<b>Coal scam blackens Congress face further</b>

Coal scam blackens Congress face further

Ashish Joshi

The uproar over the so-called coalgate scam, which resulted in a loss to the exchequer of rupees 1.86 lakh crores just refuses to die down. As it is, scams are not new in this wondrous land of ours. The first scam, the jeep scandal, occurred in 1948, barely a year after independence; from then on, the trickle slowly became a flood. Lax laws, a corrupt police force, an emasculated judiciary, self-serving politicians, obliging bureaucrats-all have conspired to slowly drain this country of its vitality and resources. But the coalgate scandal is different as it embodies everything that is wrong with this country. Not only is it the biggest scam in India’s independent history (if the Congress continues to rule, even this record won’t stand much longer), it has divided the opposition squarely into those who believe the Congress has done a horrendous wrong and those who lay the blame at the NDA’s doorstep. Recently, the Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi pointed fingers at the Centre for its coal block allocation policy; he alleged that private firms with such blocks are making hay selling electricity at higher rates to state governments.

Meanwhile our lame duck PM continues to defend his embattled government, saying that there had been absolutely no wrongdoing in coal block allocations; it was a monstrous allegation against the ruling party unsupported by facts, he said. He pointed out that the coal block allocation policy was in existence since 1993, and that all previous governments had allocated blocks in the same manner that the CAG was now criticising. But the fact remains that before the UPA came into power in 2004, the coal block allocation policy did not really matter, as the price of coal till 2002 was quite cheap; only after 2004 when the domestic demand for coal skyrocketed, did the scenario rapidly change. The potential for mischief stemmed only after 2004, when giving away free coal resulted in massive financial gains for select parties. With the price of coal at an all-time high, private parties made a beeline to grab coal blocks; with the government delaying auctions, hundreds of people made a killing.

The opposition BJP, on the other hand, is in no mood to forgive the UPA’s transgressions. In a broadside, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley lambasted the UPA government, branding it arrogant and despotic. He urged the Prime Minister to personally own up to the arbitrary and discretionary allocation of 142 coal blocks, especially as he was the coal minister during the height of the scam. Mr. Jaitley said he was in full favour of an honest debate in Parliament on the issue, and added the Prime Minister’s office should be judged by harsher standards than those applied to the 2G spectrum scam, which resulted in the resignation of the telecom minister A. Raja.

 The battle is getting murkier by the day. In a way it is reminiscent of the epochal Battle of Stalingrad between Hitler’s storm troopers and Soviet soldiers during World War II-minus the battlefield fighting, of course! After hearing of BJP leader Sushma Swaraj’s advice to her ministers to take the battle onto the streets and educate people on the sins of the UPA government, that Congress blabbermouth Manish Tewari waded into the debate, saying he would urge lakhs of his supporters to hit the streets, showing how the BJP was bent on subverting democratic institutions.

But in a major embarrassment to the Prime Minister, damning proof emerged how his office had taken just one day to favour his Cabinet colleague Subodh Kant Sahay for allotment of two coal blocks for a company which was close to the Ranchi MP’s brother. Just one day after the PM resolutely defended himself against any wrongdoing, and impugned the CAG report for coalgate findings, the BJP produced a new set of documents and grilled the PM in the arbitrary allotment of coal blocks.

On February 5, 2008, the then Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Food Processing Minister, Sahay wrote to the PM asking his help regarding a matter relating to allotment of coal blocks to SKS Ispat and Power Limited which had steel plants in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. It was alleged that Sahay’s brother Sudhir Kant Sahay had stakes in the company. Then things moved very fast. The next day the PM’s office fast-tracked Sahay’s request to the Secretary of the Coal Ministry. That same day, SKS Ispat and Power was allotted a coal block, as revealed by the Ministry of Coal in the Rajya Sabha recently. The BJP demanded to know from the Congress the reason for this sudden haste in allotting a coal block. In fact BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar went a step further, and demanded cancellation of all 142 coal blocks allotted during UPA rule. A couple of days ago, the Prime Minister defended his policy of allotting coal blocks without competitive bidding saying that if this had not been done, it would have resulted in lower revenues and lesser GDP growth. The BJP scoffed at the statement, and accused the government of distributing coal blocks with 70 billion tons of coal worth rupees 51 lakh crore to 153 companies gratis.

But as time passes, the ramifications of this episode seem to be getting curiouser and curiouser with a host of shadow players strutting their stuff, seemingly each with his own agenda. Arvind Kejriwal, a former member of Anna Hazare’s coterie, recently accused both the BJP and the Congress of profiting from the egregious coal gate scam, and said both parties were engaged in looting the country. As the self-styled leader of India Against Corruption, he had led a big demonstration against corruption and attempted to storm the PM’s and Sonia Gandhi’s residences, but was detained by police, along with his supporters. In a TV interview, Kejriwal made it clear that no current political party is capable of providing good governance and stability to India; he is targeting the political establishment as he feels no single party would ever vote for the Lokpal Bill. He also seemed confident of wooing back Kiran Bedi, who had left his party due to Kejriwal’s tarring both BJP and Congress with the same brush. It seemed that Kiran Bedi has her suspicions about Arvind Kejriwal harbouring political ambitions. If this is proved true, it would be yet another twist in India’s never-ending saga of political betrayal and deceit.

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