WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
On Wednesday, Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister of India, received a summons from a CBI court as an "accused person" to appear before it on April 8 in the coal block allocation case. This is not the kind of thing that happens to former heads of government except in ba republics. True, this has happened before even to former Prime Minister rasimha Rao who had been convicted in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) bribery case in 2000. He was eventually acquitted by a higher court. But right now things are only beginning to happen for Manmohan Singh, and it is perhaps too early to predict what turns the case will take or how long the proceedings will last. Manmohan Singh has taken a stoical attitude to the developments in saying, “Of course I am upset, but this is part of life... I have always said I am open for legal scrutiny... I am sure the truth will prevail and I will get a chance to put forward my case with all the facts.” He has the option of moving the high court right now and to seek the quashing of the summons. He can even approach the Supreme Court if the high court turns down his appeal, but it is doubtful if he will take recourse to such measures.
What Manmohan Singh has got himself into is an accountability challenge at the highest level. It is not accountability over the issue of the transfer of a senior bureaucrat or the appointment of someone to the Prime Minister’s Office. It is accountability over the seemingly preferential allotment of a huge coal block in Odisha—a major tiol property—to an industrial entity in the private sector involving thousands of crores of rupees. In 2005, Manmohan Singh was Union Coal Minister in addition to being Prime Minister of the country. That was the time when allotments of coal blocks were being made. Among the allotments made was the one of Talshira-II in Odisha to Kumar Mangalam Birla’s Hindalco. The CBI court feels that prima facie it appears that the coal block allocation to Hindalco approved by Manmohan Singh on the basis of a note by the then Coal Secretary facilitated “windfall profits” to Hindalco and caused losses to the state-owned Neyveli Lignite Corporation. The court spoke of a concerted conspiracy “to extend undue benefit/wrongful gain to Hindalco... causing wrongful loss to the Government of India.”
Accountability and transparency are two much bandied terms in our polity that does not really care very much about such important principles. In the true sense of the term, accountability is much more than a willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions and statements. Accountability, at the level that we are concerned with now, is possible only with the full support of information relating to an action and implications thereof. And since it is not possible for a prime minister to be well informed and educated about all issues that it becomes necessary for him to deal with, it is imperative that he should have access to expert opinions on a wide variety of subjects and should evince the willingness and humility to accept expert opinions and advice on matters that he may not know much about. The allocation of coal blocks was one such area of decision-making that would have been extremely difficult for the Prime Minister to handle without expert opinion and unbiased advice relating to tiol resources of very great value. In order to be accountable in an efficient and unbiased manner, the Prime Minister would have need for a great deal of geological information and proper understanding of the implications of the allotment that he was making. He could claim transparency and accountability and yet not be truly accountable due to lack of complete knowledge about what he was dealing with. It is significant that even though the CBI court has not yet cited evidence of conspiracy and motives while listing its prima facie findings, it has had access to letters and deliberations of meetings among Birla, top government officials and Manmohan Singh and has been apprised of the interest shown by the PMO in the allotment and has been intrigued by a decision to ignore the cautiory advice of two PMO officials. The court has also cited several questioble procedures (such as Manmohan Singh approving the note without making any observation). The Coal Secretary has been accused of withholding information and making a wrong noting. And Kumar Mangalam Birla has been accused of tapping “bureaucratic and political channels”. There have been other reasons too for the judge to get suspicious about the allotment of the Talabira-II coal block to Hindalco. “The repeated reminders from the PMO, written as well as telephonic, to MOC (Ministry of Coal) to expeditiously process the matter in view of the letters received from Kumar Mangalam Birla also prima facie indicate the extra undue interest shown by the PMO in the matter... prima facie shows that there was a conscious effort on his part to somehow accommodate Hindalco in Talabira-II coal block,” the judge said. Here indeed was an interesting case of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, always accused by his rivals of being indecisive, suddenly finding himself under trial for taking decisions which, according to him, were directed at promoting industrial activity in Odisha apparently at the request of Chief Minister veen Patik.
All this brings us to the very pertinent issue of the faith that the Congress and many people outside the party have in the probity and unquestioble integrity of Manmohan Singh. His party has pledged itself to protecting his me and providing him all the legal help that he may be in need of. People like Soli Sorabjee and Ram Jethmalani have also pledged to stand by him. Congress president Sonia Gandhi led a whole lot of Congress leaders who walked up to Manmohan Singh’s house to express solidarity with him. Obviously they had very good reasons to swear by his probity and unimpeachable integrity. And yet, in our polity, with the levels of corruption that we encounter all around us, there is only one thing that people can be completely sure of: that no one can be entirely sure of a politician’s probity and integrity in the political climate that we find around us. Quite obviously, much of the effusion relating to the issue of Manmohan Singh’s assumed unimpeachable integrity is based on the level of difficulty his fellow party members have had in making him accept compromises or cutting corners in the matter his decisions. And yet we cannot afford to overlook the fact that it was during the ten years of the UPA government with Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister that we have had the largest number of scams that gave his government a bad me. How did a man of his probity and reputation for clean conduct, a man deemed to be pure as the driven snow, countence so many scams in his government when he was Prime Minister of the country? What is the value of that kind of clean conduct that countences so much of filth in the form of scams all around? What is all the transparency worth if it fails to detect and prevent a single one of those scams? This takes Manmohan Singh and those like him at the helm of governments to yet another level of accountability. It is not enough for a prime minister or president of a country to be accountable for his own conduct alone. He has to be accountable for his Council of Ministers and his government. He has to be accountable even for what he did not do persolly, but what he permitted a Cabinet minister to do. It could be an objectioble statement or an action to put him and the tion to shame. He has to be accountable to the extent of getting the minister concerned sacked. Unfortutely, Manmohan Singh has not been able to accept even this level of accountability because as Prime Minister of a coalition government he has had to make any number of compromises to ensure the survival of the coalition. No wonder he had to keep eyes and mouth shut in the face of the many scams that sullied his government. He even had to allow a murderer to be a Cabinet minister and the Chief Minister of Jharkhand later on. So what is his persol integrity or probity worth in the context of the quantum of filth that he had to countence within his government because of the compromises he had to make? It is, therefore, almost certain that the kind of questions he will have to face along with the Coal Secretary of his time are bound to challenge his accountability to the hilt. Time and again he will have his decisions, his motives and his fairness questioned. And all these legitimate questions will end up as questions on his accountability and the transparency of a government that permitted a whole crop of ugly scams to erupt under the leadership of someone touted to be the cleanest prime minister in the world.