Government in deep crisis over CBI affidavit on coal mines

New Delhi: The beleaguered Manmohan Singh government yesterday appeared to be in deep political crisis after the opposition demanded Law Minister Ashwani Kumar’s resignation for vetting a CBI affidavit meant only for the Supreme Court on the coal blocks allocation.

In its two-page affidavit, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) chief Ranjit Sinha told the Supreme Court that it had “shared” its March 8 status report on investigations into coal blocks allocation with Ashwani Kumar and senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and the coal ministry.

Ashwani Kumar, the man in the eye of the storm, said he has “not done any wrong” and “truth will prevail”.

The supposedly independent CBI’s disclosure could spell more trouble for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and could have ramifications for even the prime minister, who held the coal minister’s portfolio in UPA-I during the allocation of coal blocks now under scrutiny.

The developments led to a political storm, with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left parties demanding the resignation of Ashwani Kumar and disrupting parliament over the issue. The issue has given the opposition yet another stick with which to beat the government, already battling a public perception of being corrupt and inept.

The government has ruled out the law minister’s resignation.

Government sources said if the law minister is removed, the prime minister could be next in the line of fire. The official auditor, the CAG, has found large-scale irregularities in awarding lucrative mining contracts to private companies. The contracts covered over 100 mines across the country.

Sensing trouble, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi was huddled in a meeting with the prime minister, along with senior ministers, to discuss the future strategy. Gandhi also held consultations with other UPA partners to ensure the legislative business of parliament was not affected in the rremaining two weeks of parliament’s budget session.

Finding no better way to wriggle out of the sticky situation, the government chose to defend the law minister and buy time till April 30 when the apex court is expected to pass an order in the case.

“The CBI director has clearly said that the draft report was seen by the law minister and not the final report. There is no question of him (Ashwani Kumar) resigning,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath told reporters.

According to informed sources, Ashwani Kumar’s fate hangs in the balance till April 30, when the apex court is expected to pass an observation on Sinha’s disclosure. If it criticises the the law minister, he may have to go.

Though it may amplify the demand for Manmohan Singh’s resignation, there was no chance of the government going, said the sources.

Highly-placed sources said that the CBI shared the status report as it was probing the private firms which allegedly misrepresented their information while applying for mining licenses.

“As the prime minister was then the coal minister (in UPA-I), the CBI had to discuss the case with the Prime Minister’s Office,” sources said.

The CBI director, in his affidavit said: “I submit that the draft of the same (March 8 status report) was shared with honourable union minister for law and justice as desired by him prior to its submission before the honourable court.”

The affidavit said that “besides the political executive, it was also shared with one joint secretary level officer each of the Prime Minister’s Office and ministry of coal, as desired by them”.

The CBI director also told the court that the investigating agency’s status report of April 26 has been personally vetted by him and not shared with anyone, including the political executive.

Sinha promised the court that henceforth the probe’s status reports in the coal scam will not be shared with the political executive.

Government sources said it is normal for the law minister to take a look at any affidavit before it is filed before the court.

“The law minister is expected to concur with any affidavit before it is submitted in a court. The idea is to ensure that the government’s views are put in the right perspective,” said a senior government official.

The opposition came down heavily on the Congress-led government, accusing it of interfering in the CBI’s work, with Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley saying the government has been caught with its “pants down”.

Communist Party of India leader Gurudas Dasgupta termed it as “very atrocious and unprecedented”.

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