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Coalgate: It's no longer possible to give PM benefit of doubt

The Supreme Court has observed that the UPA government’s decision to vet the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) report on the coal blocks scam is a massive “breach of trust”. It has asked the government to explain why it was kept in the dark about how and why the report was shared.

If this is not reason enough for the PM to resign, it is at least reason enough to question the Honest Sam credentials of Manmohan Singh.

Till recently, the Prime Minister has always benefited from the Law of First Impressions. Human beings tend to make up their minds quickly on people they see – even in a few seconds - and despite mounting evidence to the contrary, they will disbelieve their own eyes.

Manmohan Singh. AFP.

Manmohan Singh. AFP.

This is why we refuse to believe that Manmohan Singh can be anything but the decent guy we thought he was when he first came to public notice in 1991. We saw a simple person, who was self-effacing to fault. We liked what we saw, and then refused to change our minds whatever the evidence.

The Law of First Impressions tends to be so strong that even the Supreme Court – which is supposed to go by cold, hard evidence - fell for it in 2011. In  its judgment on the case filed by Subramanian Swamy, who had sought the PM’s sanction for prosecuting A Raja in the 2G scam, the Supreme Court gave Manmohan Singh the benefit of doubt and said the one-year delay was not the PM’s fault.

The judgment, instead, blamed the PM’s advisors. “Unfortunately those who were expected to give proper advice to Respondent No 1 (the PM) and place the full facts and legal position before him failed to do so. We have no doubt that if Respondent No 1 had been apprised of the true factual and legal position regarding the representation made by the appellant (i.e. Subramanian Swamy), he would surely have taken appropriate decision and would not have allowed the matter to linger for a period of more than one year."

Instead of merely rapping the PM on the knuckles for not allowing Raja to be prosecuted, the court went by its own version of first impressions. How can this saint do any wrong, was its logic!

Unfortunately, the time has come to recondition our minds. The mask has fallen. The Prime Minister, whose personal honesty everyone vouches for even without knowing anything about him, is now defending the indefensible. A few days ago, he defended Law Minister Ashwani Kumar for vetting the CBI’s report on the coal blocks allocation scam (Coalgate) and making changes in it – when the court had explicitly asked the CBI not to.

The CBI – luckily for the truth - has refused to play ball, and has filed two versions of its coal report – one without the changes suggested by the law ministry and other officials, and one with the changes, reports the The Indian Express.

The line linking Kumar’s actions to the PM are clear: the coal ministry was directly under Manmohan Singh during the years when coal blocks were allocated free to many dubious parties. If the Law Minister was trying to shield anybody, it was probably the PM and his government.

So it is not surprising that the PM has rejected out of hand the demand for the resignation of Ashwani Kumar. If anyone had to benefit from the changes made in the CBI draft, it was the PM’s reputation for probity.

It is now clear that at least two law ministry officials – Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati, and the Additional Solicitor Harin Rawal, had misled the Supreme Court earlier, when they said that the CBI report had not be shared with the political executive. This is why the court has talked about “breach of trust”.

Once again, the question to ask is why did so many government officials have to lie: to save the reputation of the government and its “honest” Prime Minister?

In the case of A Raja, we wanted to believe the Prime Minister because he tried to change the way spectrum was sold. At best, despite Raja’s claims, it appears that the PM did not press his point on spectrum auctions and allowed air waves to be gifted away at prices determined in 2001. It’s a sin of omission.

But the coal scam happened right in the PM’s own ministry. He has no Raja to blame for hijacking the agenda. There was no coalition dharma to allude to for the mischief. The coal ministry has always been with the Congress and the PM.

The tragedy is that so many people are being forced to utter falsehoods in this quest to protect the reputation of the government (already in tatters) and its head.

Sorry, Dr Singh, this time it is different. We can’t give you the benefit of doubt.


Updated Date: Apr 30, 2013 12:08 PM

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