New Delhi: "Hazarron Jawabon Se Achi Hai Meri khamoshi" (My silence is more meaningful than a thousand answers), said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after placing his statement on the coal blocks allocation in the two houses of Parliament amid a general din raised by the BJP. The Urdu couplet was the icing on the basic cake offered through his statement (read here).
While the prime minister said it was unusual for him to respond to the motivated accusations targeted at him, he also broke norms to attack one of the highest-ranking constitutional bodies for doing its job – the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which computed the undue gains to private parties at Rs 1,86,000 crore.
His response could ratchet up the coal scam cacophony to yet another level.
"We have a strong and credible case. Observations made by the CAG are disputable and we will challenge them in the PAC (the Public Accounts Committee)," the PM told media persons. In his written statement to Parliament, he claimed, "The facts speak for themselves and show that the CAG’s findings are flawed on multiple counts."
The BJP was quick to pounce on this opening and said: "The PM himself challenging the CAG, a constitutional body, invites a constitutional crisis. He has spoken in the same language as with CWG and 2G, but this time the difference is that he has been the minister in charge. It was not without reason that the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) directed a CBI probe into the coal scam. The CBI comes under the direct administrative control of the PM and he was also minister-in-charge of coal. So how can that probe be fair and impartial?" BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy asked?
As for the PM’s announcement taking "full responsibility for the decisions of the ministry as the minister in charge", another BJP leader, Prakash Javdekar, piped in: "That's precisely what we are saying. He is responsible for the impropriety committed. He signed all files and, therefore, he must resign."
The PM’s four-page statement containing 32 paragraphs and focuses on four basic rebuttals and points: (1) challenging the CAG on loss figures of Rs 1.86 lakh crore and its alleged attempted to step into policy terrain, (2) blaming the BJP and other non-Congress chief ministers for not letting the competitive bidding process take place; (3) emphasising that the coal block allocations were in tune with policy practice since 1993 and several non-Congress Central governments were okay with it, and (4) making a final defence of why the auction was delayed despite his preference for it.
Charging the CAG with trying to extend its mandate beyond what the constitution prescribed, Manmohan Singh asserted that "in a democracy, it is difficult to accept the notion that a decision of the government to seek legislative amendment to implement a change in policy should come for adverse audit scrutiny. The issue was contentious and the proposed change to competitive bidding required consensus building among various stakeholders with divergent views, which is inherent in the legislative process."
The PM put out a point-by-point rebuttal of CAG's critique. "The CAG report is critical of the allocations mainly on three counts. Firstly, it states that the Screening Committee did not follow a transparent and objective method while making recommendations for allocation of coal blocks. The CAG says that competitive bidding could have been introduced in 2006 by amending the existing administrative instructions. This premise of the CAG is flawed," the PM said.
He then accused CAG of a "selective reading of (legal) opinion" for building its case. "The CAG observation that competitive bidding could have been introduced by amending the administrative instructions is based on the opinion expressed by the Department of Legal Affairs in July and August 2006. However, this observation is based on a selective reading of the opinions given by the Department of Legal Affairs." He adds that the same department also opined that legislative amendments would be required for placing the proposed process on a sound legal footing.
Singh also made a longish counter-argument to rubbish CAG's loss figure of Rs 1.86 lakh crore. "The observations of the CAG are clearly disputable." However, despite questioning the CAG's methodology, he wisely refrained from repeating P Chidambaram's "no-loss" claim last week, which made him the object of ridicule in the media.
The BJP state governments of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and other non-Congress governments like the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa and the Left Front in West Bengal, were squarely blamed for stalling the policy initiative on competitive bidding. He, however, chose to name BJP leaders Vasundhara Raje and Raman Singh in his statement. That's where Manmohan Singh is trying to put the BJP in the dock.
The PM's decision to make a statement has enthused Congress leaders. They are high on aggression after shifting the blame to the BJP and after questioning the CAG.
The BJP, however, is showing signs of grater belligerence. The CAG officially can’t respond and join the issue with the Prime Minister. The war will now shift outside Parliament, to the domain of public perception.