The Quarry

What the trial of Manmohan Singh must address

01 April 2015
Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi, led a march in support of Manmohan Singh when news of his summons broke last month.
Ajay Aggarwal / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

THE TRIAL OF ANDIMUTHU RAJA came to an impasse on 27 January 2013 when his lawyer, Sushil Kumar, was questioning Goolam Vahanvati, then the attorney general of India. Raja, the former telecom minister, had claimed that the policy decisions that led to his indictment in what is now called the 2G spectrum scam were not taken independently. Vahanvati was aware of the changed policy, he said; and so was Pranab Mukherjee, the head of the Empowered Group of Ministers responsible for spectrum allocation. Since Vahanvati denied that any such discussions had taken place between himself, Mukherjee and Raja, it was impossible to establish the truth of the matter. Only three people, Kumar said with a dramatic flourish, were aware of the details. “One is him,” he said, pointing to Vahanvati. “One is him,” at Raja. “And the third is at a position where we cannot reach”—implying in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Mukherjee, by virtue of his presidential position, remains immune to prosecution. The former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is not. Even as Raja’s case was being heard, it emerged that the 2G scam was not the most expensive of the UPA government’s misadventures. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India calculated that while irregularities in spectrum allocation had incurred the government a loss of R1.76 lakh crore (R1.76 trillion), its ineffective and possibly corrupt distribution of coal blocks had cost the exchequer R1.85 lakh crore. The Empowered Group of Ministers for coal was also headed by Mukherjee. Though this EGoM did not allocate blocks, decisions taken by it, as mentioned in the CAG's report, allowed windfall profits for private players. Yet the lion’s share of responsibility for the decisions on the coal blocks, now under investigation in a special Central Bureau of Investigation court, falls on Singh, who, in addition to leading the cabinet as prime minister, was also, for much of his tenure, head of the coal ministry, which was in charge of the screening committee for coal allocation.

On 11 March this year, the CBI court summoned Singh as accused number 6 in one of several cases pertaining to the alienation of coal blocks. Singh’s defenders decried the summons as a witch-hunt; prominent leaders of the Congress, rallied by the party president, Sonia Gandhi, led a march to Singh’s residence in a show of support and solidarity when the news broke. On the front pages of the next day’s newspapers, the sight of senior Congressmen in that procession—including the former cabinet ministers AK Antony, P Chidambaram, and Anand Sharma—reminded many people that fresh inquiries might yet cast doubt on the conduct of others in power during the UPA regime. Others pointed out that the summons came at a suspiciously convenient moment for the ruling National Democratic Alliance, as it attempted to overcome serious hurdles in parliament during the budget session.

Krishn Kaushik  was formerly a staff writer at The Caravan.