When Arun Jaitley describes ICICI Bank case as investigative adventurism, imagine the fate of bankers in this and other cases.
Given the CBI’s FIR in the Chanda Kochhar-Videocon case names even former ICICI Bank chairman KV Kamath and current CEO Sandeep Bakhshi – and many more well-known people in the world of finance – as the accused, it is not surprising that finance minister Arun Jaitley should term this ‘investigative adventurism’ that “involves casting the net too wide including people with no mens rea or even having a common intention to commit an offence”. Even as a general rule, as Jaitley suggests, it is a bad idea to name too many people as accused since this shifts the focus of the investigation; there can be little doubt, after all, that Kochhar’s business dealings – through her husband – with an industrial group she was giving loans to represented a conflict of interest. The problem with naming all the people the CBI has, on grounds that they were involved in the sanctioning of the loans by ICICI Bank is the case now moves on to proving their guilt as well. And, given that ICICI Bank was not the only banker, or even the lead banker in a consortium of 20 banks that lent to the Videocon Group, does this mean even the head of SBI – the consortium leader – will be dragged into this and its lending practices questioned?
The problem with Jaitley’s statement – that was promptly retweeted by Piyush Goyal who is filling in for Jaitley who is in the US for medical treatment – is that he didn’t raise similar objections when well-known PSU bankers were similarly hauled up by the CBI. Indeed, as this newspaper asked when Usha Ananthasubramanian was sacked the day of her retirement for the Nirav Modi scam involving Punjab National Bank, why was no action taken against her predecessors since the scam had been going on for a long time before she took over? Indeed, several PSU bank chiefs whose banks were under a cloud for questionable lending have continued to do well within the government system after this.
At that time, when the investigating authorities were hauling up several PSU bank officials for dodgy loans in the past, this newspaper had argued that, rather than giving the investigating authorities a free hand, it would be better to form a panel which included bankers as well as other professionals of stature to examine the case to determine whether there was a prima facie case that needed further investigation. But with, at one point, the banking secretary directing PSU banks to examine all NPAs of more than Rs 50 crore for fraud and involve the enforcement directorate or revenue intelligence, it appeared as if the government was, in Jaitley’s words, “relying on presumptions and surmises with no legally admissible evidence”.
While the number of investigations slowed after that, suggesting wiser counsel prevailed, the fact that Jaitley was constrained to write what he did means that the CBI – or other senior members/officials in the government – did not even consult the finance minister, even if informally, before filing an FIR against so many leading lights of the finance industry. If the CBI had a stellar record in securing convictions, it would be one thing, but given how many of its cases fall flat, as well as the high-profile nature of this case, you would think the evidence would have been vetted by very senior people before proceeding. Sadly, even if the CBI decides not to proceed against all those named – like Kamath and Bakhshi – the damage to their reputations has been done. The fact that such a senior minister has written what he has, of course, has done a lot of damage to the government’s reputation.