Summoning Singh a right signal

The summoning of former prime minister Manmohan Singh as an accused in a coal scam case may be seen as an assertion of the law. It is only the second time that a former prime minister is being made to appear in a criminal case as an accused, after PV Narasimha Rao faced charges in the JMM bribery case. In these cynical times when the law is considered to be powerless against the mighty, it might send the message that it has teeth. But the issues to be dealt with in the case relating to the allocation of the Talabira II coal block in Orissa to Hindalco, when Manmohan Singh held charge of the coal ministry, are not simple. The special court hearing the case has sought to charge him, former coal secretary PC Parakh who headed the screening committee on allocations and Kumar Mangalam Birla whose company benefitted from the decision, under provisions relating to corruption, criminal conspiracy and breach of trust.

The judge has felt that a concerted effort was made by Manmohan Singh and Parakh to accommodate Hindalco and this amounted to breach of trust and criminal conspiracy to misappropriate public property. Corruption cases usually need a financial trail to support the charge, as in the 2G spectrum cases, which is absent in the coal case. There is also the argument that the decision was taken within the framework of the then existing government policy on coal allocations. However, it may have to be explained why an earlier allocation in favour of a public sector company, made according to government policy, was reopened to favour Hindalco. It is to be decided whether the pressure from the Orissa government was a legally acceptable ground for the change of decision. There is also evidence that the Prime Minister’s Office took special interest in the matter. At the heart of the case is the extent of personal accountability of decision-makers in the implementation of public policy. The special judge has rightly focussed on this.

It is known that the coal block allocation policy was wrong and opaque, liable to arbitrariness, conducive to corruption and against public interest. Though it is claimed that Manmohan Singh wanted to shift to an auction system, he could not bring it in. The Supreme Court had to order its introduction after cancellation of over 200 allocations. The Congress and the UPA government have paid a political price for sticking to and misusing a wrong policy. But the criminal liability of those who misused the policy is to be examined and fixed. This case might do that.

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