New Delhi: The Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was rocked on Friday by a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) admission to the Supreme Court that seemed to suggest the government may have sought to interfere with the agency’s inquiry into irregularities in coal block allocations.
The ensuing political furore, amid an already-inflamed adversarial climate, immediately revived speculation about the possibility of an early election.
CBI director Ranjit Sinha told the Supreme Court that the agency had “shared” its status report on the coal allocations probe with law minister Ashwani Kumar “as desired by him” and that joint secretary-level officers from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the coal ministry had also seen it. This immediately triggered opposition demands for the resignations of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Kumar. The apex court had asked Sinha for the affidavit on 8 March.
The developments prompted some Congress ministers to concede privately that early polls could be the best way for the party to cut its political losses. The Congress and the UPA have been facing flak over a series of corruption scandals that have dented their popularity and likely marred their prospects in the forthcoming electoral tests.
A logjam in Parliament, now set to intensify even further, has triggered fresh uncertainty over the prospects of key items of legislation such as those on food security and land acquisition, flagship programmes that could be the Congress party’s election plank for the general election due next year.
The Congress leadership has decided to back Kumar, at least till 30 April, when the court takes up the CBI affidavit, according to at least two senior party leaders. Any observation against the government could further worsen the crisis for the UPA. Sinha’s two-page affidavit contradicts the claim made by the CBI counsel that the report had not been shared with any member of the government.
Sinha said in his affidavit on Friday: “I submit that the draft (status report) of the same was shared with law minister as desired by him prior to its submission before the Supreme Court... It was also shared with one joint secretary level officer each of Prime Minister’s Office and ministry of coal as desired by them.”
The CBI chief swore in the affidavit not to share any report with political executives in the future. He said the latest report filed before the apex court had not been shared with any political executive. “I confirm that the present status report being filed in this court has not been shared with any political executive in any manner whatsoever,” he said.
Sinha’s affidavit, however, circumvented allegations that changes were made to the status report after his meeting with the law minister and the other officials.
Speaking to reporters later on the sidelines of an event in New Delhi, the CBI director said he had nothing to add to what was already in the “public domain”.
Asked if the independence of the agency had been compromised in sharing the report with the law minister and the officials, Sinha said, “On this issue, I think honourable apex court is the best forum. They can take a view on this.”
The agency has so far registered nine cases relating to alleged irregularities in coal block allocations against firms that were allotted mines in 2006-09 during the first term of the UPA. Prime Minister Singh held the coal portfolio during the period.
The coal block allocation process took a political turn after the Comptroller and Auditor General of India highlighted alleged irregularities in the process and estimated that these had caused a notional loss of Rs.1.86 trillion to the national exchequer.
Law minister Kumar maintains he did no wrong as it was his job to see if CBI used information provided by the government correctly in the report submitted to the court, said a person familiar with the developments, declining to be identified.
“As Kumar is not the executive authority controlling the CBI, the agency is free not to share any detail which it does not want to. After all, a meeting with the CBI did not mean the CBI report was altered,” this person said. The government will wait for the apex court to take up the matter on 30 April, this person said.
“I have done no wrong. Truth will prevail,” Kumar said after meeting the Congress leadership, including party president Sonia Gandhi and Singh.
At a separate meeting at the Parliament House complex, Kumar held discussions with parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath.
“There is no question of his resignation. He is not going to resign,” Nath told reporters. He pointed out that CBI had told the court that only the draft report was shown to the minister, not the final report.
Sections of the Congress blamed the law minister and PMO for “poor handling” of the issue while saying that Kumar would need to be defended.
“If we oblige the opposition’s demand for sacking the law minister, the next demand will be the resignation of the Prime Minister, which we cannot agree with,” said a Congress minister.
UPA leaders also discussed ways to end the logjam in Parliament at a meeting chaired by Gandhi. Both Houses of Parliament were adjourned for the fourth consecutive day on Friday without transacting any major business as various parties occupied the centre of the House protesting over various issues.
The leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said “confrontation and cooperation” cannot go hand in hand. He maintained that CBI affidavit on the coal probe status report had “smashed” the government’s claim that there was no interference in the agency’s functioning.
While the BJP demanded the resignation of Kumar and the Prime Minister, Left members protested against the Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal, which they accused of engaging in “state sponsored-violence”. The Left parties have also sought a detailed debate in the House over various aspects of the alleged coal scam.
However, the latest developments, which followed the opposition’s attempts to isolate the Congress over the joint parliamentary committee probe into second-generation telecom spectrum allocation irregularities, seem to have demoralized many Congress leaders.
Many members of Parliament (MPs), who have so far maintained that the UPA will complete its full term, have started saying the government should opt for early polls.
“Enough is enough. Nothing is happening in Parliament,” said Annu Tandon, a Congress MP from Uttar Pradesh. “The Congress should now go for polls and tell people that these Bills were ready to be passed, but were blocked by disgraceful politics.”
Another Congress MP said the party should not wait for long to call for elections as its image is getting damaged on a daily basis.
The Congress is gearing up for assembly elections in 10 states and a general election is due in 2014.
“The government is surviving on a day-to-day basis support. I seriously doubt if the government has the efficiency to survive one more year in power,” political analyst T.V.R. Shenoy said.
“It is no more a fight between the ruling alliance and opposition parties. Now it is a fight between the ruling party and rest of the nation because the government has lost its credibility. Opposition just has to play along,” he said. “Except the Finance Bill, it is unlikely that the government would be able to pass any Bill in Parliament. Even the officers have stopped working and no one wants to keep his neck out.”
PTI contributed to this story.