For those who came in late: the latest controversy involving Dr Manmohan Singh and his UPA government has its genesis in a March 2012 Draft CAG report on 'allocating coal blocks in an inefficient manner' during the period 2004–2009, when the coal ministry was directly under the charge of prime minister. Team Anna picked up the issue, and the otherwise reticent PM went to the extent of saying: "If it turns out that there is even an element of truth in these charges, I will give up my public career and [the] country can give me any punishment."
As the controversy spread, after names of the recipients of coal block allocations were revealed, the case was handed over for investigation to the CBI. The CBI draft status report, submitted to the SC on March 8, pointed out that allocations were done without verifying the credentials of companies which allegedly misrepresented facts about themselves. The government vehemently refuted these findings of "arbitrary allotments without scrutiny" and claimed that the "CBI is not the final word on this"
A bench of Justices R M Lodha, J Chelameswar and Madan B Lokur, in an unprecedented move then asked CBI director Ranjit Sinha to file an affidavit affirming that its report "was vetted by him and nothing contained therein has been shared with the political executive". Attorney General (AG) Goolam Vahanvati, when asked, told the court he had not gone through the report. Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Harin Rawal went on to make an unequivocal statement that the status report had not been shared with anybody from the political executive.
After much speculation and many denials the CBI director in his affidavit to the SC admitted that the draft of the status report had indeed been "shared with Law Minister as desired by him prior to its submission before the Supreme Court. Besides the political executive, it was also shared with one joint secretary level officer each of Prime Minister's Office and Ministry of Coal as desired by them."
As demands rose for the law minister's resignation, the PM stepped in to aggressively defend him: "There is no question of the Law Minister resigning. The matter is now in the court and it is sub-judice. It is not proper for me to do anything. But there is no question of the Law Minister resigning."
Meanwhile, the ASG blamed the AG, corroborated the CBI claim, and said that he "felt embarrassed and was forced to take a stand in the court consistent" with that of the AG because he had already stated that the "contents of the status report were not known" to him.
And now comes the stinging indictment from the SC, asking the CBI, inter alia, "Can you tell us, is the Law Minister entitled to call for such reports? Joint Secretary Coal, Joint Secretary PMO -- can they also look into the status report? Why were details of changes, and under whose instance these changes were made, not disclosed in CBI chief's affidavit?"
The questions for the PM are piling up. One doesn't have to research too hard to name many such times in the past when the stand taken up by him does not quite square with his reputation for honesty. Here's a quick list from memory:
Claimed to be 'Ordinarily Resident' of Assam
Samudra Gupta Kashyap in the Indian Express:
Singh’s controversial residential status dates back to June 1991 when, after being appointed as finance minister in the Narasimha Rao government without becoming a Member of Parliament, he had to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha from Assam.It was Hiteswar Saikia, then Assam chief minister, who helped Singh procure a back-dated ration card, and issued him rent receipts for a part of his own house in Guwahati proving that Singh was an ‘‘ordinary resident’’ of Assam, as required under the provisions of the Representation of People’s Act.
Singh also filed for inclusion of his name in the electoral rolls of Dispur Assembly segment. His name was included in the electoral rolls on September 11, making him a resident of Guwahati, at the same time, his name was deleted from the electoral rolls of Delhi, where his name was registered.
As the former Jansatta editor Prabhash Joshi wrote in Tehelka in 2009 about his never having sought a Lok Sabha seat:
One wonders how those who call Singh ‘honest,’ ‘upright’ and ‘noble’ would justify his coming to the Rajya Sabha from Assam, a state of which he has never been a resident. What kind of truth and morality is he professing by giving an Assam address to the Parliament of India? Is morality decided only by the courts and the political parties? Can an honest person live with such an utter lie just for political convenience?
The 'ordinarily resident' part of the eligibility criteria, however, was removed in 2003.
Wanted to Hush Up the Harshad Mehta Scam
'Won't lose sleep over what happened in the markets'
Vinod K. Jose in the Caravan:
In April 1992, barely 10 months into his tenure as finance minister, the booming Bombay Stock Exchange had what was then its biggest-ever crash, falling 13 percent in a single day. The collapse had been caused by a stockbroker named Harshad Mehta who had colluded with senior officials in public sector banks—which come under the control of the finance ministry—to siphon funds from the banks into the stock market, which crashed when the fraud was revealed. According to an official in PV Narasimha Rao’s PMO, when internal intelligence reports about the fraud first reached the finance ministry in March 1992, Singh anxiously called an emergency meeting with cabinet secretary Naresh Chandra, finance secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia and economic adviser Ashok Desai to discuss the situation.
