I was at the India Today Conclave in Mumbai a few days ago and heard Sonia Gandhi say that Dr Manmohan Singh was the most honest man she knew. That is also the popular perception. But honesty is not a black and white matter. There is a wide spectrum that stretches between honesty and truth. You can be honest without being truthful as Yudhishtra showed when he told Drona that Ashvathama was dead. This is not to compare Yudhishtra with Manmohan Singh, or vice versa. For a start, Yudhishtra was a warrior with a fine understanding of Dharma. Look at how he answered the Yaksha at the poisoned pool. To my mind what defined him was how at the end of the road of life he refused to ascend to heaven leaving the little dog, which accompanied him on his final and arduous, climb to the next world. I don’t think MMS would have passed that test of loyalty.
Some years ago I got a call from Bloomberg news service from Hong Kong, who were doing a story on then RBI governor Raghuram Rajan. After the usual initial questions such as what I think of him and his performance at the RBI, they had an interesting set of questions: (1) Do I think he is going to enter politics?; (2) Do I think he will join the government as finance minister? And (3) Do I think he was Prime Minister material?
My answers were: (1) No; (2) Maybe; and (3) Maybe, if a 2004-type situation repeated itself with an alliance without an acceptable leader. In that case, his story will be very different from that of Manmohan Singh. He has a mind of his own and has shown the courage to stand his ground. In both of which MMS was hugely lacking. One time Dean Nelson, then the New Delhi correspondent of London’s Daily Telegraph, called me for a comment on the CBI special court naming Dr Manmohan Singh as an accused in what has come to be known as the Coalgate scam. He wanted to know whether I thought MMS was corrupt? And whether he deserved this at the fag end of a lifetime of achievement and distinguished public service? This was my comment then. People generally are shocked that MMS was accused of corruption. They didn’t need Sonia Gandhi’s endorsement of MMS to make up their minds on him. Sonia Gandhi said: “The former Prime Minister is known not only in our country but throughout the world as being a person of integrity and probity”. Marching along with the somewhat less than august company of P. Chidambaram, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Veerappa Moily, Ambika Soni and Anand Sharma, she said: “It is why we are here to offer our unstinted support, our solidarity”. That imagery tells all. But what did I think? I did not think MMS was corrupt in the narrow sense of the term in that he did not seek illegal gratification for his actions. But this Coalgate matter was not as open and shut as that.
First, there is the note that was put up by the coal secretary recommending that the leases be auctioned and given to the best bidders. This would have ensured transparency and would have substantially bolstered the public exchequer. The fact that the recent round of auctions earned the State a huge Rs 2.07 lakh crores only serves to substantiate this. The PM, who was also the coal minister, had endorsed this, but responding to pressures from within his government, party and the CMs of coal-producing states (including BJP-ruled states), reverted back to the old system of allocating mining rights. This clearly implies that he was aware that the system followed was iniquitous and bestowed huge profits to well-connected businessmen. This clearly exposes him to charges of willfully causing losses and breach of trust. I also told him that Dr Manmohan Singh was reaping the rewards due to a lifetime of pusillanimity and that he had cultivated the art of looking the other way when wrongdoing was happening. As it happened on the 2G matter, where the concerned minister willfully disobeyed him and the corrupt Congress leadership forced him to go along with it. I added that Dr Manmohan Singh might be able to mount a defence that lower coal prices were in the public interest as they enabled lower electricity prices and reduced power sector losses, and hence a huge outflow of government funds. While this may make a valid argument, the real problem would be in convincing a lower court judge given the complexity of the issue.
The big question here is whether the people should directly benefit by lower electricity charges or whether the State should benefit by getting the highest prices on behalf of the people? When the 2G “scam” had surfaced thanks to the then CAG’s report, I argued that the CAG had erred as auctioning would only mean that mobile phone users would have to pay higher charges, as the circle operators will have to do so to recover their considerably higher investment. The 4G circles have now been sold for Rs 93,000 crores, and once the payments become due, we can all expect higher voice and data charges. The relationship between circle costs and user charges are direct and easily apparent. But I also argued at that time that the coal lease allocations were dicey considering we had knowledge of what the lessees were doing. For instance, Anil Ambani’s Reliance Power was merrily selling coal mined from its Sasan coal lease to customers at market prices and was raking in huge prices, whereas it was expressly given the lease for exclusive use in its Sasan power plant. The CBI is expected to file charges on this, but will the Narendra Modi government pursue a man who has described Mr Modi as a “king among kings” and as great as Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel? Will the Modi government prosecute a man who also bankrolls the BJP?