EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
What do you think is the key culpability of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh? Is it policy failure or personal corruption?
People have an incorrect impression that only bribery equals personal corruption. But if you look at the Prevention of Corruption Act, there are provisions where, if a public servant wrongfully and intentionally gives undue advantage to a private party at a loss to the public exchequer, that also is a penal offence. But that is a theoretical proposition.
So, what is the PM’s key culpability in this case?
According to me, his key culpability is the inexplicable delay in executing a policy that his government had already announced. In June 2004, you announce that coal allocation to private parties is now going to happen through competitive bidding because many mega power projects are in the offing, and coal needs to be allocated to private parties to facilitate production. Then, you delay this by six years and have four-five stages of why the delay is caused, none of which seem bona fide to me. The government’s defence is that after it announced the policy, it invited opinions, and several state governments, including some led by the BJP, resisted the auction route. But out of 24 state governments, perhaps four had reservations. Why should that have stalled your policy? You could have gone with the majority opinion. In fact, ultimately, you did go with it. Also remember, minor minerals come within the jurisdiction of the states but major minerals fall completely within the domain of the Centre. Coal is a major mineral. You cannot say it got held up merely because four people had a contrarian view. Ultimately, you did take the decision but you moved at snail speed and because people knew the doors would soon close and allocations would no longer be done at discretion, there was a rush to get coal blocks cheap. And the market rumours of what happened in that time are far more disturbing than the facts, which have come out in the CAG report.
Rumours about kickbacks?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to make a definitive comment on this but the rumours are disturbing. Of how slips used to go from the party to the ministry as to who should get the blocks, etc. But these are rumours so I would not like to go by them. The axe has to fall, going just by the fact that you delayed the policy and caused wrongful loss to the exchequer. Even in the 2G case, the government’s defence and subsequent actions have raised serious questions about its bona fide. At first, they came out with bizarre theories, including the “zero loss” theory and questioned the CAG’s findings. Now, they have fixed Rs 14,000 crore as the base price for spectrum, which they were earlier giving at Rs 1,658 crore. This jump in base prices proves the CAG’s estimate of losses to be reasonably correct, if not entirely accurate. And, in 2012, the telecom market is worse than it was in 2008, but the TRAI chairman says there are three people ready to bid at this price. So what was that whole campaign against the CAG about? Look at their subsequent actions. You say the CAG report will be discussed in Parliament, referred to the JPC and sent to the PAC. But Congress MPs paralyse the PAC and refuse to allow the report to come out. As far as the JPC is concerned, instead of summoning the prime minister, finance minister and others concerned, you start filibustering and say, “summon Vajpayee, George Fernandes, and Sushma Swaraj”? If this is the farce you are going to reduce these committees to, why should we fall into the trap a second time? So when they say let’s discuss this and refer it to these committees, it’s a procedure that can go on. But the prime minister must now first accept responsibility.
You have very categorically said you are not going to let Parliament function until the PM steps down. So what is your strategy to make him step down?
I am not going to spell the strategy out now, but we are going to build pressure, both inside and outside Parliament.
In the 2G case, your demand was for a JPC, which was a very legitimate demand.
Our JPC experience tells us that you must use all tactics inside and outside Parliament to pressurise the government, because what they’ve almost made the JPC farcical.
That is a whole other story —
It is not a separate story. It influences our decision this time.
Yes, but the JPC was a demand that could be met. When you are asking for the PM to step down, constitutionally, to make him do so, you have to ask for a no-confidence motion. You have not asked for one. Why?
There are several parliamentary tactics available. In the rarest of rare cases, parliamentary obstructionism is a legitimate tactic. So are no-confidence motions. But we have been advised to not move a no-confidence motion for the simple reason: even though this government is getting increasingly alienated from the people, it has shown tremendous ability to manipulate the political class. There is huge evidence of its ability to manipulate investigative agencies in order to manipulate political parties. Therefore, we’re not going to follow a tactic that may give greater comfort to the ruling party.
But sources in your own party say you do not have the numbers for a vote. Neither your allies nor the Left —
Investigative agencies are a major ally of the Congress party. Their ability, as I said, to manipulate the political class is much higher. But their ability to manipulate the people has completely failed. Recent opinion polls and by-elections all point in this direction. Therefore, our emphasis is going to be to compel this government into owning up to its moral responsibility and taking consequential actions.
A lot of people are concerned about the paralysis of Parliament.
I think a larger number of people are concerned about the increasing corruption in the system. Holding up Parliament in order to fight and expose corruption, I think, is holding it up for a good cause. The Congress did it during the NDA regime when TEHELKA did an exposé, so they really cannot say it’s not a legitimate tactic. We also used it successfully in December 2010. If that session had not been wasted, A Raja may not have resigned and the system may not have been persuaded to jump into action. That obstructionism of 2010 did bring dividends to society as a whole.
But if he does not step down, how will you climb down from your maximalist position, since the PM can only be removed through a no-confidence motion? Will it be business as usual in a few days?
We don’t have to climb down. We’ll keep taking one step after another. I don’t have to disclose all the steps right now.
‘If we hadn’t held up Parliament in December 2010, A Raja would not have resigned. It did bring dividends to society’
The BJD and several other parties want a debate and vote under Rule 184 and 191, which can force the government to provide serious answers and censure them.
