Amidst an Avalanche of Accusations - Part I
Hai Kuch Aisi Hi Baat jo Chup Hun
Warna Kya Baat kar Nahi Ati ... – Ghalib
Did Manmohan Singh know when, consumed by overweening ambition, he stuck his neck in the Faustian Bargain (that I talked about last fortnight) that one day he will be called upon to render an account, not to his Maker − which is still sometime away − but the public at large of the terms and conditions of the deal? Do we frail humans dare ask ourselves to mull over the answer of each act of ours for the Grand Inquisition called the Day of Judgment? And what an exacting system of government is democracy that doggedly trails each step that people in public life take! If you have any reservations, ask Bill Clinton.
Till now Manmohan Singh has chosen to remain silent about the sordid deeds of UPA administrations that he headed. He hasn’t told what happened in the array of scams and what stand he took, if any; and if he failed to do so, why. However, as a well-read man he must have run into the adage that silence invariably means an implicit admission of guilt.
Metaphorically, silence is golden, but when it drags on, it threatens to devour the person. Today, he is being ridiculed as Maunmohan Singh for not using his voice box to tell the truth despite the fusillade of charges being leveled against him by the day regarding the high ticket corruption during his tenure as Prime Minister. So far, however, he has managed to keep his mouth firmly shut. But for how long can he refuse to say anything?
The latest assault − and by far the most devastating − has been mounted by Vinod Rai, former Comptroller and Auditor General of India in an interview with Arnab Goswami in Times Now. He indicted the former Prime Minister by alleging that he was fully aware of the 2G and the coal block allocation scams in his Government, but chose to do nothing when he could have changed the course of the sordid saga by putting his foot down.
Rai’s account, Not Just an Accountant: Diary of Nation’s Conscience Keeper is about accountability. It’s is a book about transparency, it is about that vital quality in society of which we seem to have created a huge deficit of, namely, public ethics.
Manmohan Singh chose for reasons, which can only be speculated, to ignore the warning signals. Or else, when Raja writes to him about what he had done, the Prime Minster replies:
Dear Sri Raja,
I have received your letter, dated 26th December regarding the recent developments in the telecom sector.
With warm regards,
Why not add a line: “Well done.”
As things stand today, Manmohan Singh finds himself pushed into a very tight corner. Speaking out would possibly be as damaging as not speaking. His supposedly immaculate clean image is in tatters. The crucial issue is: what about the Congress Party and its chief Sonia Gandhi, without whose direct knowledge and active collusion he could never have proceeded or closed his eyes to whatever was going on in his government.
The thrust of Vinod Rai’s exposure is that the all-devouring rot of corruption started right from the beginning of UPA I, and not with the well-known so-called DMK-inspired scandals.
Vinod Rai, the former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) who made waves with his scathing reports on the 2G, coal blocks, and Commonwealth Games scams under UPA, has actually put his finger on what possibly was the fountainhead of all scams, but is less noticed in all the brouhaha over Manmohan Singh’s doings. And it’s the quiet acquiescence in his ministers’ wrongdoing very early in the UPA rule. This scam involves the sinking of Air India through the efforts of the then Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel.
Among the things Rai told Times Now in an interview, the most revealing were his observations on Patel’s role in Air India’s rush towards insolvency and financial disaster.
Need 32, Buy 68
Rai’s tells us that while the Air India board was keen to order 28 new planes from Boeing, Patel “nudged” the board at a meeting on 2 August 2004, to buy 40 more planes - 68 in all and look at the “long-term perspective”. This sent the total cost of the planes soaring to Rs. 38,000 crore, most of it debt.
The interesting bits are what Rai said next: the moment he sought to put the word “nudged” in his draft report - sent to the government for comments - “all hell broke loose.” He deposed in the Times Now interview: “Bureaucrats of all hues, serving and retired, including Air India officials, started approaching us to drop the word. The funny part is that just about everyone dispatched to plead with us against the usage of the word nudge…almost everyone acknowledged that the minister had nudged Air India. ”
The word nudged was removed from the final CAG report on Air India, but the fact is the minister’s intervention at the Air India board meeting was more an order than just a nudge, as Jitendra Bhargava, former Executive Director of Air India, recorded in his book, The Descent of Air India. The fact that pressures were applied in this case too stood proven earlier this year, when Bloomsbury, the publishers of Bhargava’s book, apologized to Patel and withdrew the book.
But the fact that Air India subsequently needed a bailout of Rs. 30,000 crore to stay afloat proves that Patel was instrumental in pushing the airline towards financial ruin. Rai did not elaborate on Patel’s interventions in Air India, but one can deduce he smelt a rat from his replies to Arnab Goswami, the channel’s anchor:
We found it (the minister’s intervention on buying more planes) strange because these proposals are always examined in the finance ministry and the finance ministry was not convinced about it. But the finance ministry wrote that this is a supply side, supply-driven proposal. Which means just because you have bought more aircraft doesn’t mean that Air India is going to come out of the red but, the more damaging part of it was, 97 percent of this purchase amount was going to be debt. I don’t think any airline can survive by such a huge debt. And then, on the other side, you were following (an) open skies policy wherein all private aircraft, private airlines were allowed to fly…
Four conclusions can be drawn from Rai’s interview replies and his book’s disclosures:
First, the decision to overload Air India with excessive debt at a time of high competition in the aviation sector was a veritable death-blow. Patel was thus instrumental in bringing Air India to its knees, and as a businessman himself, he could not have been unaware of the damage his “nudge” would cause an already loss-making national carrier. Which invisible hand was determining the decision, you are bound to wonder.
