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Government and Opposition complicit in Bihar “scam”

Vidya Subrahmaniam

New Delhi: Bedlam has long since become the defining feature of Indian legislatures. Paper missiles, walkouts and slogan-shouting no longer shock, and are today accepted pretty much as legitimate legislative behaviour.

And yet, when riots break out within the precincts of the legislature, as happened in Bihar over the last two days, it becomes difficult to be good humoured about it. One Opposition legislator flung his footwear at the Speaker of the Assembly, while another hurled a mike at the Chairman of the Legislative Council. But even this paled before the histrionics of Congress MLC Jyoti Kumari, who smashed flower pots with gusto and threw herself on the ground, doing an encore for camera crews only too happy to capture the madness for posterity. The footage will undoubtedly come in handy when violence inevitably “rocks” another House in another State.

Tragically, the Bihar legislators were venting their anger over an issue in which the Opposition and the ruling party are complicit. Consider the facts: Responding to a public interest litigation petition filed by lawyer Arvind Kumar Sharma, the Patna High Court on July 15 hinted at the possibility of a CBI inquiry into alleged financial irregularities in development schemes undertaken in the State between April 2002 and March 2008. The irregularities, the petition alleged, arose from unreconciled contingency bills totalling Rs.11,412 crore. The petition was based on a report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General which was tabled in the Assembly on July 14, 2009 and is currently with the Public Accounts Committee.

The court did not “order” a CBI inquiry as reported in the media but only remarked that the case appeared fit to be referred to the investigating agency. The CAG itself did not use the term “irregular” while referring to the unreconciled bills. What it said was this: “The increasing trend of outstanding AC [advance] bills needs action and effective measures.” The PIL petition talked of this as an “irregularity.” The Opposition picked it up and turned it into a mega scam.

Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi argued in the Lower House that if governments had to be punished for unreconciled bills then by that yardstick every government, whether in the State or at the Centre, would have to be adjudged guilty. Mr. Modi gave the examples of Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, all of which were found by the CAG to have been negligent on reconciling bills. The Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry had not reconciled bills totalling over Rs. 9,000 crore.

The Nitish Kumar government's case is that procedurally any CAG report had first to be examined by the PAC before courts or even the Assembly could claim jurisdiction over it. Further no irregularity could be alleged unless confirmed by the PAC. The Bihar government has since filed an interlocutory petition in the High Court seeking to pre-empt a CBI inquiry.

Whether or not the Lalu Prasad-led Opposition accepts this rationale, it surely has to do some answering of its own. Rabri Devi was Chief Minister between April 2002 and March 2005. For eight months thereafter Bihar was under President's Rule. Mr. Kumar became Chief Minister in November 2005. So even assuming that the unreconciled bills amount to a scam, Mr. Prasad and his wife will have to explain why they became a willing part of this scam.

Ms. Jyoti Kumari's bravura act notwithstanding, the same goes for the Congress, which participated in the Rabri Devi government.

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