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Leaders and dealers

Print edition : Aug 17, 2002 T+T-

The Bharatiya Janata Party's claim of being the 'party with a difference' takes a beating again in the wake of revelations regarding the irregular allotment of petroleum dealerships.

THE more the Bharatiya Janata Party tries to wash its hands of the scandal surrounding irregular petroleum and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) dealership allotments, the more the grime seems to stick. The more it tries to justify itself, the more glaring the party's collusion in it becomes. Even Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's "unprecedented and historic" decision to cancel all the 3,850 allotments made between November 2000 and May 2002 has failed to get it off the hook. The scam shows how the party misused the system to favour its people. The BJP has outdone even the Congress(I) in practising the politics of patronage. Several prominent leaders of the Sangh Parivar and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are directly or indirectly involved in the present scam.

The facts revealed until now point to an orchestrated plan to make the system serve the party's end. The party's claims that out of thousands of allotments only "a few" happened to go to BJP functionaries and that if there were any irregularities in these allotments there could be an inquiry into the matter, are unconvincing. It has been established that what happened was not a few sporadic instances of favouritism, but a systematic doling out of largesse with the knowledge of the BJP high command and active assistance from the government.

Although the BJP said that "no allotments were made from the Minister's discretionary quota", the fact was that it was not necessary. In any case, the discretionary quota had been removed following the Supreme Court's ruling in the Satish Sharma case relating to irregularities in petrol pump and LPG dealership allotments during the Congress(I)'s tenure. Secondly, the party had done away with the need to exercise such discretion and instead concentrated on the selection of suitable chairpersons for the dealer selection boards (DSBs), which are supposed to be autonomous bodies. The government changed the guidelines for the setting up of the DSBs in November 2000 and gave itself the power to select the chairpersons, who were vested with a veto power in the selection process. He or she was also given the power to allot a maximum of 200 marks to a candidate, as against 100 marks each that could be granted by the other two members on the board who represented the oil companies. The new guidelines also gave the government the authority to select chairpersons from among retired judges. It also got the right to change chairpersons in the middle of their term without issuing notice.

THE manipulation of the system had indeed come to light in the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Petroleum and Chemicals which was tabled in Parliament in December 2001. The committee, which was headed by Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, pointed out the anomalies in the system of allotment. It noted that although the purpose of changing the guidelines was to ensure transparency, uniformity and objectivity in the process, the purpose was defeated by the government itself. The committee said that since the government enjoyed "absolute and unrestricted powers to pick and choose any ex-judge as chairman of the board" who continued in his or her post "during the pleasure of the appointing authority" and who could be removed midterm without any notice and assigning any reason, the purpose of "transparency" was defeated. The committee recommended that a panel of retired judges be formed and chairpersons selected only from that panel. The fact that the government used its power "indiscretely and discriminately" was evident from the fact that 13 out of the 59 DSB chairpersons were removed midterm. More important, the committee found that many chairpersons complained of being subjected to political pressure to favour certain candidates. The committee also recommended that petroleum and LPG dealerships, instead of being allotted on vague and subjective criteria, be auctioned to ensure their commercial viability. However, the government chose to ignore all the recommendations of the committee.

The facts available suggest that the BJP high command was aware of the irregularities. The matter had come to the fore in May 2001, shortly before the Assembly elections in Assam. Assam State BJP chief Rajen Gohain, now a Member of Parliament, was accused by his own partymen of having taken Rs.8 lakhs to Rs.10 lakhs for getting petrol pumps for his people. BJP MLAs from Assam had also complained to the party high command about Gohain. The matter threatened to spill over into the streets and Home Minister L.K. Advani had to rush to Guwahati to sort out the matter. Gohain confirmed that there was such an allegation against him, but added that "it was a political conspiracy against him which was normal at the time of elections".

