New Delhi, Nov. 22: The Tehelka exposé once again rocked Parliament with the Opposition today crying foul over the appointment of Justice (retd) K. Venkataswami probing the defence-deal scam as chairman of the authority on advance ruling on customs and excise in May.
Union finance minister Jaswant Singh vehemently denied any foul play, saying the Centre had gone strictly by the recommendations of then Chief Justice of India S.P. Bharucha. However, the Congress, the Left and other parties stuck to their guns, charging that the Venkataswami Commission’s integrity had been compromised by the decision taken six months ago while the Tehelka probe was still on.
The matter was raised in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, with a vociferous Opposition accusing the A.B. Vajpayee regime of violating all norms of constitutional propriety. However, in the Rajya Sabha, Singh maintained that the Centre had gone by Bharucha’s recommendations in clearing his appointment. Dissatisfied, the entire Opposition staged a walkout, led by Congress leader Manmohan Singh.
A jittery government then released the text of the letter dated January 14, 2002, written by Bharucha recommending Venkataswami as the chairperson of the authority for advance rulings for customs and central excise.
The BJP stoutly defended Venkataswami’s appointment, saying it was done on the basis of the recommendation of the then chief justice of India. “Justice Venkataswami has been appointed chairman of the authority on advance ruling on customs and excise on the basis of the recommendation made by the chief justice of India to the appointments committee of the Cabinet,” said BJP spokesman V.K. Malhoutra.
Party leaders asserted that the government did not push Venkataswami’s name at “any stage”. They pointed out that there have even been occasions when a judge has headed three commissions.
Giving the sequence of events, senior BJP leaders said the finance minister had written to then Chief Justice of India A.S. Anand on September 27, 2001, requesting him to nominate a judge to head the authority. The finance minister’s letter, significantly, did not mention any name.
On January 14, 2002, Bharucha — who had taken over as chief justice — wrote back to the ministry recommending Venkataswami for the post.
Unconvinced, Congress spokesman Satyavrat Chaturvedi said: “The Venkataswami Commission is still holding inquiry into the Tehelka exposé, but the finance ministry is giving him a position to head the authority on advance ruling on customs and excise. If such a position is being offered to him, what will happen to the credibility of his findings'”
The news portal also fired a salvo at the Centre, accusing it of the “worst kind of abuse of powers”. Tehelka’s managing editor Tarun Tejpal said the Centre’s “abuse of power against the portal in the last two years is a much bigger story than its exposé on corruption in defence deals”. The appointment of Venkataswami as chairman of an important financial body is no different, he added.
“I am not surprised by anything the government does against us. We are not expecting any fair play from the government, which has have abused its powers in every possible way against us,” the portal’s managing editor said.