Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Coalgate disintegrating into petty squabbling….

Look what is happening to the so called “biggest scam of India”. A few days after the whole thing exploded, the two main political parties are scoring brownie points over each other by bringing up individual and petty cases of supposed corruption. These few cases are supposed to indicate that the whole policy of coal allocation was flawed and that lacs of crores of rupees were squandered by the government. If this is not proof that Coalgate is nothing more than large scale political gamesmanship, what is?

Consider how the matter has moved from supposed high-level corruption to the individual units of misconduct. Sushma Swaraj alleged “mota maal” and her party colleage Prakash Javdekar enthusiastically quantified it by hinting that more than Rs 50000 crores was pocketed by the Congress. The BJP has been continuously demanding the PM’s resignation, alleging (in a new found strategy; earlier it used to attack the PM personally, but it realizes no one believes the PM is personally corrupt) that the PM consciously allowed others in his government to “loot” the country. The CAG of course started it all off giving some crazy number than no accountant, leave alone the supposedly most premier of them all in the country, would make the mistake of making….forgeting to take the “time value of money” into account.

From such high level charges, what has the matter now reduced to now? A few petty cases of alleged favoritism. Supposedly, Subodh Kant Sahay, Vijay Darda and Naveen Jindal of the Congress curried favor for themselves and for their friends by influencing the allocation of coal blocks. Even this is highly debatable. Naveen Jindal has provided an elaborate and entirely believable explanation of how he got the coal blocks first during NDA rule when he was not even a politician. If that is true, then both the NDA and UPA are guilty of favoring big industrialists. Subodh Kant Sahay has expectedly refused to accept blame citing some HC orders. The same may be debated by his opponents, but the fact remains that its not an open and shut case. The only one who looks on shaky grounds – even though he is also denying the charges – is Vijay Darda of the Lokmat group. Interestingly, the Abhijeet Group ad claims that they have not even been served the CBI’s FIR. And of course, they too have their explanations to give. And lastly, there is this ridiculous charge of the coal minister Sri Prakash Jaiswal being the one who was nominated to be the arbitrator in the family dispute of the Manoj Jayaswal group (the Abhijeet group). I cannot even understand what that is supposed to mean. If it indicates proximity to the coal minister, that’s fine. But then I would assume that political leaders have proximity to many hundreds, if not thousands, of big people. In fact, Nitin Gadkari was shown touching the feet of Ramdev; but he denied that he was behind Ramdev’s movement too, didn’t he? Sushma Swaraj is close to the Reddy brothers, though she has been fervently denying it isn’t she?

Last night, this entire thing moved into the totally bizarre zone. The anchor of Scam TV claimed a “scoop” by unearthing yet another letter than was written by some bureaucrat in the Finance Ministry to the Inter Ministerial Group (IMG) advising (or cautioning) them that they did not have the authority to take the final call on coal block cancelations. The anchor found this to be a u-turn done by the Congress, since so far it had said that the IMG would decide on the cancellations. But what is the big deal here? It’s a well known fact that all that bureaucrats do is to make recommendations. The final calls are always taken by the political authority. So the ministers or the cabinet will take the call on cancelations. Is this so difficult for a leading beacon (ugggh!) of Indian media to understand? In the past also, didn’t the politicians rule against the views of the Coal Secretary that coal blocks could be auctioned by merely an executive order? The final call is always of the political authority; almost never of the bureaucrat.

The situation begs us to ask the question: What then really is Coalgate. In my view, it shows that the allocation process was clearly wrong. No screening committee in India can be free of biases and corruption. That is why the PM made the change to auctions. The BJP is as guilty of favoritism as is the Congress. The BJP has to answer the question of Ajay Sancheti who “won” a bid in Chhatisgarh in a one-bidder scenario. This can hardly be called a “transparent auction”. The BJP also has to answer why its CMs were opposed to auctions. And the BJP also has to finally deal with its own failure to even think of auctions though it had moved an amendments bill in 2000. In fact, the BJP had thought of broadening the scope of free coal blocks to all private parties – and not only for captive plants.

Look at the tragedy the BJP finds itself in. For every Goa mining scam, it has to deal with a bigger Karnataka mining scam of its own. For every Digambar Kamat it would like to hang on the Congress’s neck, it has to deal with the fact that the man was their partyman for 11 years too. Lumpen elements scarcely respect party ideologies. Building a political strategy on such lumpen elements is foolish.

Coalgate is going the 2G way. Till date, the only charges mounted against anyone are those of Rs 200 crores being “loaned” by DB Realty to Sun TV (supposedly for the DMK). Unitech, Reliance etc haven’t been charged with anything yet, though much noise was made about their involvement. And in the din created around 2G, the SC went and canceled all 2G licenses. A number of companies planning investments into India – and generating growth, employment, better “consumer good” – left. The BJP claims that “2G has been cleaned up”. Wait and see what happens. The 2G “revolution” is over. Airtel, Voda, Idea and Reliance wont even bid for the auctions. They will prefer conserving spectrum and culling low paying subscribers. Reliance’s 20 million subscriber roll-back in July is only the start. Airtel, Voda and Idea’s 5 million subscriber drop in August is just a step in that direction. In a few years, India’s telecom density will plummet to less than 50%. That’s when the BJP can pump up its chest and say “we achieved this”! Likewise, the CWG scam was not worth Rs 70000 crores, but hardly a few crores.

The real truth is that Coalgate in its original mega scale is nearly dead. More small-level muck; more small-time dogfights; more low-level slanging matches may take place, but the larger more substantive matter has dissipated. Yes, auctions are the way forward. But as the TOI article of 11th Sept argues, revenue maximization isn’t. The government’s job should be to build industry, not kill it. Telecom auctions have been a failure (3G) and will be a failure in the future too (2G)…..

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