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New Delhi: Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Aditya Birla Group head Kumar Mangalam Birla moved the Supreme Court on Wednesday against a special court order summoning them as accused over charges of criminal conspiracy and corruption in a case relating to the allotment of a coal block in Odisha.

For the Congress, however, the legal move may not be enough to undo the political damage caused by the return of corruption charges that threaten to put Singh, a man with a clean image, under the scanner.

Also on Wednesday, Hindalco Industries Ltd executive D. Bhattacharya moved the apex court challenging the summons. Former coal secretary P.C. Parakh, who had also been summoned, said he filed a petition challenging the summons in the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The order required the accused—Singh, Birla, Parakh, Bhattacharya and group executive president of Aditya Birla Management Corp. Pvt. Ltd Shubhendu Amitabh—to be present in court on 8 April.

The Congress has taken an aggressive approach to the issue since Singh was named in the list of accused on 11 March. Party chief Sonia Gandhi called for a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) a day later and, in a rare gesture, led a march of leaders and parliamentarians from the party’s headquarters to Singh’s residence.

Following this, several units of the party, including its women’s and youth wings, called on the 82-year-old former prime minister to express support and solidarity. A week later, Singh, who has maintained a low political profile since stepping down as prime minister, joined Sonia Gandhi in a march by opposition leaders to protest against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government's proposed amendments to the land acquisition bill. “We stand behind him fully and comprehensively. Proper legal recourse will be taken and we have no doubt justice will be delivered. We stand by him strongly," Abhishek Singhvi, national spokesperson of the Congress, told reporters on Wednesday.

However, the charges against the former prime minister could spell more trouble for the Congress, which, having suffered its worst ever electoral performance last year, is without its vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who is away on a sabbatical. The first half of the Parliament’s budget session had seen the Congress isolated.

“This probe will do more damage to the Congress. Singh is seen as someone with a clean image and the public perception of him is that he is not corrupt. However, the charge that comes to him is he did not do enough, and that is what works against the Congress," Manisha Priyam, a New Delhi-based political analyst, said.

“It is true that Sonia Gandhi has been rallying behind Singh, leading a march of party leaders. But this is not a political fight instigated by another party, so Gandhi’s approach is more to contain factions within the party on the issue," she added.

Special judge Bharat Parashar, hearing the coal mines allocations case, had said that on the face of it, there was enough evidence to summon the five as well as Hindalco. The case in the trial court pertains to the allotment of Talabira II and Talabira III coalfields in Odisha to a joint venture between Hindalco, Neyveli Lignite Corp. Ltd (NLC) and Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd in 2005.

Calling the inclusion of Hindalco in the Talabira-II coal block “dishonest", the special judge said in his order that “there apparently was a concerted effort by all concerned to somehow accommodate M/s Hindalco in Talabira-II coal block, irrespective of rules, regulations, guidelines or procedure permitting the same, much less the rule of law", and “in complete disregard to the public interest involved".

“Special leave petitions have been filed by Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman, D. Bhattacharya, managing director, and Hindalco, in the Supreme Court against the orders of the special court, which had issued the summons to them," said an Aditya Birla Group spokesperson.

Hindalco had denied using any unlawful or inappropriate means for securing the allocation of the coal block.

The Central Bureau of Investigation, in its first information report (FIR), had named Parakh, Birla, Hindalco and other unknown individuals for offences under section 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code and under provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.

Hindalco had applied for the Talabira-II block in 1996, but the coal block screening committee gave it to NLC in August 2005, citing an existing coal linkage given to Hindalco. However, Birla pointed out that the firm had applied for the mine earlier, and that its coal linkage was not used. Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik then wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), supporting Birla’s case, after which the PMO asked the screening committee to reconsider its decision.

The panel—headed by Parakh—did, and clubbed the Talabira-II and Talabira-III mines and granted it to NLC, Hindalco, and Mahanadi Coalfields. On 16 December, special court judge Parashar asked CBI to further probe the role of Manmohan Singh, who also held the coal portfolio. Following this, on 11 March, he issued summons to him.

Birla’s petition, a copy of which Mint has reviewed, seeks a stay of the lower court’s orders of 16 December and 11 March, and a stay on the proceedings by CBI. Singh has also sought a stay on the lower court’s orders.

The petition goes on to add that the lower court judge “misdirected himself in law by taking upon himself the task of critically examining the manner in which the PMO considered the matter" of the allocation of the block.

It has been contended that the screening panel choosing to allocate the block to Hindalco was a “step in decision-making" and not a delegation of power.

“It is no part of the function of a criminal court to assess comparative merits of whether a state shall support a private sector project or a public sector project and, on that basis, come to a conclusion that since ultimately a decision was made to support a private sector project, such a decision is necessarily a corrupt decision and an offence under the Prevention of Corruption Act," the petition said.

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