Manmohan Singh—The dishonest politician

India's PM Singh speaks during India Economic Summit in New DelhiIf Bollywood like Hollywood made political biopics, and if things hadn’t turned out the way they have, the story of the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have made for a reasonably good movie.
Here was a man who rose through the ranks and got a doctorate in economics from the Oxford University. He became the Chief Economic Adviser in the seventies, governor of the Reserve Bank of India and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission in the eighties, the finance minister of India in nineties and finally the Prime Minister of India in the noughties.
It was the classic story of an underdog who was sometimes “very lucky,” making it in life. This is a format that biopics thrive on. Nevertheless, in the autumn of his career, things aren’t going quite right for Singh. A happy ending is no longer on its way. His tenure as Prime Minister saw him overseeing probably the most corrupt and inefficient government that India has ever seen.
And now Singh, despite being not corrupt is paying for the same. A few days back, special CBI judge Bharat Parashar, summoned Singh as accused in what is now known as the Coalgate scam.
Parashar has summoned Singh for re-allocating a coal mine to Hindalco. As the judge said in his order: “There was a conscious effort on his part to somehow accommodate M/s Hindalco in Talabira-II coal block.” The screening committee had earlier allocated the block to the government owned Neyveli Lignite Corporation.
Singh could have easily saved himself from this embarrassment, if he had acted in a way he thought was the correct way to go about things. But before we get into that, a few other things need to be discussed.
On June 9, 1993, the the Coal Mines(Nationalisation) Act was amended to allow companies which were in the business of producing power and iron and steel, to own coal mines for their captive use. This was done primarily because the government owned Coal India could not produce enough coal to meet demand.
Between 1993 and 2011, more than 200 hundred coal-blocks were given away free by various governments. Most of these blocks were allocated between 2004 and 2011 when the Congress led United Progressive Alliance was in power. A straight forward explanation for this lies in the fact that this was the period when coal prices had started to rally and hence, a free coal block had great value. Interestingly, Singh was coal minister for a significant period between 2004 and 2011.
The blocks were allocated by an inter-ministry screening committee which had the coal secretary as its Chairman. The committee was supposed to allot blocks after assessing applications by using parameters like techo-economic feasibility of the end-use project, the past record of the applicant in executing projects, the financial and technical capability and so on.
The trouble is that the process followed by the committee was not clear from its records. The former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai makes this point in his book Not Just An Accountant: “All that the records showed was that the committee met, deliberated and merely recorded the name of the block allotted to a company, and the state where the end-use plant existed. It is left to the reader to decide if transparency was a victim.”
Interestingly, from 2004 onwards the number of applicants for coal-blocks just went through the roof and it was not possible for the screening committee to be objective about the coal-block allocation. This is something that former coal secretary P C Parakh recounts in Crusader or Conspirator—Coalgate and Other Truths: “108 applications were received for Rampia and Dip Side of Rampia Block [names of two coal-blocks]. I found it difficult to make an objective selection when the number of applicants was in single digits. How could the Screening Committee take objective decisions when the number of applicants per block had run into three digits?”
In August 2004, Parakh proposed to Manmohan Singh(who had taken over as coal minister after Shibu Soren resigned) that the coal-blocks should be allocated through a process of competitive bidding. This would ensure transparency in allocation. It would keep also keep away non-serious players and help the government earn some revenue. On August 20, 2004, Singh approved allocation of coal-blocks through the competitive bidding route.
Immediately, letters written by various MPs opposing competitive bidding started to come in. As Parakh recounts in his book: “This included one from Mr Naveen Jindal who had considerable interest in coal mining.” What did not help was that Shibu Soren, who was a former coal minister by then, and would become coal minister again, opposed it. Dasari Narayana Rao, who was minister of state for coal, was also not in favour of the decision.
Politicians not wanting an auction was understandable because it would take away the influence that they had in allocating coal-blocks.
Singh gave into the pressure and on July 25, 2005, it was decided that the coal ministry would continue to allot coal-blocks through the screening committee route.
In a decision on September 24, 2014, the Supreme Court cancelled 204 out of the 218 coal-blocks allocated by the government since 1993. In fact in August 2014, the Court had stated that: “the entire exercise of allocation through Screening Committee route thus appears to suffer from the vice of arbitrariness and not following any objective criteria in determining as to who is to be selected or who is not to be selected.”
Singh could have saved himself a lot of embarrassment if he had insisted on the competitive bidding route, which he had agreed to in August 2004. But he looked the other way, choosing to give in to the compulsions of coalitions politics and the fact that if he did things his way, he would not last as the Prime Minister.
That’s the thing about being in power. Once you have it, it is better to look the other way than stand up for what you believe in and risk the chance of being fired and leading a retired life of loneliness. Singh may not have been personally corrupt, but he was dishonest to himself. He ultimately did not stand up for things that he believed in, in order to ensure that he continued to be the prime minister. And that is indeed very tragic.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected])

The column originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on Mar 20, 2015