Manmohan Singh’s defence in Coalgate crumbles further as the former coal secretary names the Prime Minister
Scalded by the firestorm following Rahul Gandhi’s outburst against that ‘nonsensical ordinance’. Isolated in his own party which thinks he is the biggest liability in Elections 2014. Abandoned by loyalists in his loneliest hour, Manmohan Singh needed some respite from the cruellest autumn of his political career. But the latest twist in the still burning coal mines allocation scam only makes his ordeal, political as well as legal, worse. That last fig leaf of his defence is being swept aside by CBI, which comes under the Ministry of Personnel being handled by the Prime Minister. All along, his spin doctors were maintaining that the Prime Minister was clean: All files had been sent to the coal secretary for “appropriate action”.
The Prime Minister’s Office ( PMO) had not contended with the possibility that CBI would register a case against then coal secretary P.C. Parakh, who has a spotless image, nor that Parakh would proclaim that the buck didn’t stop with him. “By calling a fair and logical decision a conspiracy, the CBI is putting the Prime Minister in the dock as a co-conspirator along with industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla and myself,” Parakh told INDIA TODAY on October 18, barely 48 hours after CBI knocked at his door in Secunderabad, after registering an FIR naming him and Birla ( see interview).
The FIR, 14th in the case, pertains to the 2005 allocation of Talabira coal blocks to Hindalco, a Rs 80,000-crore turnover company owned by Birla. It charged them with cheating, forgery and misrepresentation, noting that the Odisha coal block, earlier with state-owned Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC), was given to Hindalco on a sharing basis. Clearly, the PMO strategy of keeping the Prime Minister at an “arm’s length” from the Rs 1.86 lakh crore coal scam had failed. BJP has reiterated its demand for his res- ignation and sources in CBI have said they do not rule out questioning the Prime Minister. “We’ll first question Parakh, and follow the leads we get from him,” says a senior officer. The Prime Minister does not get immunity from being questioned by CBI. All the agency needs is an approval from the President. Top CBI sources say, however, that since the case is being monitored by the Supreme Court, that clause may not be applicable. “The Supreme Court has said that CBI can interrogate without waiting for Government’s approval,” a senior CBI officer says. CBI got this waiver from the Supreme Court on August 27 when it argued that sanction to prosecute was not needed in courtmonitored cases.
The PMO is aware that CBI can come knocking anytime now. The Prime Minister is preparing his defence, consulting the finest private lawyers. “If things get too hot for Manmohan to handle, even he is not averse to spilling secrets of some powerful
Congressmen,” reveals a close aide of the Prime Minister.
CBI sources say they have “enough evidence” to proceed against Parakh and others accused in the FIR. Normally, CBI first registers a preliminary enquiry ( PE), and then follows it with a regular FIR after gathering enough evidence. “We’ve been questioning several industrialists, officers and others related to the coal industry. The modus operandi in allocating mines appears to be similar in all cases. It is becoming clear that decisions to allocate mines were taken outside the screening committee,” says a senior CBI officer.
The case reached the apex court in September 2012, when advocate M.L. Sharma filed a PIL seeking cancellation of mine allotments on the basis of the CAG report. Monitoring the CBI probe, the court asked the agency not to share details of the investigations with the political executive. CBI Director Ranjit Sinha was forced to admit in court on April 26 that the March 8 status report was shared with then law minister Ashwani Kumar “as desired by him” and joint secretaries from the PMO and the coal ministry. CBI, under apex court cover, grabbed the opportunity to free itself.
Sharma moved an application in Supreme Court on October 17, saying that the Prime Minister, too, should be questioned. “It is a case of prevention of corruption. How can CBI investigate without questioning the Prime Minister, who was then the coal minister,” he tells INDIA TODAY. He says CBI is finding it difficult to proceed against Manmohan since he is the agency’s boss being the minister in-charge of Ministry of Personnel. “The situation won’t remain the same once he is out of power,” he added. The court will take cognisance of the application on the next hearing on October 29.
Even as the ground beneath the Prime Minister was shaken, a Cabinet minister came out with this feeble defence: “What value does it have in law, when an accused, against whom an FIR has been filed, is making baseless allegations against the Prime Minister, and that too not before the inves-
tigating agency but the media?” he asked. “CBI is not governed by public perception but by law. No one is interfering in the probe.”
BJP is enjoying the Congress ’s discomfort. Senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha told INDIA TODAY: “Parakh must speak up now. He should reveal how files were disposed of, who was giving the orders, how chits were received from Congress party headquarters in the PMO and PMO transmitted those instructions to the coal ministry for allotment of coal blocks.”
BJP thinks the FIR against Parakh is ridiculous. Party spokesperson Prakash Javadekar says Parakh is “an honest officer” and that the Prime Minister must take responsibility and quit immediately. “How can an FIR be filed against a man who first suggested that coal blocks be sold via competitive bidding, and also tried to bring some transparency in the system,” he said at a media briefing. The Congress doesn’t want to make a martyr out of Parakh. “That is exactly what the Opposition wants. Our effort will be to challenge the action against the policy rather than blaming Parakh. However, we won’t take his side,” says a leader.
Apart from the perfunctory support from Congress, Manmohan Singh has been left to defend himself. Congressmen hope the Prime Minister’s legacy will not be the issue in the 2014 General Elections. Instead of selling the past, they can market the future. After the September 27 self-realisation by Rahul, they believe Manmohan Singh’s achievements or lack thereof will not be a poll issue. “If you go through Rahul Gandhi’s latest speech, he has clearly given a direction to all of us. The next Congress government will be led by a young leadership which will change the nation,” says a Congress secretary.
An 81-year-old man, hurt and bitter, can still spoil that dream. To read our previous stories on Coalgate, go to www.indiatoday.in/ coalgate