Coalgate returned to haunt the ruling UPA on Wednesday, with the Opposition training its guns once again on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was coal minister at the time of the controversy.
The latest assault on Singh, whose administration has lurched from one crisis to the other, was sparked by comments from former coal secretary PC Parakh, accused by the CBI of irregularities in the allocation of coal blocks.
Parakh told HT in Hyderabad that the PM took the final decision on allocating the blocks, which are at the centre of a controversy that has dogged the government for the past year and could hurt its attempts to secure a fresh term of office in general elections in around seven months' time.
“The Prime Minister, as the coal minister, took the final decision (on coal block allotments),” he said.
Parakh said there had been no conspiracy and decisions were taken on merit, but added that if the CBI saw a conspiracy then, " I, who examined the merits and recommended it and also the Prime Minister, who as coal minister took the decision are equal participants.”
Yashwant Sinha, a former BJP finance minister, latched on to the remarks.
“We're all aware of the fact he (Singh) was coal minister during the period of the scam and every coal block allotment was done with his signature," he said. "How can the prime minister escape responsibility?"
CPI (M) leader Sitaram Yechury called for “a thorough revelation of who did what and on what basis”.
"The fact remains that coal scam is monumental corruption and at that time the coal minister was the prime minister... So every coal allotment has happened with his signature and, therefore, he has to take final responsibility," BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said.
The opposition started asking for the PM's exit after national auditor Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in a report last year suggested that the arbitrary allocation of coalfields may have robbed the exchequer of potential revenues of Rs. 1.86 lakh crore between 2004 and 2009. The PM even delivered a televised defence after the CAG report was tabled, a measure of the seriousness of the issue.
In the Rajya Sabha this August, Singh lost his cool in Parliament after opposition MPs – who have been disrupting Parliament over missing coal ministry files – questioned his integrity.
Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari echoed the PM's stand that the matter is between the CBI and Supreme Court -- which is monitoring the probe -- but didn’t miss the opportunity to hit back at the Opposition. The BJP is a "self-firing automatic weapon which is unfortunately full of blanks," Tewari said.
The CBI on Tuesday lodged a case against Parakh and Aditya Birla group chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla for alleged irregularities in the allocation of two coal blocks in Odisha in 2005.
The CBI, which is probing allegations of irregularities in coal block allocations to power and steel companies since 1993 in a Supreme Court-monitored investigation, also carried out searches at Mumbai, Delhi, Bhubaneshwar and Secunderabad.
The company concerned denied any wrongdoing.
“To imply that our chairman managed to overturn the decision of the Screening Committee, is preposterous,” D.Bhattacharya, Managing Director, Hindalco, an Aditya Birla group company, said in a statement.
The CBI's decision to file a case against Birla provoked strong remarks from business and government leaders.
“While no one is above the law and wrong doers have to be brought to justice, we must ensure that such actions are based on hard facts and do not create an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty,” said Sachin Pilot, corporate affairs minister.
“Recent incidents will certainly dampen business confidence and investment sentiment, both domestic and foreign; and perhaps also negatively affect decision making by bureaucrats and policy makers," he added.
(With PTI inputs)