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Coal-tainted PM says it wasn’t me, names Patel, PMO issues denial

Written By Krishna on Monday, September 17, 2012 | 7:39 AM

What Manmohan told Sonia in crucial August 31 meeting
Coal-tainted PM says it wasn’t me, names Patel

Sonia’s all-powerful political secy Ahmed Patel cut to size after PM’s revelation last fortnight

Lakshmi Iyer

“The time for big bang reforms has come. If we have to go down, we go down fighting.”

- Manmohan Singh while chairing a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs on Friday

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s new combative stance is not limited to Big Bang announcements like Foreign Direct Investment in retail and aviation.

On August 31, the day he returned from the Non Aligned Summit in Tehran, Manmohan Singh met UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and communicated to her that his office had cleared the coal block allotment on the recommendation of her political secretary Ahmed Patel.

Changing equations: Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Ahmed Patel

Sources close to the development say this has been possibly his boldest political move in this term as Prime Minister and stemmed from his frustration at the drubbing he was getting in the media and the aspersions being cast on his integrity.

Ahmed Patel is one of Sonia Gandhi’s closest aides — he has been her political secretary since 2000, and she is known to rely on him greatly in the running of the Congress Party.

Washing his hands of the tainted coal block allotment, Dr Singh made it clear to Sonia Gandhi that he had no role or interest in determining who the beneficiaries should be.

As he laid the blame for coal allotment squarely at the Congress’ door, the PM explained that his then principal secretary T K A Nair had merely coordinated the allotment decision as desired by Ahmed Patel.

While Nair, who is now an advisor to the PM, was not available for comment, Ahmed Patel categorically denied having any say in coal block allocation. “I have not made any recommendation,” he said.

Sources say the timing of this meeting-just four days after Sushma Swaraj's comment about the Congress earning “mota maal” (fat sum) from coal block allotment — was crucial.

While the Prime Minister had countered Sushma in Parliament with a now not-so cryptic couplet about the virtues of silence (Hazaaron jawaabon se achchhee hai merii Khamoshii/ na jaane kitne sawaalon ki aabroo rakkhe), a livid Sonia Gandhi had lashed out at the BJP for making unsubstantiated allegations. However after her meeting with the

Prime Minister Sonia Gandhi personally reached out to Sushma Swaraj to restore normal functioning of the Parliament.

But the biggest fallout of the meeting was Mrs Gandhi’s quick response to the Prime Minister's revelations. In a move, bound to reassure him, she conveyed to Ahmed Patel that she was not happy with his role in the coal block allotments.

This was done while she was abroad for her medical check-up last fortnight. In another clear signal of his fall from grace, the Congress chief held a

strategy meeting with Rahul Gandhi and old party warhorses like ML Fotedar, RK Dhawan and Suman Dubey while keeping out her political secretary, something almost unthinkable until recently.

“There is every possibility Ahmed Patel may return to his old job as treasurer of the Party while the task of devising political strategy may be taken up by a select panel of people or even that a senior leader like Digvijay Singh might get chosen to step into Patel’s shoes,” said a senior party functionary on the condition that this newspaper not name him.

Used to a quiescent Prime Minister, Dr Singh’s plain speak on the powerful political secretary has shocked many and will no doubt change the power equations within the party. What surprised Congressmen most is the fact that the Prime Minister chose to bring up for discussion what has been an open and prickly party secret.

What was the PM referring to?

Sources said the PM was referring to nearly half of the allotment of 142 coal blocks between July 2004 and 2011 that have been pointed out by the Comptroller and Auditor general as faulty.

Out of the One hundred and forty two, 75 coal blocks were allotted to private parties and 67 to government-owned public sector undertakings. Out of the 75 allotted to private parties, 57 recipients were allotted blocks with open cast or mixed mines, of which 56 were not mined at all.

Sources pointed out that the CAG itself has recorded that initially the PMO in its meetings and communications with Coal Ministry — July 25, 2005 and August 9, 2005 — had pressed for operationalizing competitive bidding as that would enable the Government to tap “windfall profit” accruing to companies that were allocated captive coal blocks.

However instead of ushering in competitive bidding through an executive order in July 2006, it dragged its feet for six years under political pressure to notify changes in law.

"Denial by PMO on Pune Mirror newspaper report":

The attention of the Prime Minister's Office has been drawn to a news story published in Pune Mirror today, 15th September, 2012.
The allegation that the Prime Minister talked to the UPA Chairperson and communicated to her that his office had cleared the coal block allotment on the recommendation of her political secretary is completely untrue. This is a scurrilous, irresponsible and mischievous report. It is hoped that other newspapers or media outlets do not reproduce or repeat the baseless story.

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