THE HIGH political heat over ‘Coalgate’ is a stark symptom of the befuddlements of contemporary Indian public life. On the one hand, we are beseiged by evidence of brazen corruption. On the other, we seem condemned to live with empty noise at every level of our collective life. If Parliament is reduced to a perennially shut shop, how is political accountability to be shaped? Is there to be no satisfactory closures to any public exposé?
In the current case, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who held the coal ministry for over three years, has a lot of tough questions to answer. When he had personally asserted that auctions were the most transparent route of allocating coal blocks back in 2004, why was the decision delayed for six years? In the interim, why were a rash of precious coal blocks handed to select private players at a fraction of the market price? When almost 80 percent of them failed to work their mines, why did he not seek accountability? Why were the supposed reductions in steel and power prices not passed down to consumers? What were the extra-legal considerations that drove these decisions? TEHELKA Investigations Editor Ashish Khetan’s exhaustive story two weeks ago – Corruption by Weakness – details the full contours of this scam and the disturbing questions it raises. (BJP leader Arun Jaitley called it the best report on the subject.)
Unfortunately, despite the gravity of the situation, the BJP’s obstruction of Parliament hardly seems the best way to ransom answers out of the PM. Jaitley has said the BJP will not let Parliament function until the PM steps down. Some in the media are calling this “the worst political crisis since 2009”. But if one looks beneath the surface flame, the demand seems just cold posture. Outside Parliament, it may be legitimate for the BJP to demand the PM’s resignation on moral grounds. But within Parliament, the only mechanism to enforce this is to ask for a no-confidence vote. The BJP is clearly in no position to do that. Neither its allies, nor other Opposition parties, want this. In fact, many like the BJD, want a debate on the scam with a vote under Rule 184/191, which could lead to a censure of the government. Why is the BJP forestalling such a debate? If its maximalist position cannot have the desired effect, is it justified in stalling Parliament indefinitely? Why can’t it make a compelling intellectual and moral case for the PM’S resignation within Parliament while letting Parliament function?
In a recent interview to TEHELKA, Jaitley had asserted that “there can be no substitute in India for the parliamentary form of government. India is a complex and plural society and no other form of government can give adequate voice to that multiplicity”. He also admitted that though obstructing Parliament was a legitimate democratic tool, it had begun to be used too frequently and required serious introspection. To hold all legislation hostage now and push for an endgame that has no seeming end in sight seems to warrant such introspection.
The BJP has other hard questions at its door. Several of its chief ministers were opposed to auctioning coal blocks; many of its chief secretaries were part of the screening committee that handed out allocations to unworthy lessees. Why were no whistles blown then? But pointing fingers is a deeply reductive game. Apart from its competitive track record on corruption, the UPA has also misused the CBI innumerable times; crippled the on-going JPC probe into the 2G scam; and questioned the CAG. If every instrument of democracy is subverted, where is the voice of public morality to be housed?
Coming as it does on the heels of the 2G scam, the KG Basin scam, the Delhi airport scam, the Bellary mines scam and innumerable others, the coal scam is proof that rolling heads is just one interchangeable part of the game. What we need is a deeper debate and consensus on how national resources are to be used transparently and judiciously in a new economy. Will this seemingly empty noise force such answers in the long run? Is it messaging that corruption and discretion will no longer pass unnoticed? If yes, perhaps this dismaying muffling of Parliament may yet prove worthwhile.
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.