Coal-Gate: What was the law minister thinking when he altered report?

Last Updated: Mon, Apr 22, 2013 18:02 hrs

The meeting between Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and a team of Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officers took place in early March. Whether the meeting took place in his office or residence is not clear. The issue was the review of the status report on the coal blocks allotment scam to be submitted to the Supreme Court.

Harin Raval, the additional solicitor general, was not present. Goolam E Vahanvati, the attorney general (AG), came in towards the tail end of the meeting, but he left the room because Kumar seemed busy with some documents, looked up, noted the AG's presence, and without greeting him, only asked what "UMPP" stood for. When the AG sensed his assistance was not required, he left.

Changes were made in the status report pertaining to references to coal ministers, present and past, and some MPs who have interests in coal and liquefied gas. The changed affidavit was then scanned on the computer and sent to an official of the rank of joint secretary in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). More changes were made at that end. The final draft was then presented to the court.

The problem is CBI's original report is believed to have pointed out that irregularities in coal block allotments made in 2006-09 during UPA-1 were done without verifying the credentials of companies which allegedly misrepresented facts about themselves.

A week later, on March 12, Raval, who was representing CBI, told the Supreme Court that the report had not been previewed by the government. The judges then asked the CBI director to submit a written guarantee by April 25 that the document had not been shared with "the political executive."

Television reports quoting unnamed sources in PMO concede the changes were made by an "overenthusiastic law minister" but add that these pertained only to grammatical errors. Other lawyers in the government believe it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will buy this theory.

A top government source says gloomily that this spells more trouble for the government because perjury is a serious offence. The issue then is: What were Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and his legal team thinking when the changes were made? Were the law officers of the government of India complicit in this? Did PMO authorise the changes in a legal document keeping the prime minister in the loop?

"Parliament is unlikely to function" says a minister shaking his head. "The opposition will seize on this and unite on it because it is what they have always suspected: that CBI is a plaything of the government". Parliament opens on April 22.

At the heart of the controversy is Kumar. Wags say he was appointed at the behest of the "Kaur Group" as opposed to the 'Core Group'. But this is true that he was handpicked by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and made a minister in the last reshuffle.

Kumar's standing as a lawyer may have influenced the prime minister's choice, but other ministers have noted that at Cabinet meetings it is to Kapil Sibal and P Chidambaram that the prime minister always tends to turn to when it comes to a second opinion on legal matters.

Kumar was relatively young when he became a senior advocate in the Supreme Court (around 36) and he was additional solicitor general during the short-lived Chandrashekhar government. He is considered stubborn and obdurate, and certainly not a pushover. It is this trait that annoyed Rohinton Nariman, solicitor general, who resigned from his post following words with the law minister.

That leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj attended a party at Nariman's official residence may have strengthened the government's - and the law minister's - suspicions about a law officer of the government who was socialising with opposition leaders.

Kumar's family background shows his loyalty to the Congress. His father, Prabodh Chander, was a freedom fighter and leading Congress leader in Punjab. He was education minister for seven to eight years and belonged to Gurdaspur. He was also speaker of the Punjab Assembly. Kumar, however, was educated at St. Stephen's College in Delhi and thereafter at Delhi University.

His initial mentor was the late Arjun Singh, though Punjab Congress leaders were surprised when he was made law minister. "He has absolutely zero mass base or following in his home state. He has never fought an election, Lok Sabha or assembly," a Punjab Congress leader says. Unlike his Rajya Sabha colleagues like Ambika Soni, also from Punjab, Kumar does not carry any clout within the party in his state. When he tried to intercede in favour of Vinod Khanna to get him a nomination from Punjab, his request was declined.

But Kumar's faith in himself is what has kept him going. A peon who was nearing superannuation was posted in the law ministry. Finding it hard to commute between the courts and the ministry, he requested the minister to grant him a transfer. Kumar made him sit down and explained how the peon was witnessing a great historical transformation that India was undergoing facilitated by the law ministry. The peon's answer was that the law minister might be the harbinger of the dawn of a new era in India, and he was young enough to do it, but "I'm too old to help you in this historic endeavour; so I would be grateful if you could transfer me".

Kumar, lawyers believe, is in a pickle. The Supreme Court, they say, will decide his fate.

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