When the monsoon session ends, can the winter session be far behind? This seems to be the operating principle of the United Progressive Alliance government as it seeks to weather the storm created by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Parliament over the damning report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the allocation of coal blocks. Of course, there is no way the UPA could have conceded the Opposition demand for the resignation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on this issue. But one of the ways for the government to break the logjam would have been to offer to cancel all the coal block allotments and introduce competitive bidding as originally envisioned in 2004. However, from the defence mounted by the Prime Minister — who held the Coal portfolio during the period of allocation — to the combative stance of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, everything points to the government preparing to keep the fight on the political plane. Instead of addressing the growing public perception of corruption in the wake of the CAG report, the Congress seems bent on discrediting the principal Opposition party. The reasoning is that the BJP, whose Chief Ministers in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh opposed competitive bidding, does not have the credibility for a sustained offensive on this issue, and will soon run out of breath. Other than seeking to clarify the points made in the CAG report through the Prime Minister’s statement in Parliament, the Congress is not willing to make any concession to the Opposition.
The government strategy to hold the ground until winter sets in is neither politically prudent nor morally defensible. If one were to accept Finance Minister P. Chidambaram’s argument that there was no loss in the allocation of coal blocks as the coal has not been “taken out of mother earth,” then surely the proper course would be to ensure that the companies which benefited from the discretionary allocation of the blocks are not allowed to profit from the coal that still remains unmined. The problem, of course, is that the government’s defence of the allocation is varied, full of holes, and contradictory. Apart from blaming Opposition-ruled States for the non-introduction of competitive bidding, the Prime Minister has disputed the computation of loss by the CAG, and pointed to the possible earnings for the government through taxation of the gains of the private parties. Thus, one defence of the government is that there is no loss because the coal is not mined; another is that the loss is partly offset by taxation of the mined coal. If only the government were ready to own up past mistakes, it would not have seemed so hurried in the defence of its policies, and so clumsy in its attacks on the Opposition.