Secondly, the UPA was into scams almost from its inception and not just towards its later years as is generally made out. Remember, the Air India board meeting took place in August 2004 − barely two-and-a-half months after UPA-1 took over. It is more than likely that Patel’s brazen decision to take his own decisions in his ministry, despite the concerns of the finance minister, set the stage for more brazen scams elsewhere. The Dayanidhi Maran and A Raja scams in telecom came much later. Patel was from the NCP, a small time partner compared to the DMK in UPA. After Patel arm-twisting of Air India, DMK must have figured that it could run its own scam(s) without the PM or FM being able to intervene.
Thirdly, the main thrust of Rai’s arguments is that Manmohan Singh knew about all the scams that were brewing and failed to act - implying a gross dereliction of duty. It is equally clear that Finance Minister P Chidambaram also did little more than murmur about it. Both Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram knew something was wrong, but played along with the antics of their coalition partners to stay entrenched in positions of power.
Fourthly, since it is no one’s case that either Manmohan Singh or Chidambaram had any personal axe to grind in the Air India, 2G or Coalgate scams, one conclusion is inescapable: these scams had the explicit or implied sanction of the highest political authority in the Congress party − Sonia Gandhi. It is, of course, possible even for Sonia to plead ignorance, or for her party men to claim that in a coalition, the PM had limited powers to discipline partners who were vital to government formation and its continuation. But the fact that an “honest” PM did not even see it fit to resign and a no-nonsense FM was willing to stand financial nonsense from a junior coalition partner, tells us how low accountability had sunk in UPA-1 right at the start of its life.
One can thus conclude UPA had a wink-and-nod attitude to corruption and scams from its very birth, and this fact is difficult to deny anymore. Neither Sonia Gandhi, nor Manmohan Singh nor P Chidambaram can afford to claim innocence anymore. Weren’t they all in cahoots? Public perception of these scandals − and this is what really matters in a democracy − is that the entire team was in one way or the other involved in those shady goings-on.
Justification of Silence
With all this sordid record now in public domain, why is Manmohan Singh silent? And the entire phalanx of the Congress party spearheaded by sycophant veterans like Abhishek Singhvi has sprung up to rubbish Rai’s statements. The purpose is simple: to douse the fires that are closing in on the former Prime Minister before they engulf 10 Janpath − a synonym for Sonia Gandhi − who certainly was aware of, if not actively involved in, what was happening in the corridors of power. If Sonia Gandhi gets enmeshed, that is the end of the Party. Hence, the desperate attempt to protect her by making a scapegoat of Manmohan Singh.
Isn’t this the real reason for Manmohan Singh’s Sphinx-like silence? Cynics would interpret this as his way of paying back the Congress president doing the honor of letting him continue as Prime Minister for a decade. Never mind the fact that he stepped into South Bloc in 2004 as an icon of the middle classes, and went out in 2014 as a miserably failed leader, his personal integrity severely compromised by his failure to prevent corruption that profusely bled the exchequer and severely debilitated the credibility of UPA governments.
The second reason for silence is that anything he says now would be juxtaposed against his initial remarks on the scams in Parliament where he had rebutted the CAG’s findings. With the coal ministry directly under his charge for some time, Singh had particularly repudiated the CAG report on Coalgate, charging CAG of proceeding on flawed premises, selective readings of opinions given by the Department of Legal Affairs and ignoring practical realities of policy implementation. He also faulted the CAG methodology used to estimate the supposed ‘loss’ of revenue to the exchequer.
It has been a similar story with regard to 2G, with Singh flip-flopping on it whether or how much he knew about the way in which the controversial allocations were made. He offered to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (even when there was no precedent for it) to place the facts of the case before the panel, but when the Joint Parliamentary Committee probing the matter demanded his appearance, he rejected it.
The third reason for why he may not break his silence is that once a leader offers his version, others involved in the affair are bound to come out with their versions of events. In short, it’s a case of a book for a book. Remember Sonia’s retort of writing her own version to bring out the real facts to counter Natwar Singh’s revelations in his autobiography One Life is Not Enough?
All said, Manmohan Singh has, while alive, chosen to entomb himself into a sepulchral silence. Meanwhile, a torrent of tomes that his one-time aides have launched show him in very dim light: Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister, former Coal Secretary P C Parakh’s Crusader or Conspirator, and now Vinod Rai’s Not Just an Accountant and the damaging interview ahead of the release of his book.
Continued to “Shouldn’t an Accountability Commission Probe Manhohan Singh’s Sound of Silence?”