BJP CMs against auctions, so party not without blame
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reply on coalgate, understandably, wasn’t very convincing when it argued that the allocation of coal blocks since July 2004 was on the up and up. How could it since, while defending the process of a screening committee allotting a mine to one of around 100 applicants, the PM also said that he wanted to bring in competitive bidding way back in 2004—if the PM didn’t think the process was opaque, why did he want to bring in competitive bidding? But there’s little doubt he took the battle back to the BJP camp, leaving the party scrambling for answers, answers it would surely have felt would have been better delivered in Parliament instead of in its Ashoka Road office. Sure, the BJP’s right the PM failed spectacularly to get the MMDR Act amended fast enough to allow auctions—the BJP alleges this was deliberate—but the BJP has not provided convincing answers for why many of its stalwart CMs were opposing auctions, even citing the Sarkaria Commission to do so. The BJP is right when it says the UPA ignores states when it wants to—not agreeing to GST compensation is a case in point—and pays obeisance to the federal principle when this suits it, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that BJP stalwarts were opposing auctions. More important, and the BJP has not answered this, if the BJP had introduced a Bill amending the Coal Nationalisation Act way back in 2000, why didn’t it get this passed? And if it was possible to auction mines without getting appropriate legislation passed, why didn’t the BJP do this?
Instead of indulging in a debate that, at the end of the day, shows both the BJP and the Congress equally guilty of not pushing for auctions, it’s a better idea to see how the damage done can be contained. This means a possible clawing-back of profits where there were major post-bid changes and perhaps cancelling allocations where there is evidence of irregularities or of allottees not being even eligible for the mines—whether mines have changed hands is the subject of a CBI inquiry at the moment. Getting the benefits of cheap coal flow to consumers—the original reason for allocating the captive mines—needs to be ensured by making it legally necessary for such firms, in the case of electricity suppliers, to sell power only through the competitive bidding route. If, at the end of all of this, including the UPA’s continuing denial over the CAG’s R1.76 lakh crore loss in the 2G case, we are able to move to auctioning of scarce natural resources, all of this would have been worth it.