by the PEL were found to be non-existent.
In some cases, the same vehicle number or the same driver appeared many times on different challans claiming to have begun the journey from different quarries situated 70 km away on the same date - just half an hour apart.
|The prime minister often claims that this government works for the people and not for vested interests of its ministers. Why then did Rijiju interfere to enrich his contractor cousin at the cost of a PSU? Credit: RSTV|
- Reimbursement of these bills belonging from May and July 2015, to PEL was stopped by NEEPCO after Verma sent an advisory to the head of project flagging the alleged irregularities, but Rijiju intervened to have the funds released by directly approaching the power minister via a letter dated November 4, 2015.
- Rijiju's cousin Goboi Rijiju also went to meet Verma. Goboi Rijiju is one of the sub-contractors in the project.
Verma’s report purports an audio CD has a conversation he had with Goboi Rijiju on December 29, 2015, in which Goboi is pursuing the officer to clear the payments while offering “any help you need from bhaiya (the minister)”.
What are the ethical concerns that arise in light of the above facts? The Opposition has asked for Rijiu's resignation pending an inquiry, whereas the government has come out strongly in defence of the minister. What makes Rijiju's position in the Modi Cabinet untenable?
Blatant conflict of interest
At least Rijiu using his public office to release payments in a sub-contract involving his cousin under scanner for causing loss to the public exchequer is a case of blatant conflict of interest.
Why didn't Rijiju make a formal disclosure of his vested interest while writing the letter to the power minister? Why did he use his public office to force the Indian government to extend benefits to his family?
The prime minister often claims that this government works for the people and not for vested interests of its ministers. Why then did Rijiju interfere to enrich his contractor cousin at the cost of a PSU?
Taped offer of quid pro quo
More damning for Rijiju is the taped conversation where the cousin of the minister tries to influence the probe officer by throwing around Rijiju's name.
The cousin is explicit in offering a quid pro quo. He says that his brother will extend any help the officer desires, including getting a favourable promotion. This offer for quid pro quo amounts to the criminal offence of trying to interfere in government servants' duties to their jobs.
If Rijiju had no knowledge of his cousin's offer for quid pro quo, then he must haul his cousin to court, else it would entail a safe inference that Rijiju's was a party to this illicit act of his cousin.
Hounding the vigilance officer
What also goes against Rijiju is why the chief vigilance officer was hounded.
Firstly, Rijiju - in his letter to the power minister - takes a stand against the CVO by blaming him specifically for delayed payment. Secondly, the CVO - who was proving to be an inconvenience for Rijiju - is handed a chargesheet and shunted out.
Thirdly, after the story has come out, the PIB as well as BJP's communication wing have focused on maligning the CVO, instead of addressing the substantial documented anomalies in a classic case of shooting the messenger.
The attempt to malign the CVO will also discourage other upright officers from daring to expose scandals involving the high and mighty as they can see how their reputation, as well as career, are at the risk of being shattered for daring to do their jobs honestly.
If Rijiju is clean, why was the probe scuttled midway? Wasn't it in his interest to allow the probe to be concluded, so that the names of his cousin and himself could be cleared?
Worrying response by Rijiju to the alleged scam coming out in public
The minister's first response after the alleged scam was to say that shoes would be hurled at the journalist who reported the story. This attempt to intimidate and silence the journalist reporting his misdeeds shows how brazen the minister himself is. It brings out a dangerous arrogance of power, a belief that just because he is a minister, he is above any sort of accountability.
Secondly, his response has also been to point out that the project pertains to the UPA's time. But how does showing UPA's complicity in the scam excuse his own involvement?
Thirdly, he has taken recourse to the sympathy card, talking of how he has risen despite adverse conditions. But as admirable as rising against odds is, they can't be the ground for condoning the misdeeds if he has actually committed them.
It is clear that Kiren's Rijiju's role in this alleged scam and its emergence in the public discourse creates sufficient grounds for apprehensions over his integrity.
Also, his presence in the council is likely to come in the way of any impartial probe being conducted in the whole matter.
Thus, Rijiju's tenure in the council in light of the whole controversy has become untenable.
And yet, intriguingly, our prime minister, who has been exhorting us - the common people - to make many sacrifices to aid in his fight against corruption has shied away from any bold and proactive measure against his own minister.
The silence and inaction of the prime minister against his own graft-tainted minister would have been deplorable at any time, but when the nation is bearing untold hardship to fight graft, such double standards are simply unacceptable and raise doubt about the seriousness of the PM in combating graft.
Now, is not the time for the prime minister to quit dilly-dallying and sending confusing signals to a nation, which is making great sacrifices for his supposed struggle against black money?
It's said that not just Caesar, but Caesar's wife too should be above suspicion - and it's high time the PM made good on his promise by reading out the riot act to Rijiju.