The former PMO official recalled that Singh’s initial response had been a decidedly defensive one. “It was a systemic failure,” Singh proposed. “One thing led to another.” When one of them suggested to Singh that nobody would buy this argument, and that Mehta should be investigated and forced to offload his shares, Singh demurred. “Then there will be a lot of noise,” he said. “People will write about it, everyone will know.” A few weeks later, news of the scam leaked out anyway. An investigation began and a Joint Parliamentary Committee was formed in August 1992 to probe the scandal.
U-Turns on Reforms
'I served as a faithful civil servant...(and) carried out the orders of my political masters'
Writing way back in 2004, when Dr Singh took over as PM, Alam Srinivas wrote in Outlook: He's always done exactly what the situation asked of him. Every which way:
Over a decade ago, a senior journalist asked him about one of his known U-turns—from being a supporter of socialism as secretary general of the South Commission in 1987-90 to ardently endorsing the capitalist model of economic reforms in 1991. Singh's reply: "I was against (bureaucratic) controls all the time.... I have spoken my mind (in the past).... But I served as a faithful civil servant...(and) carried out the orders of my political masters." Not too many people realise that that's what he did as the finance minister (1991-96) too.
When he took over, his political boss P.V. Narasimha Rao told him to open up the economy as the country had no option but to go in for a huge IMF loan that came with several strings attached. Three years later, under heavy criticism from inside the party and having lost several assembly elections, Rao asked Singh to turn the clock back on economic policy. Immediately, the FM switched from market economy to welfare state. His squeeze on money supply to curb inflation and stabilise prices was a banana peel to Indian industry just sprinting off the starting blocks after three years of reformist policies.
'RSS was to Blame for 1984 Sikh Riots'
Alam Srinivas in Outlook
During his first and only attempt to win a seat in Parliament (from the South Delhi constituency), Singh said the RSS was to blame for the 1984 Sikh riots. Most political pundits believe a major section of the Sikh community in the constituency voted against him, leading to Singh's defeat in an area packed with middle and upper middle class voters who had benefited the most from his reforms.
Of course, it must have been reasons such as these because of which he saw nothing wrong in receiving a Padma Vibhushan from the Rajiv Gandhi government.
Nanavati Report on 1984 riots
'Governments cannot act when the Commission itself is uncertain of these issues'
Much has been made of Manmohan Singh's apology for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots after more than two decades of the pogrom. Let's remember the context. Justice GT Nanavati Commission, appointed by the NDA, had submitted its report on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots on Feb 9, 2005 but it was not presented in Parliament till the statutory permissible limit of six months was coming to an end, on August 8, 2005. Even after this inordinate delay, despite the fact that the Nanavati report clearly pointed a finger at Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and HKL Bhagat, the UPA, headed by Dr Manmohan Singh maintained that there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute and Tytler very much remained a minister in Dr Singh's cabinet. On August 9, when participating in the debate in Lok Sabha, the PM's first impulse was to seek to dismiss the charges against even Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and HKL Bhagat:
In the case of some others, it has said that it is probable that they may have some involvement in some of the incidents, and that there is evidence to that effect. The Commission is in itself not certain, however, of the role of these individuals. As the ATR says, Governments cannot act when the Commission itself is uncertain of these issues.
It was only after a right, royal hai-tauba was raised by opposition and allies that finally, on August 11, 2005, a full 6 months and two days of having received the report, that Dr Singh finally announced in Rajya Sabha:
One of my colleagues, a valued colleague, has tendered his resignation. That resignation has been accepted.
Of course, the honest PM did not see anything wrong in his party giving the Lok Sabha ticket to the very same "valued colleague" in 2009, till a shoe hurled at the then home minister finally blocked the move. Nor has he ever spoken about those others of his valued colleagues who continue to get acquitted despite serious charges against them.
