Manmohan Singh in a CBI court is a matter of shame
Even former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s worst critics, who accuse him of extreme pusillanimity and allowing all manner of scams to take place under his watch, will admit to his reputation as India’s most reformist finance minister and vouch for his personal integrity. So it has to be a sad day when, on April 8, along with former coal secretary PC Parakh and AV Birla Group Chairman KM Birla, Singh has to present himself before a CBI court for questioning. Singh, who has been questioned already by the CBI on the matter, has not been charged with any crime but is being investigated for criminal conspiracy, among other things.
What makes the case ironic is that, at the time when he was the coal minister—Singh has been summoned for his role as coal minister, not prime minister—Singh was in favour of auctioning coal blocks as opposed to the then practice of allocation through an opaque process. Ironically, in the 2G scam, also under Singh’s watch, the same thing happened with the prime minister pushing for auctions but not able to restrain A Raja, an important political ally. The CAG report that first estimated the losses in the coal allocation also pointed out that, way back in June 2004, Singh had first made a pitch for transparent auctions—the case for which Singh is being asked to appear in court took place in 2005. But government processes being what they are, and it is likely Singh did not push matters either, this process took years. There was, for instance, a debate over whether this could be done through administrative action or whether an amendment to the Coal Mines Nationalisation Act was required—the law ministry felt it was. Later, the coal unions opposed this, and later still a decision was taken that the Mines and Mineral Development Rights Act also needed to be amended for such auctions to take place—to give perspective, the NDA’s changes to the MMDR Act have just been sent to a select committee of Parliament for scrutiny.
It is equally ironic that in the case of Birla, who is accused of having lobbied with the government to allot him a mine, there was no other way for him to have got a mine at that point since auctions were not government policy then—and, in any case, given his large investments, he should normally have qualified for such a mine anyway. While some political leaders appearing gleeful about the court summons is unfortunate, it is unlikely there is any political vendetta since, in this case, it was the court that refused to accept the CBI’s closure report on the case and then directed it to examine Singh and some other officials. While it is to be hoped Singh’s, and the country’s, ignominy will end after the court appearance, the only real cure for the kind of opacity that is under question is transparent auctions. And, unfortunately, Singh never pressed, or was unable to press, for that hard enough.