New Delhi: The success of its auctions of coal and spectrum have provided the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government with more ammunition to beat up the Indian National Congress, which, despite its rout in the Lok Sabha election last May, has, with the assistance of some allies, held up the legislative agenda of the new administration.

Corruption scandals related to irregularities in the allotment of both natural (and national) resources were, along with its mismanagement of the economy, the primary reasons why the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was voted out after two terms in office between 2004 and 2014

The NDA has managed to make a success of its auctions of both.

Two rounds of coal block auctions have fetched the government 2.09 trillion (from 33 blocks), giving credence to the national auditor’s claims that allocation of mines over the years had caused substantial losses to the national exchequer. In addition, electricity consumers will get a tariff benefit of 96,971 crore. Similarly, cumulative bids for spectrum in the ongoing telecom spectrum auction have hit the 1.08 trillion mark after 80 rounds of bidding over eight days.

In both cases, reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) were central to the process of highlighting the irregularities in the allotment of both coal mines and spectrum that resulted in the Supreme Court scrapping the allotments.

The BJP has been quick to see the political capital in the issue.

“The Congress-led UPA was functioning on ’70s and ’80s mode. The Congress party tried to exploit non-transparent methods and mechanism of the government. There was complete lack of system, accountability and transparency in the government. There was an attempt to indulge in corruption and this corruption continued in UPA I and UPA II," said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a BJP spokesperson.

It is also keen to present the auctions as evidence of its intent to govern in a transparent fashion.

“The previous government couldn’t do a single auction. As part of our initiative to usher in transparency, real-time bidding was made available. My team has done an outstanding job and has demonstrated to the world that India can deliver good governance," said Piyush Goyal, minister for coal, power, and new and renewable energy.

Buoyed by the success of the coal block auctions, the NDA government is considering a plan to adopt a similar model for old and new coal linkages. Linkages are awarded to projects that do not have captive coal mines and need to source coal commercially from state-owned Coal India Ltd (CIL).

The plan to auction linkages follows reports of irregularities in granting coal linkages. To take advantage of the discounted price offered by CIL, developers of power plants had made false claims regarding the order of equipment, financial status, land acquisition and water supply, Mint reported on 18 September 2012.

Former comptroller and auditor general Vinod Rai, the man behind the two CAG reports in question, declined to comment.

In 2012, the CAG found that awarding the mines without an auction may have cost the exchequer 1.86 trillion; another CAG report had pegged the loss on account of irregularities in the allotment of spectrum to telcos at 1.76 crore.

The Congress party says the UPA’s policies were driven by more than just a desire to maximise revenue.

“It must be noted that while competitive bidding does lead to a more transparent price discovery, the government’s objective is not just revenue maximization, but also the other social objective of affordability for the final consumer," said Sanjay Jha, national spokesperson for the Congress.

“In telecom, where our teledensity was abysmal, there was roughly a tenfold increase in mobile subscribers to 280 million in 2008 from 2001. Currently, we have 990 million mobile subscribers. Even the Supreme Court left the option of pricing of natural resources for the government to take a call on," he said.

“Why did the (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee-led NDA government (in 1999) relent and convert (telecom) licence fees into revenue-share in the 1990s? Did it not provide telecom firms with a breather and deprive the state exchequer of funds?" asked Jha.

He added that it was the UPA that had first suggested auctions for coal and that the policy it followed was far better than the one followed by the NDA government that ruled India between 1998 and 2004.

“In fact, the process for competitive bidding was initiated by Dr Manmohan Singh in August 2004 itself, within months of becoming prime minister. It got delayed because coal allocations works in a federal legal framework under the MMDR Act, and BJP and non-Congress ruled state governments opposed auctions."

The MMDR Act is a reference to the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Act.

Still, Singh himself has been summoned by a special court looking into the case over accusations of criminal conspiracy and corruption in relation to the allotment of a coal mine in Odisha. “The real decision-making power (in the UPA) was Congress president (Sonia Gandhi) and the Prime Minister didn’t act effectively. It is because of this reason that former prime minister Manmohan Singh is facing charges now while Congress top leaders are happily standing behind him," added Narasimha Rao.

Gyan Verma and Anuja contributed to this story.

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