The Bofors moment

Its almost reminiscent of the Bofors scandal when the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi came under a cloud for the pay-offs.

The problem with clever lawyers turned ministers like P Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal is that they think they can defend even a hopeless case with ingenious arguments that will befuddle the people. Give the case a very simplistic twist and use the mastery of language, and lo and behold, the people are fooled!

Kapil Sibal used the ‘zero loss’ theory in the 2G Spectrum scam, but it didn’t take long for him to get exposed. In the coalgate scam now, Chidambaram’s argument is that since “not a tonne of coal has been taken out of mother earth” even after the free allocation of over 170 coal blocks, there is no question of any loss to the government. Pray, what is this Rs 1.86 lakh crore presumptive loss that the Comptroller and Auditor General of India talking about?

Going by the same logic, if an individual or a company uses its influence to get 1,000 acres of public property allotted virtually free, but has not yet moved a stone from those lands, Chidambaram might well ask where is the loss to the government.

In trying to defend the indefensible and in desperately trying to convince the country that it has done nothing wrong, the Congress-led UPA government is tying itself in all sorts of knots.

But, the BJP should realise that by not permitting a debate in Parliament it is adopting a wrong strategy. If they have the public interest in mind and faith in democratic functioning, they should allow the government to speak, have an opportunity to counter the argument, force the government to spill more beans, which is the way to unravel the truth before the nation.

On the contrary, the stonewalling of Parliament has allowed the prime minister to make a statement full of holes and quietly get away. Defending the arbitrary allotment of coal blocks before the auction process was put in place, Manmohan Singh claimed that it was necessary for growth and the government anyway would have “benefited” from the taxes that the industries would pay.

In an extraordinary attack on the CAG’s functioning he also claimed that the CAG’s computation of losses were “disputable” without specifying how or why it was so. His minions like V Narayanasamy even went to the extent of attributing motives to the CAG saying that the constitutional body had exceeded the “mandate” given to it.

He also claimed that the CAG report was only a “draft” based on some documents and it was left to the Public Accounts Committee to accept it or reject it. All this irrational arguments and weak defences could have been punctured if only the BJP had allowed Parliament to function.

Direct target

In the 2G scam, the prime minister was able to get away by putting the blame on A Raja of the DMK, but in the coalgate, he has become the direct target as he was in charge of the coal ministry when the relevant allotments were made and hence the strident demand for his resignation.

The situation is almost reminiscent of the Bofors scandal of the 1980s when the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi came under a cloud for the pay-offs. It was Swedish radio which broke the story, followed by an extraordinary series of investigative reports in The Hindu which pummeled the government.

The Congress party led by Rajiv Gandhi, following the assassination of his mother, had an unprecedented mandate of over 400 seats in the Lok Sabha and the euphoria of a young, handsome prime minister ruling the country was so great that he could have had a long, distinguished innings like his grandfather. But the Bofors taint completely reversed the mood of the nation so much so that a ragtag Opposition could mount a stinging attack on his government, stall the Parliament for days together, submit en masse resignations from the Lok Sabha to force an election, which Rajiv Gandhi lost.

The Octogenarian Dr Manmohan Singh, an accidental prime minister, is a far cry from Rajiv Gandhi, though his initial USP was that of ‘clean image’ and a reputation as harbinger of the economic miracle of early 1990s. He was a good servant of the Narasimha Rao government which brought about the transformation of the economy, but given the role of a ‘master’ by the UPA government, he has been a miserable failure, both as an economist and the leader of the nation.

Singh has presided over a government whose financial scandals are several times bigger than Bofors, but until now he could not be pinned down as he was considered personally clean. But the coalgate has changed all that.

The government wants to pass on some of the blame to the BJP for not introducing competitive bidding by brandishing letters written by two former BJP chief ministers of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh opposing the move. But it fails to carry conviction because the Centre used those letters merely to postpone the competitive bidding route and to favour a large number of corporates with reckless allotment of coal blocks using its discretion.

As the stalemate in Parliament continues, the media has taken up what the Opposition should have done by exposing the myriad ramifications of the coalgate. It has slowly emerged that the so-called screening committee which made the allotments was a sham and even a Union minister used his clout with the prime minister to get some coal blocks alloted.

Even at this late stage, the UPA government will be able to save its face if it cancels all the allotments made in the last few years and goes for competitive bidding as the new Act prescribes. But its hubris may not allow it to do the right thing and that will be its undoing.

Comments (+)