Though this was not the first time a former prime minister was summoned as accused in a criminal case but summoning Singh in this case sent ripples across the political fraternity and even leaders of the opposite camp expressed shock over observations made against him.
In a big relief for former prime minister, the Supreme Court has stayed the summons issued to him in the coal block allocation scam case. The court has admitted Singh’s petition seeking to quash the summons issued to him by a special CBI court. Going by this latest development it seems that his appeal challenging the summon has put the issue on hold for a couple of more years.
Usually in such a petition, whenever the court finds that a substantial question of law has been raised by a petitioner requiring detailed hearing, which could span days together it grants leave or ‘admits’ the petitions to be heard later without assigning a date.
In this case too, the judges did not give any specific date for listing petitions including one filed by Singh. The registry also did not indicate any likely date for listing of the appeals. At present, the Supreme Court is hearing criminal petitions “admitted” by various benches in between 2009-2010. Therefore, in high probabilities, Singh’s case will not be heard before 2018. Earlier, while admitting special leave petitions of Singh and others, the bench said, “Since certain important substantial questions of law as well as the constitutional validity of Section 13(1)(d)(iii) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 are raised in the instant petitions, we are of the view that these matters require examination.”
In a 75-page order, Special Judge Bharat Parashar held there was prima facie evidence to suggest that Singh was part of the alleged criminal conspiracy and corrupt practice in the joint allocation of Talabira coal blocks (II and III) in Odisha to Hindalco, an Aditya Birla group company, in 2005. Earlier, Late Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao was made an accused and chargesheeted in three different cases, including the JMM MPs bribery case, but was acquitted in all of them.
Coalgate, as coined by the media, has left the nation in the middle of a controversy after it was found that the scam had cost the exchequer Rs 1.86 lakh crore as per the audit done by the national auditor. The amount was so huge that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to believe the CAG report, till recently, when he was finally convinced that the magnitude of the scam was so huge that it had left the national exchequer in astronomical losses.
An embarrassed country and a firm judiciary on September 24, in a landmark judgement, has revoked 214 coal blocks out of 218, allocated since 1993 and asked the concerned companies to wind up their operations by March 2015. The ruling was a strong signal to the private players, who put the nation in shame. It in turn led to a court monitored probe, where again a lot of taxpayers’ money was put on stake, who are again expecting a fare probe into the matter.
So far, the CBI has registered 20 FIRs which are an off-shoot to three preliminary enquiries related to coal block allocation between 2006 and 2009, between 1993 and 2004 and projects given under a government scheme. On March 30, 2015, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) provisionally attached assets worth Rs 2 crore belonging to former Union Minister of State for Coal Dasari Narayana Rao in connection with the scam. Since then, many trials have been conducted, innumerable people have been questioned, endless evidences have been placed and damage to the credibility of the previous government was irreparably done.
Undoubtedly, it will take years for the Congress party to win people’s confidence. Now with the change in government at the Centre, the scam seems refuses to die down and continues to haunt some of the influential people in the country. Many feel that much has been said and written about the ongoing probe, but with the series of latest developments – it is certainly going to be a “revisit to the scam” by many involved in the case and certainly for the media. The CBI sources said, “The ongoing probe is definitely going to put some of the influential behind bars.”
On the context of Kumar Mangalam Birla and Singh’s fate in the case, “There are evidences against them and it is documented in the file. Now it is up to the court to decide their fate. But all we can say that we have done an exhaustive probe into the scam, which is going to bring some bad news for many.” Till early 2014, things were “subtle” when it comes to the probe, but post May 2014 (after Narendra Modi took over as a new Prime Minister of India) – the investigation gathers momentum and on March 11, 2015, in a major embarrassment for the Congress, Singh along with industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla and former Coal Secretary P C Parakh were summoned on as “accused” in the scam.
The CBI special court has observed that Singh was roped into the criminal conspiracy to “accommodate” M/s HINDALCO in Odhisa’s Talabira-II coal block allocation in 2005, owned by Aditya Birla Group. Besides top brasses, the court also summoned M/s HINDALCO’s two including Shubhendu Amitabh and D Bhattacharya, as accused in the case. “Prima facie it is clear that the impugned criminal conspiracy, which was initially conceived by Shubhendu Amitabh and D Bhattacharya and Kumar Mangalam Birla and M/s HINDALCO, was carried out further by roping in P C Parakh, who was Secretary (Coal), and thereafter the then Minister of Coal, Manmohan Singh,” Special CBI Judge Bharat Parashar had said in his 73-page order. “It is also prima facie clear that though Secretary Coal and Minister of Coal were playing different roles, there was a concerted joint effort to somehow accommodate M/s HINDALCO in Talabira-II, coal block. It was the central common objective of the impugned criminal conspiracy known to all concerned,” Judge’s order reads.
“His (ex-PM) approval of the proposal put-forth by P C Parakh vide his note dated September 12, 2005 to accommodate M/s HINDALCO in Talabira-II and III coal block while ignoring the words of caution put-forth by K V Pratap and Javed Usmani, the two officers of PMO in their notes dated September 21, 2005 and September 26, 2005 respectively regarding relaxation of the already approved guidelines, again prima facie shows that there was a conscious effort on his part to somehow accommodate M/s HINDALCO in Talabira-II coal block,” he added.
All of them were charged with punishable offences under Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 409 (criminal breach of trust by public servant, or by banker, merchant or agent) of the IPC and under the provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA). “If found guilty, they might face punishment up to life imprisonment,” CBI sources said. Though, Singh has reacted firmly saying that he was upset with the summon accepting that this is part of life, but unfortunately till today he didn’t came out with a strong justification on why he should not be summoned by the court. With various ups and downs in the case, time will tell how and when the former prime minister will be able prove his innocence. The probe agency however feels that it would be tough as he was holding portfolios, where clearance of files related to coal blocks was impossible.