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This Winter Is Going To Be Hot

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It seems opposition parties led by the demoralised Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are readying to corner the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on the issue of corruption in the winter session of Parliament starting 19 November. "Corruption as an issue is not new, but it has reached new heights and will be taken up in the Parliament to highlight in this (winter) session," says Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, vice-president of the BJP.

The UPA government is likely to face the heat over several alleged corruption charges against its bureaucrats, ministers and governors during its two tenures. This can be a cause of concern for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government even though they enjoy a majority in Parliament.

Among the major issues that threaten to disrupt the proceedings of the two houses of Parliament is the high-stakes corporate feud between Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani of the erstwhile Reliance Group on pricing of government-owned gas. The BJP, it seems, has deputed its spokesperson and former I&B minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, himself a senior lawyer, to prepare for the debate. Prasad attends all hearings, and takes copious notes in the courtroom. In response, the Congress, too, is alleged to have stationed lawyer and party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi who has been attentive during the long-winding hearings in the Supreme Court. "It is no longer a fight between two individuals, national asset is involved," says Naqvi.

Closely associated with the gas dispute are allegations that senior bureaucrat V.K. Sibal, the former director-general of hydrocarbons (DGH), allegedly took favours for his daughters from Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries. Sources in the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) say the CBI would investigate this. A preliminary report, CVC sources say, has found misuse of DGH office. Sibal could not be contacted for his comments.

The government may have a lot more to answer on the corruption issue. Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal had to suspend the head of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), Ram Avtar Yadav, following corruption charges against him in granting approval to engineering colleges. Another bureaucrat, director-general of Ordnance Factory Board, Sudipta Ghosh, was arrested by the CBI for allegedly taking bribes from suppliers of arms. A serving major general, Anand Kumar Kapoor, was under CBI scanner for allegedly amassing disproportionate assets. He was also to be in the race to become the director-general of Ordinance Factory.

S.F. Rodrigues, former Indian Army chief and Governor of Punjab and the administrator of the union territory of Chandigarh, was alleged to have favoured a few builders in allotment of land. Jharkhand Governor Syed Sibtey Razi was also involved in a controversy. His aide was arrested by the CBI for seeking bribe in transfer and misuse of funds provided for National Games. Early this year, Indian Ambassador to US Meera Shankar alleged that some US corporates bribed officials in Indian Navy, Central Insecticides Board, Maharashtra State Electricity Board and Indian Railways.

The opposition has already attacked Communications Minister A. Raja, saying he disregarded norms in allocating spectrum in the last round of licences in 2007. The CBI has already raided the communications ministry. The unearthing of money laundering by former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda, who was supported by the Congress, is another ammunition for the opposition. The battle lines are drawn, and the government too is readying to fend off the attack. Wait for the winter session to see who will walk away with the honours.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-11-2009)