The ministry of petroleum and natural gas has always been a hotbed of corporate intrigue and rivalry. Every minister has had to face charges of being pro or anti one or two large corporate houses with interests in the oil and gas sector.
“This ministry has always been a battleground for rival corporate groups,” said a former senior petroleum ministry bureaucrat seeking anonymity.
However, leakgate is not the first incident of espionage in the oil ministry. In 1998, V. Balasubramaniam (Balu), then India’s foremost lobbyist and Reliance Industries’ man in Delhi, was charged and arrested under the Officials Secret Act. He was booked for possessing confidential government documents including Cabinet notes and minutes of meetings marked “secret”, mostly related to the oil ministry.
Since then, journalists covering the ministry and retired as well as serving bureaucrats would discuss, off the record, how one or another corporate group was influencing policy for their own benefit.
The grapevine would often buzz with gossip about leaked documents finding their way to corporate houses, but no major wrongdoing came to light.
In June 2013, then petroleum minister Veerappa Moily had the opposition parties up in arms when he claimed that petroleum ministers were “threatened” by import lobbies, a shorthand for the vast network of public and private sector companies who benefit from the $150 billion (`9 lakh crore) India spends on importing oil every year.
But on Friday, Moily refused to comment on whether he had received any complaints of espionage during his tenure.
“I don’t want to get into it. I don’t want to make any general sweeping remarks,” he told HT.
Moily, however, took a dig at oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan saying: “The theft took place in the minister’s office. He owes an explanation for this. You toughen your administration. Why should you blame anybody?”
He added: “You can’t say it has been happening since my grandfather’s time.”
Pradhan declined to comment, saying he would do so only after the investigation is over.
The appointment of a minister considered very close to a particular industrial house had raised eyebrows a few years ago.
When Jaipal Reddy was shifted from the petroleum to the science and technology ministry in 2012, it had stoked yet another controversy, with some opposition parties including the BJP attributing it to pressures from industrial houses.
In 2006, when Mani Shankar Aiyer was removed from the oil ministry, there were allegations of US pressure.