'at arm's length'
Ashok Sanjay Guha in the Telegraph:
When they decided on the 2G policy, were the prime minister and the finance minister totally oblivious of the logical implications? Had Manmohan Singh left his knowledge of economics behind at Oxford or at the Delhi School? Had Chidambaram forgotten his experience of corporate management and law? Having given their blessings to the sale of a scarce resource far below market price, was it not incumbent on them to exercise the strictest vigilance so as to avert the predictable consequences — bribery and loot? Instead, Singh instructed his officers to keep themselves ‘at arm’s length’ from the goings-on in the telecom department. Was this complicity or child-like innocence? I leave the reader to draw his own conclusions.
As Shalini Singh reported in the Hindu last month: New papers show PMO analysed and agreed with Raja’s actions before 2G scam:
New evidence shows that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, far from being “at arm’s length” from ex-Telecom Minister A. Raja’s controversial 2G decisions, had directed officials in the PMO to “examine urgently” Mr. Raja’s letters outlining his intended decisions which eventually led to the 2G scam on January 10, 2008. Investigation now reveals that senior PMO officials had supported several of Mr. Raja’s acts on file, well before the 2G scam.
And on the same day: Within 2 weeks of the 2G scam, PM wanted “arm’s length” from Raja:
New documents show that the Prime Minister’s Office, under instructions from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to examine ex-Telecom Minister A. Raja’s controversial 2G decisions, actively supported Mr. Raja before the scam, only to seek “arm’s length” distance from him once the 2G licences were allocated on January 10, 2008 amid intense media scrutiny and Opposition attacks.
This was corroborated by A. Raja himself in his recent statement where he wrote, inter alia: 'I Went Ahead With The Grant Of LOIs Only After Informing The PM And Obtaining His Assent'
'In January 2008 also I had meetings with the Hon'ble PM in cabinet meetings and otherwise and updated him of the situation'
Also See: Seven Questions
Cash for Votes
The ‘honest,’ ‘upright’ and ‘noble’ prime minister of course won the No-Confidence motion on the nuclear-deal, after weeks of political uncertainty, charges of horse trading, and a last minute effort by the opposition BJP to undermine the Congress' credibility by accusing it of trying to "buy" its MPs' votes, with the dramatic brandishing of rupees three crores by BJP MPs in Lok Sabha, claiming that it was the first tranche they had received from the Samajwadi Party -- the Congress' new ally -- to vote for the UPA. The controversy would later come back to haunt in the form of a Wikileaks cable in 2011 which talked about the interactions of "an Embassy Staff member" with Nachiketa Kapur, described as Satish Sharma's political aide, who spoke of alleged plans to pay bribes to certain members of the Lok Sabha in an attempt to influence the voting.
As B. Raman then wrote:
The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, on his own without even an attempt at an enquiry rejected the contents of the cable as published by The Hindu as speculative, unverified and unverifiable. This conclusion was based not on a criminal investigation by an investigating agency, but on the partisan political assertion of the Prime Minister....
The PM went on to say about 2008 charges of cash for votes:
I am disappointed that members of the Opposition have forgotten what happened thereafter. Upon the conclusion of the term of the 14th Lok Sabha, there was a general election. In that general election, the Opposition parties repeated their allegations of bribery in the trust vote. How did the people respond to those allegations? The principal Opposition party which had 138 seats in the 14th Lok Sabha was reduced to 116 seats in the 15th Lok Sabha. The left parties found that their tally was reduced from 59 to 24. It is the Congress Party alone which increased its tally from 145 to 206, an increase of 61 seats.
It is unfortunate that the Opposition continues to raise old charges that have been debated, discussed and rejected by the people of India. It is most surprising that speculative, unverified and unverifiable communications should be given dignity and seized upon by the Opposition parties to revive old charges that have been soundly rejected.
As Arun Jaitley, the leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha was to rebut:
The question is, does electability or populism condone criminality? Because of the fact that you are elected by the people, must the due process of law come to an end? Bribegiving is an offence; bribe-taking is an offence. If the Prime Minister is right, then logically, the converse of what he says must also be true. If people had rejected him, would the offences stand proved without going through a due process? The 1989 elections were contested only on the issue of Bofors. People had rejected the then government. Can we say that it indicted everybody individually who had lost in the elections? Obviously, these operate in different spheres; electability and criminality operate in different spheres. If we start rationalizing this argument, every mafia or criminal who gets elected will say, ‘I have been supported by and exonerated by the court of the people, and therefore, the case against me should now logically disappear” Sir, I take this opportunity to raise a larger issue.
