Colombo Telegraph

Why Is The Non Executive Chairman The Only Accused?

Impeachment And Corruption: Why Is The Non Executive Chairman The Only Accused? 

By Charitha Ratwatte –

Charitha Ratwatte

An ogre is a monster in a fairy tale or popular legend, usually represented as a hideous monster who feeds on human flesh. Recently in a number of Asian countries, the ogre of corruption has manifested itself, among the political class and their acolytes.

Normally it is the political class which alleges corruption and related misbehaviour among bureaucrats, public officers and business persons who do not tow their political line and carry out their illegal or unethical orders.

But just now, ironically, this ogre has flown back home to roost. Remember, it was the famous American author Mark Twain, who in his infinite wisdom, once declared the only criminal class in the United States of America is in Congress!

Let’s take Sri Lanka first. Corruption of the political class has a long history. The Thalgodapitiya Commission was appointed in the late 1950s to inquire into allegations of corruption among some politicians. A Department and then a Commission to eradicate and inquire into Bribery and Corruption was created. In its present incarnation, the Commission can only act on a complaint.

Readers would recall the infamous attempt to unload some shares of a finance company, on to a State bank, in the recent past. The putative buyer was a State bank, regarding which there is Government guarantee on deposits. The shares purchased – 7,863,362 in number – were overvalued, the purchase price too high. Purchased with depositors’ funds, over which there was a Government guarantee.

The bank attempted to justify the purchase, by a convoluted claim that the purchase would allow the bank, through the finance company, to get into the provision of profitable financial services which the bank’s enabling law did not permit it to indulge in! The creators of the State bank, advisedly, prohibited that bank from getting into that kind of speculative, high risk financial services, for good reason. Because this was depositors’ money, over which there was a Government guarantee.

The ethics of the bank trying to do, through an underhand transactional device, something its own enabling law did not explicitly allow it to do, is beyond belief and itself highly questionable. That, if anything, amounts to corruption. The public outcry against the transaction was so outraged that the Government was forced to cover its tracks and order the sale cancelled. The Securities and Exchange Commission had to give a special dispensation for the bank to resell the shares in the finance company bought and paid for by the State bank to the sellers, who themselves, it is rumoured, are political acolytes of the highest order.

The sale was in May 2012. In October 2012, the Director General of the Bribery Commission, moving with the speed of light, in comparative terms that is (Usain Bolt watch out!), compared to the lethargy and sloth normally shown, according to analysts familiar with the agency, has through the Criminal Investigation Department of the Police made a complaint and had a plaint filed against the person, who was the Non-Executive Chairman of the bank under scrutiny for causing a loss to the bank and recommending another acolyte to serve on the board of the finance company.

Now it is strange that only the Non Executive Chairman is the accused in this case. The bank being referred to, a statutory organisation, in which it is presumed, its officers and servants follow due process. When the board of a statutory organisation, approves a purchase, when the executive officers, especially the accounting staff and other executive officers sign off on checks, for any purchase, we have to presume that the process has been followed, authorisation, approval and certification.

Then why is the Non Executive Chairman the only accused? At least the other board members of the bank and its executive officers and the other financial sector employees must be charged with dereliction of duty, at the very least? Whether this has been done is not in the public domain. A newspaper reports that Chairman of the Bribery Commission has refused to comment on why this particular case against the Non Executive Chairman is being fast tracked.

Among the legal fraternity, there is much agitation as regards the ostensible reason for the fast tracking of this State bank and finance company deal. A newspaper reports that it is the talking point on Hulftsdorp Hill, the location of Dutch Governor Hulft’s mansion and currently where the higher Judiciary holds sway.
There is persistent speculation among the gowned and wigged fraternity that the Non Executive Chairman’s indictment on bribery charges is in the context of plans under way to impeach a judicial officer. For which an impeachment motion has been handed over to the Speaker of Parliament. According to the newspapers one charge is specifically: ‘That her husband is a suspect in relation to legal action initiated at the Colombo Magistrate’s Court’.

There much anxiety expressed among lawyers that the indictment was designed to trigger the resignation of this judicial officer. On top of all this another Minister has suddenly discovered, no doubt to his utter amazement, that the appointment of the Secretary to the Judicial Service Commission is unconstitutional! All these things coming together, the timing that is, makes the whole caboodle, curiouser and curioser by the day!
This discovery and revelation has come one year after the appointment, it turns out that it is an issue of seniority, but historical records, it is said shows that other incumbents of that same office have had varying degrees of seniority in the list! Another charge in the impeachment motion is: ‘Disregarding the seniority of judicial officers through the appointment of Manjula Thilakaratna as the Secretary of the JSC’. Truth is much stranger than fiction or allegations for that matter.

