Coalgate: 'Gasps of surprise' as Manmohan Singh summoned but case may go nowhere

Despite the CBI stating in the past that it had no evidence against former Prime Minister in a case related to the coal block allocation scandal, a special CBI court noted that Manmohan Singh's actions were in violation of established procedure and summoned him noting that it was fully aware the effect the order would have on "the morale of the country as a whole".

The summons for Singh to appear with the other accused in the case on 8 April, as this Indian Express report notes, was met with gasps of surprise in the court room.

 Coalgate: Gasps of surprise as Manmohan Singh summoned but case may go nowhere

AFP image

Special CBI judge Bharat Parashar noted that Singh's approval for the allocation of the coal block to Hindalco was in violation of the established procedure, adding that Singh couldn't claim that he couldn't look into the minute details of every case because he was prime minister .

"It will be also not wrong if I say that while coming to such a conclusion about prima facie involvement of the then Prime Minister in the present matter this Court had to act with a heavy conscience and with full realization, the present order or the observations/conclusions being made here will have over the morale of the country as a whole," he said.

The court, however, noted that Singh's actions had facilitated windfall profits to Hindalco.

"His (Singh's) approval in violation of the established procedure and already approved guidelines clearly resulted in defeating the efforts of NLC (Neyvelli Lignite Corporation) to establish a 2000 MW Power Plant in Odisha. His action thus prima facie resulted in loss to NLC which was a PSU and facilitated windfall profits to a private company i.e. M/s HINDALCO," the judge said.

The court also observed that "compromising" the status of Talabira-III coal block, which was reserved for PSU and was with Coal India's arm, Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd (MCL), and allocating excess coal to HINDALCO again "prima facie crops up as an incriminating circumstance against him (Singh)."

Detailing the role of Singh, the court said he had allowed the matter pertaining to allocation of Talabira-II coal block to be "reopened" even though he himself had permitted approval of minutes of 25th Screening Committee recommending allocation of allocating the said block to NLC.

"The repeated reminders from PMO, written as well as telephonic, to MOC (Ministry of Coal) to expeditiously process the matter in view of the letters received from Kumar Mangalam Birla also prima facie indicate the extra undue interest shown by the PMO in the matter," it said.

The court accepted that the Prime Minister couldn't personally look into minute details of each and every case, and had to depend on advisors and other officers.

"Moreover as regard the officers and advisors working in the PMO to assist him, I may mention that their role has also been discussed in detail by me and I may also state that the role of various officers in the PMO or even in MOC has also not been prima facie completely above board," it said.

The judge said Singh had approved a proposal put forth by then Coal Secretary P C Parakh, a co-accused, to accommodate HINDALCO in Talabira II and III coal block while ignoring the "words of caution" put-forth by two PMO officials K V Pratap and Javed Usmani.

Hindalco has said it would defend itself and also said its chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla and other officials hadn't pursued any illegal means to get the coal block.

CBI had shut case twice but judge reopened probe

The court's summons came despite the CBI having filed two closure reports in which it said it had found no evidence against accused like Singh, industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla and former coal secretary PC Parakh.

After filing the FIR in 2013 against the former coal secretary and Birla, the CBI had filed a final report in August 2014 when it sought a closure of the FIR saying that the allocation of the coal block was made in the "larger interest of the country".

But judge Parashar had grilled the CBI on whether they had questioned the former Prime Minister and officials from his office. The CBI then proceeded to examine officials like TKA Nair and later even examined Singh a couple of times in January.

After a second probe, the CBI in its final report filed on 19 February again noted that there was no evidence of criminality on the part of Singh, Birla and others.

However, the action of the judge doesn't come as a surprise when one looks at the fact that he hasn't been afraid to take on the investigating agency on multiple occasions.

An Economic Times report notes that the judge had earlier warned former CBI director Ranjit Sinha that he would be held responsible for any shortcomings in the probe and had also reprimanded the investigating team for lacking basic skills. In the past he had sentenced the killer of ex-dacoit Phoolan Devi and come down hard on the Delhi Police for constantly seeking adjournments in the IPL spot-fixing case.

The court has appropriately justified the reason to summon the former Prime Minister , but as we've noted earlier it is likely to merely shift the focus of the case away from others who may be more culpable in the case than Singh. it is also unlikely that the CBI will suddenly uncover evidence against Singh, when it has been unsuccessful in doing so thus far. The former Prime Minister is set to challenge the summons and though there may be no criminality proven in the long run, the incident will prove to be an undesirable blot on a Singh's carefully maintained image of incorruptibility.

Updated Date: Mar 12, 2015 10:31:13 IST