Also See: Who Will Investigate The Investigators?
Defending the Closure of Cases against Quattrochchi
'It is not a good reflection on the Indian legal system that we harass people while the world says we have no case'
When asked about closure of the case against the controversial Italian businessman before the end of the UPA's first term, the prime minister told CNN-IBN:
The Quattrochchi case is an embarrassment for the government of India. We have tried to extradite him from Malaysia, from Argentina, and the courts have said we don’t have a strong case. Now, it is not a good reflection on the Indian legal system that we harass people while the world says we have no case. Before the matter was referred, Interpol asked India why do we want to keep him under the red corner notice. The law ministry referred the matter to the Attorney General, who gave the advice that it (the notice) should be lifted.
The fact of the matter remains that his own government had gone out of its way to bury the case: How The UPA Buried The Case Against Q
Also See: Farewell Gift To The Nation-In-Law
#9. 2011: CVC PJ Thomas Appointment
Shaju Philip in the Indian Express:
Three official letters — one written by Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) in 2008, and two by the Kerala government in 2006 and 2008 — suggest the palmolein case against P J Thomas had come to the notice of the Prime Minister.
A confidential note sent by DoPT to the Cabinet Secretariat on November 17, 2008, seeking the vigilance status of two IAS officers of 1972 batch (one was Thomas) and seven IAS officers of 1973 batch, shows that the previous Kerala government's decision to withdraw the palmolein case had come to the notice of the PM.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said he was not aware of the case pending against Thomas till the meeting of the selection committee on September 3, 2010.
Also See: L'Affaire PJ Thomas
#10. 2011: On Corruption and CAG
In his meeting with newspaper editors in June 2011, the PM said, inter alia, on not acting in the 2G case on the basis of newspaper reports:
If I go by the newspapers everyday, I would have to refer everything to the CBI, and the CBI would sit in judgement. And if we continued in this vein, our public sector would not be able to perform. It would greatly weaken the (entrepreneurial) forces that we have unleashed, and willy-nilly install a police raj.
and on the CAG report, he said:
I have not read the full report. This is a special report which the ministry themselves had asked for. It is never been in the past that the CAG has held a press conference – as the present CAG has done. Never in the past has the CAG decided to comment on a policy issue. It should limit the office to the role defined in the constitution.
As Siddharth Varadarajan commented in the Hindu:
While Dr. Singh did well not to repeat the folly of Kapil Sibal's “zero loss” theory, he did accuse the constitutionally-mandated auditing watchdog of overstepping its mandate. Curiously, he also faulted the CAG for holding a press conference, even though it has done so in the past and there is a ruling of the Madras High Court upholding its right to speak directly to the public after a report has been tabled...
...If his attack on the CAG was uncalled for, the Prime Minister's warning about corruption accusations turning the country into a virtual police state is likely to leave many people shaking their heads in disbelief. The police and intelligence agencies have snooped and spied and harassed innocent citizens and political activists throughout the country for decades without any one in authority ever worrying about the consequences. But the minute the voice of a Ratan Tata or a Mukesh Ambani is heard on a tapped telephone, or senior executives from some of India's biggest private companies are arrested for having paid bribes, the cry goes out that we are on the verge of becoming a “banana republic,” that we are bringing back the bad old days of the “license permit raj.” Dr. Singh's lament may go down well in corporate boardrooms but not with the crores of ordinary Indians who are demanding accountability and transparency in the functioning of their government.
The above is pretty much an off-the-cuff list, and one could go on and on if one includes the more common instances such as the time when the Supreme Court had to directly intervene on the "illegal, unconstitutional and arbitrary dissolution" of the Bihar Assembly, or for that matter, those in Goa and Jharkhand, in the very first years of Manmohan Singh's prime-ministership, or l'affaire Adarsh, or the continuing saga of the CWG. But then, as we all know, the PM is an honest man, and it is this reputation which has helped deflect most of the charges in the past. Recycling the story about the onion thief would be apt here, but we should desist, even though it seems likely that the PM's stubborn defence of his law minister may well compel the SC to spell out what the government must do at the very minimum.