Where is the act of illegality, asks defence counsel Kapil Sibal.
The Supreme Court stayed on Wednesday a summons issued by a special court against the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and five others after he raised apprehensions of the growing number of corruption cases being filed against public servants who have acted in public interest while in office.
Questioning the logic of the summons, Dr. Singh’s petition said it was time the Supreme Court issued an “authoritative pronouncement” on the interplay between governmental decisions and criminal prosecution under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 in a liberalised economy. He said a clear line had to be drawn, especially when public servants were being criminally prosecuted for governmental decisions, though there was no “whiff” of quid pro quo.
In the petition, Dr. Singh expressed the apprehensions through 19 questions.
A Bench of Justices V. Gopala Gowda and C. Nagappan also stayed the proceedings in the case relating to a decision taken by Dr. Singh as Coal Minister to allocate the Talabira-II coal block in Odisha in 2005 to the Aditya Birla Group company Hindalco.
The trial court directed all six persons, including industrialist Kumaramangalam Birla and former Coal Secretary P.C. Parakh, to appear before it on April 8. Appearing for Dr. Singh, senior lawyer Kapil Sibal argued that there was no mens rea (criminal intention) and the decision to allocate the coal block to a joint venture including Hindalco was an “administrative decision”.
Decision was taken in public interest: Manmohan
In his petition, the former Prime Minister explained the 2005 allocation as a “governmental decision” taken in public interest as part of the country’s liberalisation process. He said he was just “sensitive to the concerns of all the stakeholders involved”.
“The exercise of balancing the needs of the public as well as the private sector in the larger public interest is complex and final solutions emerge by responding to the concerns of all stakeholders involved,” Dr. Singh said in the petition.
He said the “process of allocating a natural resource to the private sector was commenced in public interest to meet the increasing demands of vital sectors contributing to the GDP of India.”
He asked the court whether a public servant could be prosecuted for criminal conspiracy and misconduct merely on the perception that an administrative decision seemed to have benefited a private party. Corruption charges are being levelled even when “there is not even a whiff, let alone an allegation, of quid pro quo.”
He asked whether mens rea (criminal intention) was no more a requirement under the law to prosecute a public servant under Section 13 (1)(d)(iii) of the 1988 Act. The arguments led the court to issue notice to the Centre on this aspect.