In India, Arjun Kejriwal, one-time follower of Anna Hazare, the anti-corruption activist, now recently broken away to form his own political party, keeps the Indian public in a state of constant titillation by alleging corruption charges against India’s erstwhile political class and their acolytes.

Kejriwal’s first target was against the ruling Congress party Chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra on his sudden wealth and high net worth as a land developer. The allegations were that Vadra was favoured with prime land sold to him at knockdown prices, by a property development company, DLF group, one of India’s leading reality firms, who also provided cheap financing for the purchase of the land, and Vadra then resold the land for astronomical prices.

In a connected development a senior civil servant IAS officer Ashok Khemka, was transferred from his post soon after he ordered an investigation into Vadra’s land deals. The Haryana State Government however stated that it as the Government prerogative to transfer an employee and the move had nothing to do with the land deal allegations.

Later an investigation by the Deputy Commissioners in charge of the areas where the lands were located has reported that there are no irregularities in the transactions. Anti corruption campaigner refuse to accept this finding, demanding an independent investigation. The opposition party’s went to town attacking, Vadra, the Government, the Gandhi family, and anyone else they could get into their sight, in a classic ready, fire, aim strategy. It was a real case of carpet bombing.

Kejriwal’s next target was the opposition BJP Party’s President Gadkari. Gadkari, a nominee of the right-wing Hindutva RSS, it is alleged had around the time he was the Public Works Minister in a State Government, set up a series of corporate entities, having cross holdings, in which among the investors were corporations and individuals who had got lucrative contracts from the State Public Works Ministry.

Gadkari’s personal assistants like his chauffeur, his astrologer, etc. were shareholders in the companies, some other alleged shareholders in these shadow companies could not be found at their given addresses, the persons living at the addresses never having even heard of them.

By the way, as an aside, astrologers seem to have a prominent role in these shenanigans – even in Sri Lanka in the finance company and State bank corruption case, an allegedly prominent astrologer was a member of the State bank Board, who in all fairness should also be charged with whatever the Non Executive Chairman is charged with!

But getting back to the Gadkari case the anti corruption campaigners led by Kejriwal alleged that he was involved in an irrigation scam worth millions of dollars. Gadkari was accused of stealing water, power and land from poor farmers in Maharashthra State. It was alleged that the Congress-controlled State Government bent the rules to give away land owned by farmers to Gadkari an oppositionist.

They allege that land left over after acquisition to build a dam should have been returned to the farmers from whom it was taken, but instead the State Government sold it at knock down prices to Gadkari. Kejriwal alleged that water from the dam was also diverted away from the farms to factories in which Gadkari had interests. Gadkari’s response is that the land has been in fact given to a co-operative, which is a charitable trust and it is not controlled by him. He is open to any inquiry.

Kejriwal has also targeted India’s current Minister of External Affairs, Salman Khurshid, who was until his recent elevation to that post, the Law Minister; Khurshid is a grandson of India’s first Muslim President Zakir Hussein. Kejriwal’s India Against Corruption Group, accused Khurshid of embezzling funds meant for disabled people, in Khurshid’s electorate of Farrukhabad, Uttar Pradesh.

An amount of Rs. 7.1 million given to the Zakir Hussein Memorial Trust which is managed by Khurshid and his wife, by the Union ministry of Social Welfare, was alleged to have been misappropriated. Just after the allegation was made public, Khurshid was appointed External Affairs Minister. Kejriwal stated that the Congress was rewarding those who indulge in corrupt practices!

In the meantime Khurshid got into an argument with a reporter at a press conference and threatened him with legal action adding that he could “work with the pen – but I also work with blood”. He further told the reporter who wanted to visit Farrukhabad to investigate the story: “He can come to Farrukhabad, but should keep in mind that he has to return, too.”

Kejriwal has now an alleged conspiracy by the both the Congress and the BJP to assist billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Group. The allegation is that gas fields in the Krishna Godavari basin north of the international maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka, was allotted to Reliance in the 2000 by the BJP Government.

Kejriwal alleges that Reliance undertook to supply gas to the Indian para statal the National Thermal Power Corporation for 17 years at $2.5 per unit of gas. But in 2007 the Congress Government allowed an increase to $ 4.25 to Reliance. In 2012, Reliance wanted an increase up to $14.25 per unit. The then Petroleum minister Jaipal Reddy refused. Reddy was removed at the same reshuffle at which Khurshid was promoted, and replaced, according to Kejriwal for having the gumption to stand up to Reliance.