A look at the list of beneficiaries, as revealed by The Indian Express, is an eye-opener . For instance, the list from Maharashtra includes the name of Sreeniwas Madhavrao Vaidya, son of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh spokesperson M.G. Vaidya (he has since given up the LPG agency saying his father had no role in its allotment); Sunita Phundkar, wife of State BJP chief Pandurang Phundkar; Mukund Kulkarni, BJP office secretary in Mumbai; Suryakant Khaire, brother of Shiv Sena MP Chandrakant Khaire; Dhananjay Munde, nephew of BJP leader and former Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde and other relatives of BJP and Shiv Sena leaders. The list from Uttar Pradesh includes the name of Aparna Mishra, wife of Raj Mishra, a relative of Vajpayee. In fact, her address is the same as the Prime Minister's Lucknow address. The Uttar Pradesh list has, besides the names of many close relatives of BJP leaders, the names of Vikas Tomar, son of the BJP MP from Hapur, Ramesh Chandra Tomar; former BJP MP Poornima Verma; Bal Chandra, son of BJP MLA Chhote Lal Verma; Pratibha Tripathi, daughter-in-law of former BJP MP and Cooperatives Minister in the Mayawati government Ram Prakash Tripathi; Baijnath Rawat, BJP MP from Barabanki; Rani Sahi, wife of BJP leader Surya Pratap Sahi; Asha Katiyar, daughter-in-law of BJP MLA Prem Lata Katiyar; Kharag Bahadur Singh, officer on special duty to former Chief Minister Rajnath Singh; and Mukul Mishra, son of BJP MP Shyam Bihari Mishra. The allies of the BJP too got their share. For instance Union Labour Minister Sharad Yadav's nephew Rahul Yadav secured a petrol pump in Rewari in Haryana; and Nirmal Indora, wife of Indian National Lok Dal MP Sushil Indora, got one in Fatehabad in Haryana. Wives, sons, daughters-in-law, nephews, close associates and BJP leaders themselves, besides those of the allies, figure in the list from other States as well. For instance the Pattali Makkal Katchi is a major beneficiary in Tamil Nadu , Akali Dal in Punjab and the Samata Party in Bihar. Although the names of some Congress(I) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leaders too figure in the list from Bihar, the lion's share has gone to people who are close to the BJP and the Samata Party.

The expose, predictably enough, caused a political storm and the entire Opposition stalled proceedings in Parliament for several days demanding the resignation of Petroleum Minister Ram Naik and an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the matter. However, the government tried to brazen it out, saying that if there were irregularities it could hold a limited inquiry. Later, the Prime Minister, in an unusually quick move, stepped in to stymie the Opposition attack and cancelled all the allotments since 2000. The Opposition parties, however, described it as its first victory and remained firm on the demand for a CBI inquiry and even the Prime Minister's resignation. The Opposition also stalled an attempt by Ram Naik to make a statement in the Lok Sabha saying that nothing short of his resignation was acceptable to them. The BJP, meanwhile, came out with lists of allotments made during the Congress(I) governments' tenure in order to prove that there was nothing new in its actions.

On August 7, BJP spokesperson V.K. Malhotra produced a list of Opposition leaders, including those allegedly from Left parties, who he said had written to the Petroleum Minister letters of recommendation for dealership allotments. The following day, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Parliamentary Party leader Somnath Chatterjee rebutted the claim and said that no MP belonging to the Left parties had ever misused their position thus.

Meanwhile, ex-judges who were removed as chairpersons of DSBs for refusing to succumb to pressure, are speaking out, further queering the pitch for the government. DSB chairperson for Jammu and Kashmir Vidya Sagar, who was removed, alleged that Ram Naik used to call him to say that 50 per cent of petrol pumps should be given to BJP supporters. R.K. Mahajan, a retired judge of the Allahabad High Court, who was removed in Himachal Pradesh, said that "vested interests" had led to his removal. Yadunath Sharan Singh, a former judge of the Patna High Court, who was removed in Patna, went on record to say that there was political pressure on him from all sides.

Even as the political storm continues, the BJP looks set to lose its claim of being the "party with a difference" with its leaders trying to prove that they only acted like the Congress(I).