We’ve followed that route a number of times, and at the end of the day, you have political parties whose leaders have been facing serious corruption charges either walking out at a key moment or supporting the government in order to bail them out. You see, the country still hasn’t got an answer to why Mulayam Singh Yadav proposed one name for President and switched sides within 24 hours; why he took one position continuously on the nuclear deal, then switched sides. The country still hasn’t got an answer on why the BSP repeatedly takes a tough position, then caves in and supports the government. Obviously the flip-flops the CBI does on corruption cases against them is one of the reasons. Also, nothing will come out in that debate except the usual templates. The UPA will say, “We have zero tolerance for corruption. Wherever corruption is found, it must be attacked. The system has to mature enough to fight graft.” All of that is pointless.
Have you reached out to Mamata to break with the UPA?
I cannot disclose our strategy. We will try and reach out to all. That’s all I can say.
Though several state governments, including BJP ones, resisted the auction route, TEHELKA’s story Corruption by Weakness asserted that the PM could have overruled them. But there is another sticky issue. The composition of the screening committee that made the allocations included chief secretaries from all the states. So if you speak about dark rumours in the market and unworthy lessees, all the states, and the Centre, were party to these decisions. In fact, the CAG report even mentions Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Chouhan interceding on behalf of a company.
Whoever is liable, if they had some sort of a nexus, they must be held responsible. This is not a case in which one holds a brief for a politician or a bureaucrat. This scam stinks, I tell you. If there is ever an honest investigation – which I’m not sure there ever will be unless there is a change in government – the truth about these allocations will come out.
‘This government has alienated the people largely, but it is extremely efficient at manipulating the political class’
The CAG report also criticises the fact that prior to 2004, during the NDA regime, there was absolutely no criteria for the allocations.
You see, prior to 2004, the number of allocations was comparatively much less and most of them were to the public sector, so this problem had not emerged in such a large magnitude. It’s only when you decided to go with the private sector in a big way that these questions arose.
Most of these scams circle around the use of national resources. What is the ideal way?
The Supreme Court is considering this issue. I would rather wait for their final opinion. But my position on this is that, with tangible national resources, as far as possible, we should go by the market price and by a fair, competitive mechanism. This principle may not apply to air and water, but it should apply to everything else. I also believe it should only be allotted to actual users. There was a contrarian view in some newspapers that it should be given for trading as well, but given the kind of corruption that is mushrooming everywhere, I have my reservations about this. This whole principle of first-come-first-serve is also being increasingly manipulated, so I definitely advocate the market mechanism.
We have discussed this before. Is there a case to nationalise mining, given the scale of corruption in the sector?
I don’t know whether we should go that far. But we do need a fair, equitable, corruption free market mechanism.
But the Delhi airport and KG Basin case suggest that things can go wrong even after the tender has been auctioned.
In those cases, it is very important that along with bidding, the terms of the tender are very judiciously exercised. There cannot be gerrymandering in the terms itself. The goalposts should not be shifted after the tender is awarded because if the renegotiated terms were in existence, you would have had other bidders also.
Are you being selective about the CAG reports? After all, the CAG has also indicted the Gujarat government of corruption.
Personally, I don’t see those as corruption scams. The CAG may make a comment on policy; the government may differ. For instance, the question of inviting industries to your state by legitimately offering them tax concessions – that is a genuine matter of policy. But this coal issue is not a matter of policy. Here, you decided the policy then waited until the cows came home to implement it and more than a hundred guys got concessional allotments.
Is it healthy that all these explanations are now happening only in the media rather than Parliament?
A debate in Parliament that only talks these issues out and puts a lid on it may actually be counterproductive. That is why I say that in the rarest of rare cases, parliamentary obstructionism can act as a greater moral pressure.
Jay Panda says the BJP and Congress are in cahoots because everyone else wants a debate on the coal issue.
I would not like to comment on that.
‘Both BJP and the Congress want to avoid a debate’
Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, BJD MP from Odisha, believes that obstructionism does not always lead to solutions. He tells Shoma Chaudhury how the BJP’s stance is helping the Congress.
EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
The BJP has said it will stall Parliament till the PM resigns. Do you agree with this position?
No. We want a debate with a vote under Rule 184/191, which allows one to pass or reject a motion. It is not a no-confidence motion but it can force the government to scramble for serious answers as a motion censuring it can be a very big embarrassment. In the US and UK, if 33 percent of MPs want a debate with a vote, the government is compelled to agree. The trouble is, we are the only democracy in the world where, under the current framework, the ruling party has a veto power on what sort of debate we can have in Parliament. This was a colonial rule that was meant to allow Indians to air their opinions and make a noise but be curbed by the British if they went too far. We really need to amend this now. As far as the BJP’s position goes, some times obstructionism is legitimate but this time it is not getting us what we want. In fact, it looks as if the BJP and Congress are in collusion. They both want to evade a debate. You saw Rajiv Shukla asking the Rajya Sabha speaker to adjourn the house. It suits both of them.
What according to you is the nature of the coal scam? After all, several state governments also opposed the auction route.
See, you may have had a system in place for 50 years but the market was smaller. That cannot hold good now. This discussion went on within the UPA for several years. By the time it percolated down to the states, we were very clear. As far as Odisha is concerned, Naveen Patnaik met Pranab Mukherjee and we wrote to the Centre in 2011 urging the auction route for major minerals. Apart from the delays and mess in policy, what is very disturbing is the government challenging whether the CAG has the mandate to put out such a report. This is very serious. Such a position is unprecedented.
Some times there is an argument that auctions would lead to monopolies. Only a few big boys with deep pockets will corner everything, while newer players will find it difficult to break in.
The reality on ground shows the opposite. It is the established, big, existing players who resist auctions and prefer working through their hold on political discretion. Given the nature of the market now, in fact, with auctions, any new player can get a chance. There are enough large companies around who can muscle into new areas of business.