Blaming Opposition won't wash
“If coal remains in Mother Earth where is the question of loss? Only if coal is mined, will there be a loss”, taunted Finance Minister P Chidambaram to underline that excepting one, none of 57 coal mines allocated by the Government between 2005 and 2009 without tendering/competitive bidding did any mining. The Minister has put the logic on its head. If what he said was true, the purpose of the allocating coal blocks without competitive bidding stands defeated as allocation by screening committee was supposed to hasten the process of mining to meet the mounting demand of coal. The question that arises is: Why did the Government persist with arbitrary allocation of blocks for eight long years though the Coal Ministry suggested tendering/competitive bidding in 2004? And why did Dr Manmohan Singh as coal minister not pay heed to his own ministry’s fair suggestion? This is the crux of the issue and the Government’s response is obfuscation and uncalled for attacks on the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) – the Constitutional authority mandated to audit government’s spending and performance – by foot-in-mouth specialist in the ruling party. The Government stand on the scandal is confused and contradictory. While Ministers and Congress leaders claimed that the companies couldn’t start mining because of the delay in obtaining environmental and other clearances, Coal Secretary Alok Parti told the CAG on 9.2.2012 that there was a “lack of expertise in the private sector for mining” as the reason for delay in starting production. It is an open secret that several companies that cornered coal blocks by using money power and their links with the Ministers and party bosses had no expertise and experience in mining. They treated the licenses as windfall and went in for the killing by selling their entire or partial stake. This is the similarity between the Coal and 2G Scams where companies that had nothing to do with telecommunication cornered spectrum by giving their promoters capital gains in the equity market.
Without giving up her party’s demand for the resignation of the Prime Minister for the scandal, Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj told Sonia Gandhi that her party would allow the Parliament to function if the allocation of blocks were cancelled and an independent enquiry ordered into the matter. Congress President didn’t reject the demands but after consulting the Prime Minister informed Swaraj that that these demands were not acceptable. It is perhaps for the first time in the last eight years that the Prime Minister resisted any suggestion from 10, Janpath. Why is Dr Singh so adamant on cancellation of allotments of blocks arbitrarily given to undeserving and benami companies, though this is now the unanimous demand of the entire Opposition? Is it his arrogance or his belief that the cancellation of allocations made during his tenure as Coal Minister would prove his culpability? Even an independent enquiry is not acceptable to him. No reasonable and honest person would oppose independent enquiry into controversial allocations of natural resource strongly commented upon by CAG.
Government can’t claim any credit for the CBI conducting raids and registering FIRs against companies that cornered blocks by fraudulent means. Former CBI Director Joginder Singh’s famous quote is: “CBI Director can’t even decide which advocate engaging and how much fee should be paid to him.” His case is that CBI is a helpless spectator in “big ticket” corruption. If the agency has registered FIRs against the high and the mighty, it is precisely because of orders from the Chief Vigilance Commissioner acting on a complaint lodged by the BJP. In its first set of cases in the coal scandal accusing among others, Congress MP and media baron Vijay Darda and his brother Rajendra Darda who is a Congress Minister in Maharashtra, of criminal conspiracy, cheating and misrepresentation of facts. These five companies cornered six blocks and involve 25 promoters, directors and shareholders in these firms. Unnamed civil servants have also been booked by CBI under the Prevention of Corruption Act on charges of not exercising due diligence while allocating blocks. Further investigations into the scandal will open up a can of worms predicts BJP leader Kiriti Somaya who has a credible record of unearthing financial scancals. Dr Manmohan Singh had taken “full responsibility” about the fairness of coal policy and its implementation while attacking CAG for its critical report. He must now apologize to CAG and quit taking moral as well as constructive responsibility for the scandal.
Constitutional experts say the Government has committed a cardinal sin by undermining CAG— the constitutional authority mandated to make the government of the day accountable to the people through Parliament on spending of public funds and implementation of policies. Prime Minister’s outburst that observations of CAG were “refutable and will be challenged when the matter comes before PAC” is a sign of his desperation. Is he issuing a whip to Congress members of PAC to challenge the findings of the CAG? Comptroller and Auditor General has no role to play in policy matters nor had it ever claimed it to be its domain. But if there is a case in which while framing a policy financial considerations were not taken into account or wrongly estimated or if the policy has the effect of conferring benefits on individuals or groups to the exclusion of others, CAG has the right, nay duty, to raise questions. Again, if the audit of the implementation of policy brings to light deficiencies in the policy, CAG has a right to point out. Dr B R Ambekar had in the Constitution Assembly stated that the duties of CAG were more important than judiciary and that CAG should have greater independence than even judiciary. In 1950s, Prime Minister Nehru chastened a party MP for criticising CAG on the floor of the House saying the constitutional authority had a right to criticise the government. In 1962, Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon flared up against CAG finding deficiencies in defence preparedness and thundered that audit’s domain was limited to financial matters and accounts. There were strong protests in the House after which the matter was referred to PAC then headed by Mahavir Tyagi. The Committee in its report said it was the function of CAG to satisfy itself not only that every expenditure has been incurred as per prescribed rules and laws but also that it has been incurred with “faithfulness, wisdom and economy”. The Committee was of the view that if in the course of the audit, the CAG becomes aware of improper expenditure or waste of money, it is his duty to bring it to the attention of the Parliament. Eminent parliamentarian Era Sezhyan recently wrote in a well argued article that like Hitler, Congress party was uncomfortable with the cumbersome parliamentary system of a functioning democracy.
The Government’s mishandling of coal block allotment scandal and its attack of CAG has deprived it of whatever was left of its credibility and is bound to cost it heavily in the coming elections.