Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh has to answer a lot for landing the government and the prime minister in muck. He admitted that the “no-go zones” policy evolved during his tenure had come in the way of expeditious coal exploitation. “That is why I had written to the PM suggesting that the environment ministry too should be represented on the screening committee (for coal block allocations),” is Jairam’s explanation.
In most of the 70 blocks allocated during 2006-09, when the coal portfolio was under Manmohan Singh, no production had started. Though some of the companies, appearing before the Inter-Ministerial Group, have disputed the charge of sitting on the blocks and making no investment, an answer given in the Rajya Sabha by the MoS Coal PP Patil on September 3 made it clear that out of the total coal blocks allocated since 1993, a total of 115 and 86 blocks are still awaiting environment clearance and forest clearance respectively.
Shukla’s stance is typical of the government’s suicidal refusal to go for a compromise. Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal even came up with the bizarre argument that the BJP is asking for cancellations in the belief that companies would certainly challenge it in court and get stay. In effect, the BJP is asking for cancellation of allotments to help the allottees!
But a three-term Congress MP from a southern-state says, “The fact that Parliament could not run only amplified the bad feeling from Coalgate.’’ The overall impression of government’s incompetence added to the corruption charge—would not be easy to counter at the constituency level.
If Congress MPs are whispering their discontent, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee was more direct. She told a Trinamool MP (who is also a minister) close to her, “The prime minister keeps blaming us (for the reforms logjam), but they can’t even manage a session.”
The PM’s showpiece policies—FDI in retail and civil aviation, land acquisition bill, banking and insurance reforms, not to mention the Teesta accord—are stuck because of the Trinamool’s strong objections, but it seems Manmohan Singh has reached the end of the road as far as passing the buck goes.
The Trinamool chief, who takes great pride in her image of incorruptibility (which used to be the PM’s USP too), is genuinely nervous that the fallout of Coalgate might singe her party by association. A Trinamool minister said, quite pointedly, that his party had withdrawn from the NDA government in the wake of Coffingate, in which then defence minister George Fernandes had got embroiled. “That too was a CAG report-inspired controversy,” he added, for good measure. AB Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, had made the tactical move of going in for mass cancellation of petrol pumps when charges of nepotism were laid during petrol pump allocations. Thereby, he had managed to retain the moral high ground. A window of opportunity to emulate this model of tactical flexibility came when Sonia Gandhi called up Sushma Swaraj. The government had one opportunity to still have a stab at this. It could have grabbed the chance offered by the Opposition’s demand that all controversial coal block allocations be cancelled by at least meeting it half-way. Instead, it decided to brazen it out and take on the CAG for being the whistle-blower.
When Rajeev Shukla, MoS, Parliamentary Affairs, was asked why they did not go for cancellations and save the PM and the government from the daily ignominous revelations about Subodh Kant Sahay, Vijay Darda, the Jayaswals and now Jagathrakshagan and Prem Gupta, he said, “En-bloc cancellation is not possible without an inquiry of some sort. The Inter-Ministerial Group is doing it on an urgent basis. No government can go and cancel its own decision and devalue its own decision-making process.”
A senior Congress minister, known for his knowledge of law and executive powers, had this to say: “Perhaps cancellation would have been a better way. It would have allowed us to wrest the moral ground.”
To the bargain offered by the latter, that the BJP would return to a debate in Parliament if the government cancelled the coal blocks, Sonia had said she would get back after talking to the PM.
And the Prime Minister, as it became apparent from subsequent statements, had decided against it. He may have been ill-advised. As another Congress minister said, “That would have been an admission of guilt. And it would’ve paved the way for imminent resignation.”
Many on the outside, in fact, feel a powerful section within the Congress is allowing Manmohan Singh’s image to be besmirched because they feel they can’t face the 2014 election if he continues to be PM. Said CPI leader D Raja, “The BJP were on the backfoot when their own complicity came up.” Implying that at the end of the session, the Congress handed them the advantage. Even if all 142 blocks were not cancelled, he added, the PM would have done better by cancelling some of the controversial ones and ordered a CBI probe on his own.
“The current CBI probe has been ordered by the CVC on complaints of members. If the CVC can order a probe, why can’t the prime minister?” Raja asked, adding, “At least that would have saved him the present humiliation.” Now the option of a CBI probe is not there. Sushma Swaraj has asked for a Commission of Inquiry where the PM too has to depose.