There is a widespread sense of shock and dismay over the summoning of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as an accused in the coal scam by the special CBI court. The Congress has erupted in protest, bringing out rallies in different parts of the country. The party is professing to be outraged how a person of Dr Singh’s integrity and probity can be hauled to court. But such posturing does not fool anybody. The court has summoned the former Prime Minister on charges of crimil conspiracy, crimil breach of trust by a public servant under the IPC and under provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act. Set up by the Supreme Court in July last year, the special CBI court is hearing all the cases arising from the coal block allocation scam. The CAG has estimated this scam to have cost the country’s exchequer Rs 1.86 lakh crore. The CBI court has questioned how as Prime Minister holding additiol charge of the Coal ministry in 2005, Manmohan Singh ‘allowed’ the allocation of Talabira-II coal block to be ‘reopened’, despite the screening committee recommending the allocation of the block to the public sector enterprise Neyveli Lignite Corporation. Thanks to the then Prime Minister’s intervention, Kumaramangalam Birla’s Hindalco group filly bagged the coal block. Dr Singh has argued that he overturned the decision of his steering committee because he and Odisha Chief Minister veen Patik believed that the Birla group had a strong case for being allocated the mine.
However, Dr Singh can be faulted for violating the spirit of the law even if any ‘crimil intent’ cannot be fully established. After all, coal blocks are hugely lucrative assets that leading producer companies compete fiercely to get hold of as captive power sources. Though the CAG’s report did not point to any corruption angle, it had questioned how the government’s decision to allot coal blocks through competitive bidding in 2004-2009, strangely ended up as an ‘inefficient’ method that was opaque and subjective. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that all the 218 coal blocks allocated by the government between 1993 and 2010 were done illegally. And now the special CBI court has noted that the then Prime Minister’s Office had taken an ‘undue interest to somehow accommodate Hindalco in Talabira-II coal block allocation’. The CBI judge has also observed that while the Prime Minister cannot persolly look into the minute details of each and every case placed before him — in this case, Manmohan Singh ‘chose’ to keep the Coal portfolio with him. He therefore cannot claim that as Prime Minister he could not be ‘expected’ to persolly look into minute details of each and every case. After all, Dr Singh was known as a ‘thorough and diligent person’ who ‘as departmental Minister would go through what the Secretary, the Minister of State and the officers below in the PMO had written in the file’.
So the question turally arises — what was the logic of turning over parts of the country’s valuable resources to favoured corporate groups, unless some ‘quid pro quo’ was involved? As of now, there may be no visible money trail leading to Dr Singh and proving his guilt, but the interest shown by the former PM to favour the Birlas definitely looks unhealthy. Even if Manmohan Singh’s culpability is never filly established, why did he remain ictive while allowing his ‘proven integrity’ to be hijacked by other quarters to do their nefarious deeds? Was he never fully in full control of his government due to coalition politics compulsions or the greed and velity of the Congress itself? This further reinforces the public belief that Manmohan Singh was an ‘accidental’ Prime Minister. Yet he is the same Prime Minister who took an uncompromising stand in the Indo-US nuclear deal and FDI in multi brand retail, staking the very existence of his government on these issues. The country has been led by great men like Dr Rajendra Prasad and Ballabh Bhai Patel who were legendary for their integrity, extensive command of what was going on under them and meticulous file notings. When the coal scam broke in 2012, Dr Singh had offered to give up public life if found guilty in the scam. He is now ‘pained’ at being summoned to the court as an accused, and ‘more than pleased’ that the Congress high command and senior leaders are now coming out to show their solidarity with him. But the Congress has much to answer for in this sad diminution of status of a man who came up from great poverty to hold the highest economic and fince posts in the land, before gracing the exalted office of Prime Minister for two consecutive terms. There is a lesson in this for all officials of high accomplishments and integrity who hold public posts.