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Walking on hot coals

A.M. Jigeesh
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A view of North Block and Parliament House. — V.V. Krishnan
A view of North Block and Parliament House. — V.V. Krishnan

The coming week promises to be a testing time for the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. The three reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), tabled on Friday, provide enough fodder for the Opposition to resume an all-out assault on Tuesday, as Parliament reconvenes after a long weekend.

Of the three reports, it is the one pertaining to the allocation of coal blocks for captive mining by private players during 2004-09 — when the Coal Ministry was for a substantial period directly under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s charge — that would be the focus of the Opposition’s attack.

The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has already gone to the extent of demanding Manmohan Singh’s resignation — for being “morally, politically and personally responsible” for the Rs 1,86,000 crore presumptive financial gain to the private parties estimated by the CAG report from the allocation of the coal blocks sans any competitive bidding.

The Government will find it difficult to negotiate a stormy Parliament over the next few days, unless it manages to divert attention to other issues. It is counting on scheduling discussions in both Houses on subjects of topical relevance, which the Opposition cannot possibly ignore.

OTHER ISSUES

The first one relates to the drought situation across the country arising from the deficient monsoon. The notice for this was, in fact, given by the BJP member and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Ravi Shankar Prasad.

The same holds for the Lok Sabha, where an Opposition member — the Communist Party of India’s Gurudas Dasgupta — has sought to initiate a discussion on the current economic slowdown and persistent inflation in essential articles of consumption. The Government, in turn, plans to field Finance Minister P Chidambaram to reply to the debate.

“We are ready for debating these issues under any format (adjournment motion, calling attention or short duration discussion) that the Opposition wants. After all, there are so many issues of public importance apart from just the CAG report, not to speak of key Bills pending passage”, Rajeev Shukla, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and a seasoned Congress trouble-shooter, told Business Line.

Another Minister, who did not want to be quoted, said that one option under consideration is to have the Prime Minister himself make a statement in both Houses on the CAG report’s findings.

“If required, we can even agree for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe subject to monitoring by the courts, as demanded by the Opposition. If this is not acceptable, we can settle for a Joint Parliamentary Committee enquiry (similar to that in respect of the 2G spectrum allocation controversy). But let them make the demand first”, he added.

While it may not be easy for the BJP to come down from a maximalist position — of nothing less than Manmohan Singh stepping down — the Government is, however, hoping for less hostility from other opposition parties. None of them, including the Left parties, have so far explicitly called for the Prime Minister’s resignation over ‘Coalgate’.

BLACK MONEY

Besides drought and the country’s general economic situation, the Government is willing to also discuss black money and steps being taken to bring back illegal monies stashed in overseas tax havens.

This is an issue that the Opposition cannot again totally ignore, especially after the high-decibel fast protest that Baba Ramdev undertook in the national capital just before Independence Day.

If things do not go all that badly for the Government, one can expect it to even take up some legislative business during the course of the week. These include the Banking Laws (Amendment) Bill to enhance the voting rights cap for individual shareholders in private sector banks from 10 to 26 per cent and the Whistleblowers’ Protection Bill. The latter, already passed in the Lok Sabha, provides a mechanism to receive complaints relating to disclosures on allegations of corruption against any public servant. The whistleblowers in these cases would be provided adequate safeguards against victimisation.

The Union Cabinet may also meet this week to approve amendments to the Land Acquisition Bill for its introduction and passage in the current monsoon session. The final contours of this Bill have more or less been worked out, with the Government rejecting the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s recommendation that the state should have no role in acquiring land for projects promoted by private companies or under public-private-partnership, even if these are intended for “public purposes”.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 20, 2012)
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