The crux of the issue is that the main highways contracting company belongs to a man whose son-in-law is the chief minister’s son.
The Madras high court has ordered a CBI probe into complaints of nepotism and corruption in the award of contracts by Tamil Nadu’s highways department. The order is politically significant as the portfolio is under the charge of Edappadi K. Palaniswami for the past seven years, including the time he was not the CM. While legally there is no bar on his continuing as CM, it appears that morally he should have stepped aside until the CBI probe was completed in three months, as prescribed by the court. The judge himself had, however, made it clear he was expressing no opinion over the allegations made in the complaints by DMK organising secretary R.S. Bharathi. The judge ordered a CBI probe only on the ground that the preliminary enquiry was not done “in a fair and just manner” by the directorate of vigilance and anti-corruption.
At issue here is the fact that the DVAC reports to the Tamil Nadu chief minister. The CBI probe was then ostensibly only to assign it to an independent body over which the prime decision-maker would have no control or influence. In a state in which there is no lokayukta in place yet, the question of a probe that will not only be fair but also be seen to be fair is a difficult proposition. A transfer of the probe to the CBI would mean a Central agency, not too well-known for its efficiency or quickness, would be handling it, on the directions of the Centre. The problem of finding an appropriate authority to probe charges of corruption in high places is a nationwide one. Also, in political history, there have been only a handful of exceptions in anyone facing charges stepping aside until the probe is complete.
The crux of the issue is that the main highways contracting company belongs to a man whose son-in-law is the chief minister’s son. It has been said in defence of his company that it had been granted contracts for decades, including in the 2006-2011 period when the DMK was in power. The ministers are defending their chief by quoting the online bidding process, which is more secure and less prone to fiddling as the “box” contracts of yesteryear. The DVAC had concluded that many past contracts had been given out at greater average cost per km of highway than the ones being questioned now. Huge outlays are involved in road building and Tamil Nadu is a state that has generated more corruption complaints than most others on this score. The judge’s order has set the cat among the pigeons, but it is still far from certain that any probe would establish actual corruption and a money trail in loaded contracts, that too in a meaningful timeframe.