The timing for the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre for the tabling of CAG report on coal block allocation in Parliament could not have been worse. Reeling under multi-pronged attack from all sides on the issue of increasing inflation, price rise, devaluation of the rupee, policy paralysis and various scams that it has been hit with, the Congress has now been struck with something from which it may not be able recover before the 2014 General elections.
The main Opposition, the BJP has predictably latched on to CAG’s indictment of the government for a loss to the tune of 1.86 lakh crore to the exchequer, on account of allocation of coal blocks without bidding. The CAG in its report has said - "Delay in introduction of the process of competitive bidding has rendered the existing process beneficial to the private companies. Audit has estimated financial gains to the tune of Rs 1.86 lakh crore likely to accrue to private coal block allottees."
The companies who are said to have benefitted, include Tata Group entities, Jindal Steel and Power, Anil Agarwal Group firms, Essar Group's power ventures, Adani Group and Arcelor Mittal
The report has yet to go through the usual scrutiny but soon after the report was tabled in Parliament on Friday, the BJP without mincing any words asked for the resignation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. However, the final CAG report is silent on the role played by the Prime Minister’s Office in allocation of coal.
"The Prime Minister is morally, politically and personally responsible for this wrongful loss. He must seriously introspect on accepting the moral responsibility for this loss and quitting his office," Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley said while addressing the media in the national capital.
Justifying their demands, the BJP said that the PM was directly responsible as he held the coal portfolio for a number of years. "The distinction between the price at which Coal India used to mine and the price at which private players were mining has resulted in a windfall profit of Rs 1.86 lakh crore to private players," Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj said.
However, the government in its initial reaction rejected the report. Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal said that the "allocation process was totally transparent and the policy was right". Though, not many may concur with him at this stage.
Yes, the Congress may have been able to tackle the latest round of fast by anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare for a strong Lokpal Bill and the movement for getting back black money to the country by yoga guru Baba Ramdev, by ignoring them completely (because of lack of crowd support this time around). But this is an issue on which the government, including the PM, will have a lot of explanation to do. After all the CAG is a government auditor and this report is not a news report or part of investigative journalism.
Don’t forget that the UPA government has still to recover from the 2G spectrum allocation scam for which Union Minister A Raja and DMK’s Member of Parliament Kanimozhi had to go to jail. In a landmark judgement last year, on February 02, the Supreme Court had cancelled the licences allocated by the former telecom minister in what can be said to be one of the most embarrassing moments for UPA-2. To say that, the coal block allocation scam along with the 2G ghost, is going to haunt the Congress for a long time, just as the Bofors did for years, will not be misplaced.
Listen to what the highest court of the land had to say after the 2G verdict - “Grant of licences arbitrary, capricious, illegal, unconstitutional, contrary to public interest and violates the doctrines of equality.”
It is anybody’s guess that the monsoon session of Parliament will be a stormy one with the BJP alleging that ‘this scam’ is bigger than the Rs 1.76 lakh crore 2G spectrum allocation scam. The main Opposition will surely raise this issue vociferously in both Houses of Parliament and Manmohan Singh will have to take some hard-hitting questions from all sides. It can also be that the BJP does not allow the Parliament to function and the monsoon session may be washed completely out.
The PM’s personal integrity may be above board but he can no longer hide behind that veil. He is the leader of more than a billion plus population of India and at the end of the day, he is answerable to them on the issue of governance. No politician and no political party worth his salt can ever forget the fact that every five years, they have to go among the people to ask for votes and it’s the common man who decides as to who is worthy of returning to power and who is not.
Going into the election mode, the Congress has more on its plate than it can handle at the moment – it can be said that the battle that it has to fight in the electoral arena is no longer with other political parties but with itself. The pertinent question is - will the Congress be able to shed the tag of a corrupt and arrogant party in time for the all important polls.
In his New Year message to his countrymen at the beginning of the year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said that he wanted to put behind a ‘very difficult’ year. He had also assured the people of India - “I will personally work to provide a more honest and more efficient government and a more equitable and just social and political order.”
Post Script: For the sake of our polity and our country one had hoped that what the PM had said, was not mere rhetoric and there would be some determination in what he had outlined. But what we have witnessed in the months gone by does not make us really euphoric or hopeful.
The moot question is - Is ‘coalgate’ the biggest scam in the history of India till date and will it be the last nail in the Congress’ coffin before the 2014 General elections?
(The views expressed by the author are personal)