Why Manmohan Singh Is Guilty
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Forget the names and consider this situation. A committee in the coal ministry decides to allocate blocks to a couple of state-run companies. Meanwhile, a prominent private industrial group approaches the government and seeks a share in the blocks. The group petitions the Prime Minister and gets the Chief Minister of a state to support its request.
Eager to ensure a role for the prominent industrial group, the Prime Minister overturns the decision of the committee. The coal ministry then ensures that the private industrial group gets a share of the coal blocks allotted.
Any government that took such a decision would be accused of favouring the industrial group. Any opposition party would question such a decision. And any court would find reasonable doubt for such an action.
That this case involves Dr Manmohan Singh, former Minister and the Aditya Birla Group led by Mr KM Birla doesn’t reduce the culpability that arises from the opacity of the process. Dr Singh and Mr Birla have strong reputation of maintaining integrity their respective fields of work. The process of allocation was such that Delhi court was right in summoning them to answer a few tough questions.
Both Dr Singh and Mr Birla may not be guilty of graft but they are definitely guilty of perpetuating and benefiting from an opaque process of coal block allocation. Dr Singh was the Prime Minister for a decade. His party president Ms Sonia Gandhi took many decisions to improve the welfare system of the country for the benefit of the ordinary citizen. But neither Ms Gandhi nor Dr Singh made much effort to bring transparency in the allocation of natural resources. Several inputs were made to the government include a report by a committee headed by former Finance Secretary Ashok Chawla.
The government chose not to upset the established norms of allocation. Were they lazy or were they prevented from undertaking such changes? Did allies in the ruling coalition ensure that opaque processes remained untouched? Did Dr Singh and Ms Gandhi acquiesce to such efforts to maintain status quo?
Only the duo will be able to answer these questions. Dr Singh was honest enough to accept his own role in the decision to allot a share of the coal block to Mr Birla’s company. He did so because he took the decision in the best interests of the sector. There is no reason to believe that there was an unsavoury agenda.
However, what Dr Singh did is not as important as how he did it. The court seems to question the logic behind such decision making. Why Mr Birla’s company? Why not anyone else? Were other options considered? What was the justification of overturning a previous decision to allocate the blocks only to state-run companies?
A stickler for rules, Dr Singh may have followed a due process. But the process was so weak and subjective that it has allowed a court to interpret it as an act of criminality.
Dr Singh and Ms Gandhi should have revamped the entire process of coal block allocation. If a faulty allocation process was in place for decades, there was no reason for a technocrat like Dr Singh to perpetuate it. The chambers of industry that are upset today over the questions being asked by the court should have created a louder noise about transparency. Chambers of industry are right to defend Mr Birla but they should have fought harder to transparent procedures too.
The same government changed the entire process of allocation for 3G spectrum by allowing online auctions. But it did so only after the nasty scam of 2G spectrum allocation that claimed a minister. Dr Singh should just answer not just court but also the people of India. It must be explained to Indians why Dr Singh and Ms Gandhi did not lead the change of creating a transparent process of allocation and even other aspects of government procurement.
There is important lesson here for the Narendra Modi government. Take decisions. Take transparent decisions. Take decisions to increase transparency. The previous government reacted to scams by going into shutdown mode. The message was that either they will take decisions behind closed doors or not take them at all. And thus a policy paralysis.
Mr Modi’s government has taken commendable steps towards open online auctions for coal and spectrum. They must ensure that such transparency spreads to other aspects of government decision making too. If this government doesn’t learn from the mistakes of Dr Singh and Ms Gandhi, it may face similar questions years later.
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