Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressing the media on the coal blocks allocation issue in New Delhi on August 27.-R.V. MOORTHY

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressing the media on the coal blocks allocation issue in New Delhi on August 27.-R.V. MOORTHY

The CAG reports on the allocation of coal blocks, ultra-mega power projects, and PPP in Delhi airport cause political tremors.

THE three reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) pertaining to the allocation of coal blocks, ultra-mega power projects and public-private partnership (PPP) in Delhis Indira Gandhi International Airport were perceived as potentially damaging for the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government even before they were formally tabled in Parliament during its current session. Several factors had contributed to this. These included leaked contents of the reports that circulated in the media and in political circles; murmurs that emerged on the basis of these leaks, primarily from the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); and the relatively long duration for which the reports remained in the office of President Pratibha Patil before they were sent to Parliament. (The report was sent to Parliament on the last day of Pratibha Patils tenure.) Moreover, the general characteristics of CAG reports in the past four years, marked as they were by the exposure of wrongdoings by the administration, including massive corruption as in the case of the 2G spectrum allocation and stinging criticisms of government policy, added to this sense of anticipation.

Indeed, when the reports were finally tabled in Parliament during the monsoon session, they did live up to the expectations of causing problems for the UPA, particularly its leading partner, the Congress. The impact of the reports did not stop with that. It has developed in such manner that questions have been raised about the very role of Parliament in Indias democracy. The Prime Minister himself has gone ahead and criticised an institution like the CAG. He termed the CAG report on coal block allocations as flawed and disputable. Other leaders of the Congress, including its spokespersons, have even questioned the probity of the CAGs office. In the process, the role of both the government and the principal opposition in facilitating democratic functioning of Parliament as well as in preventing or curbing corruption has also been brought into question.

The reason why the report on the allocation of coal blocks is at the centre of the political storm is not far to seek. It is different from the other two reports, as well as the many other controversial reports that have come out in the last five years. The major difference is that it has brought the role of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself into question.

Admittedly, Manmohan Singh was in charge of the Coal Ministry when some of the controversial allocations took place, and the BJP lost no time in demanding his resignation on account of this. It persisted with this demand and disrupted the functioning of Parliament day after day even though the Congress leadership, including the Prime Minister, offered to have a thorough debate in Parliament on the report.

Even after its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), including the Janata Dal (United), chose not to join its rambunctious protests, the BJP continued with them. It is in this context that the role and motive of the principal opposition, too, has come into question.

Commenting on the developments in Parliament, Sitaram Yechury, the Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Rajya Sabha member, said: Both the government and the principal opposition seem to be indulging in a game of political match-fixing on this issue. The government cannot shy away from the responsibility of ensuring the functioning of Parliament. And the opposition needs to be ready for a debate in Parliament. This seems to be an issue where both sides have much to hide, and hence the recourse to disruptive tactics on the one side and the studied drift on the other, leading to the collapse of the functioning of Parliament.

Yechurys contention has many takers in both the ruling and opposition coalitions. Leaders of parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in the UPA and the JD(U) admit in private that a thorough debate on the issue could expose both the mainstream parties. As far as the Congress is concerned, even that would help it score some political points, especially because it is pushed to the wall in the context of the reports.

Speaking to Frontline, Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari underscored this line of thinking. He pointed out that all governments of the BJP, whether at the Centre or in the States, had followed the very same procedures for coal allocation now criticised in the CAG report. The BJP now upholds the case that in the absence of competitive bidding the allocation of coal blocks to private parties was conducted through non-transparent procedures which caused mota maal [big time] gains to private companies. But the BJP had also followed the non-auction route when it was in power at the Centre. In States where the party is in power, its governments follow the same path. So, clearly, this is a game plan with a motive. One must remember the experience of a former CAG, who became the BJPs Rajya Sabha member soon after he left office. If nothing else, the CAGs style underscores a lack of due diligence. No right-thinking person will question Manmohan Singhs commitment to probity in public life, Tiwari said.

A dominant section of the BJPs leadership is of the view that the party need not get drawn into such objective debates on the principles of coal allocation or on the need for democratic functioning of Parliament at this point of time. This section considers that the coalgate could be built up in much the same way as the Bofors howitzer scandal in the 1980s, when a corruption charge against Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi became the biggest election issue.

The government is already on a stretcher and this allegation against the Prime Minister could deal more crippling blows to it, a senior BJP leader told Frontline. The reaction of Arun Jaitley, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, to the reservations expressed by the NDA constituents on the BJPs strategy on the issue clearly points to this aggressive thrust of the party. It is being said that the BJP is isolated on this issue. If it is so, we see this as magnificent isolation, Jaitley told the media.

In the middle of all this, officers associated with the auditing agencies lament the attribution of political motives to audit reports, and the campaign and criticism of auditing officers on the basis of political considerations. They point out that political issues and manoeuvres have come up with attention-grabbing audit reports right from the first government of India. They point out that the audit probe angle was prominent right from the Jeep scandal of 1948 to the Mundhra case to the Bofors howitzer scam of the 1980s.

It is true that in recent years, these reports have captured greater public attention, essentially on account of the rapid growth of media coverage. But the central factor that motivates peoples attention is that everybody is concerned with the loss of natural resources. When an audit report highlights that, large sections of the people do show their concern in various ways; blaming an officer or the CAG for this is certainly not in order. There is, indeed, need for a more balanced approach to such issues, Amitabh Upadhyaya, former Director General in the CAG office, told Frontline.

It remains to be seen how far the two mainstream parties and the other political players will accept this plea for a balanced approach. What is clear, however, is that the three recent CAG reports have prevented effective functioning of Parliament in the monsoon session. And there can be little doubt that the coalgate battle will move to Parliaments Public Accounts Committee (PAC) once the session ends. And that will unleash a different sort of rambunctiousness within the political system.

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