What is happening in India is unprecedented. Analysts point out that, for all their vitriolic rhetoric in Parliament and in the media, the Indian political class – primarily the Congress and the BJP – have long had a tacit understanding to keep silent about each other’s ‘private’ money-making activities and the ‘businesses’ run by their family members.

Like the nuclear deterrent which the USSR and the USA had during the Cold War years, the party leaders had enough ammunition for mutually-assured destruction if either should launch corruption charges against the other. But Arvind Kejriwal and his India Against Corruption have completely upset this cosy arrangement, especially the alleged connivance of the Congress and the BJP in the Reliance case, and India’s vibrant 24-hour news TV channels are beaming these sensational allegations on serial corruption among the political class into the drawing rooms of India’s vociferous middle classes – the chattering classes – on a 24/7 basis who are lapping it up.

They revel in watching the spectacle of the once untouchable political class, for whom they have a healthy contempt, squirm before public scrutiny. In India, in the absence of credible institutions to put an end to endemic corruption and abuse of power, the middle classes are embracing a contemporary form of mob justice, with anti corruption activists and a trial by a ratings-hungry media, acting as prosecutor, judge and executioner.

Similar earth-shaking events are taking place in the People’s Republic of China. In the midst of the regular, once in a decade, orderly leadership transition, taking place in Beijing, China is in turmoil. The Communist Party has just completed the ouster of the former Party Head of Chongqing, former Red Princeling Bo Xilai from all posts and stripped him of immunity from prosecution for corruption charges.

Bo was a one-time highly connected hi flier, who was campaigning to be elected from the 25 member Politburo to the nine-member standing committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party. These nine men and women run China. Bo based his campaign on the left wing Maoists of the Party, which instilled fear in the reformers who suffered during Cultural Revolution at the hands of the Red Guards. The indiscretions of a former Bo ally, the police chief of Chongqing and the conviction of Bo’s wife of the murder of a British national, were the ostensible reasons.

But Bo’s populist leftist leanings are thought to be the real reason. The leading reformist among the current Chinese leadership is Wen Jiabao, Prime Minister, who is stepping down from the leadership. The current leaders saw Bo Xilai as a threat to their reform process. Prime Minister Wen made this clear when he spoke of Bo as a dangerous force which might turn China back to the chaotic days of the Cultural Revolution. Wen and the eight other members of the standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party will stand down immediately and retire from Government in March 2013. But the left wing of the Party have hit back with a thunderbolt.

The New York Times of 28 October published an expose detailing the riches amassed by Wen’s closest family members in the 10 years since Wen rose to top office in China. The story is that several members of Wen’s family amassed net assets worth at least US$ 2.7 billion after Wen assumed high office 10 years ago. The allegation is that the family’s business dealings included, large profitable investments in State companies and financial backing form from State enterprises and State contracts for family members’ companies. China’s reformists fear that this attack on Wen will jeopardise the whole reform process.

Sina Weibo, the equivalent of Twitter in China, has been awash with allegations that the NY Times has been used by supporters of Bo to attack Wen. Prime Minister Wen’s family has tried to hit back with an unprecedented statement issued through lawyers in Hong Kong. However, the NY Times is standing behind its story. In China the NY Times website has been inaccessible since Friday. Arthur Sulzberg Jr. the publisher of the NY Times acknowledged that he expected some sort of retribution from the Chinese Government. China’s People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, launched a blistering attack on the NY Times accusing it of faking and distorting news. The NY Times was accused of trying to discredit China.

Like in India, the political class in China has been able to keep away from the public eye the wealth of its top cadres. When exposed, they react with predictable fury. A report about the family wealth of Xi Jinping, another Red Princeling, who is to succeed Hu Jintao to the post of President, in the next few days, by Bloomberg in the past, resulted in the boycott of Bloomberg’s financial data by Chinese Banks and censorship of the Bloomberg web site. The Maoist left in China, infuriated by the dismissal of their champion Bo Xilai, by the reformists, have probably leaked information of the Prime Minister Wen’s family wealth. This has resulted in the whole issue being in the public domain. Despite the heavy hand of the censor, some Chinese bloggers accessed the NY Times story and spread it around on Sina Weibo.

In Sri Lanka, India and China, just as anywhere else, the political class is unable to confine the stories of corruption among their ranks away from the public eye. The political class the world over would very much like to hold out that they are ‘pure as driven snow’. But given the shameful scramble for power and predictability of human nature, it just won’t happen. It is in the nature of things that –people will get to know, sometime, somehow, and consequences will inevitably flow. Just as night follows day.

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