By Pradyut Hande:
The Comptroller Auditor General’s (CAG) reports outlining the “Coalgate” scam has predictably opened a veritable can of worms. Losses to the tune of Rs. 1.86 lakh crore to the exchequer due to the wrongful allocation of 57 coal blocks to private companies at throw away prices have come back to haunt the beleaguered UPA – II Government. With an audacious opposition baying for its blood and an increasingly irate public clamoring for answers, the Centre has had to swing into damage control mode with alacrity. A few days ago, I wrote about the baffling defense concocted by Finance Minister, Mr. P. Chidambaram to elucidate the Government’s stance (read innocence). However, having raised more pressing questions than it answered, the Government was in dire need of a more purposeful and lucid defense that would succeed in taking some of the sting out of the opposition’s continual acerbic attacks. Time was of the essence.
The Prime Minister’s Defense
On Monday, August 27, Prime Minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh finally stepped out of the shadows to offer yet another “front foot defensive shot” on behalf of a rattled Government. In an almost four page long statement, the PM took full responsibility for the contentious decision making of the Coal Ministry, a portfolio he was personally responsible for during the allocation of the coal blocks in question. However, whilst saying that, he also appeared to be placing blame on the lackadaisical and often whimsical modus operandi of the Law Ministry and the many State Governments that displayed a documented disinclination towards embracing the competitive auction process with regards to the coal block allocation. Mr. Singh, further emphatically declared that, “any allegations of impropriety are without basis and unsupported by facts“.
He also categorically dismissed the figures put forward by the CAG as “disputable”. Additionally, he deemed the premise of the CAG “flawed” with regards to its assertion that the foundation of competitive bidding could have been introduced in 2006 by amending the prevalent guidelines; thereby, avoiding the entire mess. The PM ended by reciting an Urdu couplet which stated that his silence is a lot better than a thousand answers.
An Unyielding Opposition
Mr. Singh’s lukewarm defense evidently failed to have the desired impact as a drooling opposition led by Mr. Arun Jaitley and Mrs. Sushma Swaraj tore into it, systematically.
The opposition in BJP continued its relentless assault on the Centre, demanding the PM’s resignation by resorting to unparliamentary tactics, stalling proceedings. The BJP launched into an impassioned rebuttal stating that the State Government’s reluctance to embrace the auction process could not be utilized as an excuse as the Centre always has the final say in such matters and had it possessed the wherewithal, it certainly could have overrode the State Governments and introduced competitive bidding of natural resources like coal. Secondly, Mr. Singh’s dismissal of the CAG’s assertions has been perceived as an attack on a “constitutional body” which undermines the veracity of a democratic setup.
Finally, the BJP declared that the PM’s excuse with regards to postponing the introduction of the bidding system was done to prevent “low energy production, low GDP growth rate and generation of lower revenues” did not hold water and failed to inspire confidence as these conditions have continued to exist, juxtaposed with the prevailing system in place.
The Clouds Loom Large
The Congress’ well documented proclivity to shoot itself in the foot repeatedly has provided the BJP multiple opportunities to ride the “corruption plank” and whip up negative public sentiment in its wake. The “Coalgate“ scam has yet again provided the BJP fresh fodder to fuel its intermittent assaults on the incumbent that increasingly finds itself ducking brickbats and rushing for cover. With State elections in Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka around the corner; one can rest assured that the BJP will pull out all stops to further undermine the Congress and its floundering leadership.
With its “defensive shot” failing in its bid to stall a rampaging opposition; the Congress has further been pushed onto the “back foot“. Only time will tell if it is able to continue batting on a sticky wicket, with the clouds of “Coalgate” and other scams looming large overhead.