As allegations go, it had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Towards the end of her press conference along with BJP leader Arun Jaitley late on Monday on the scandal involving the UPA government’s allocation or coal blocks, Sushma Swaraj deployed her words for maximum effect. “Mota maal mila hai Congress ko” (The Congress has received hefty payoffs), she said. Her choice of words, she reiterated, was deliberate, and she was making the allegation with all the responsibility she could summon up as the Leader of the Opposition. And in fact, anodyne English translations of that dehati phrase – “mota maal” - don’t quite capture the spirit of what she wanted to convey about the magnitude of the scandal, she added.
Embarrassing details that are now tumbling out of how coal blocks were allotted establish the validity of Sushma Swaraj’s allegation. Coal blocks were allotted, on the basis of falsified documents, to – in some cases – manufacturers of CDs and, bizarrely, gutka. Of the142 allocations, 25 have had to be cancelled; 58 other allottees have been served show-cause notice, and the CBI has instituted a preliminary inquiry into the other allotments as well.
With the UPA government increasingly running out of alibis to defend the manner in which it had gone about allocating 142 coal blocks to private parties, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday sought to drag Opposition parties too into the cesspool that his government is drowning in. Singh claimed that the allocations were made on the basis of a decision taken at a 2005 meeting, in which Chief Ministers of the Opposition-ruled States were complicit. These Chief Ministers, he said, had argued against auction of coal blocks on the grounds that they would drive up prices – and likely delay the supply of coal to thermal plants.
Yet, for all his protestations of governmental innocence – and his criticism of the valuation methodology employed by the Comptroller and Auditor General to compute the notional loss to the exchequer – Manmohan Singh may have effectively damned himself rather more than he intended to. His admittance that as the Minister in charge (at the time the decision was made to allocate the coal blocks), he took “full responsibility for the decisions of the Ministry” may have been intended as proforma abidance by accountability principles, but in effect, it ties him even closer to the mala fide manner in which the policy was implemented.
Even if the mota maal slur doesn’t adhere to ‘Teflon’ Singh, he has held himself responsible for the political and bureaucratic and administrative handlers who had final implementation say over the allocation of coal blocks. In effect, Manmohan Singh has staked his reputation of a lifetime, which had already been blotted by his failure to intervene when his own Cabinet minister were gaming the system in the various corruption scandals, on the actions of his political aides and bureaucrats – which are, as has been demonstrated, suspect in the extreme.
The chronology of the allocation process tells its own story, and goes some way towards demolishing Manmohan Singh’s case that since his government was only abiding by the policy drawn up in 1993, the original sin lies elsewhere. Between 1993 and 2005, during which period, India was barely stirring itself out of the slow-growth orbit and demand for coal wasn’t as high (and China’s own demand for mineral resources from around the world had not yet become monstrous), only 70 coal blocks were allocated. But between 2004 and 2009, with coal prices soaring on increased demand, principally from within India and from China, the UPA 1 government went into overdrive, allocating 142 coal blocks.
More tellingly, a flurry of allocations was made around the time of the May 2009 elections. In more than a few cases, as has been established, they were not even companies that had a track record in the mining space. Clearly, the attempt was to corner the coal blocks before a transparent system of auctions was implemented, sit on the hoard that they had thus secured, and sell them at a later date when prices rose even higher. Mining the coal from the “wombs of Mother Earth” as P Chidambaram so colourfully put it, was farthest from their minds.
It is this that lends additional weight to Sushma Swaraj’s mota maal allegation. And by putting his own reputation on the line, and shielding his political aides and bureaucrats despite the emerging evidence of grave wrongdoing, and refusing even to acknowledge that the allocation process was tainted by corruption, Manmohan Singh may have incriminated himself in a way that he perhaps didn’t intend to.
From here on, whatever else happens and however much Opposition parties are made to share the blame for the flawed process of coal block allocations, Manmohan Singh’s reputation – such as it is – will forever stand tarnished.