UPA’s zero intolerance games can subtract from its fortunes, not add
Only zeroes and losers, and not heroes and doers, in public life resort to numeric nuances to counter a nemesis of numbers. When Finance Minister P Chidambaram claimed that there was a zero loss” to the public exchequer in the arbitrary allotment of coal blocks, he was speaking more like an advocate than an achiever. It wasn’t expected from a successful former home minister to simply copy the idea of “zero loss” from fellow lawyer-turned- Union Minister for Communications Kapil Sibal. It was he who authored the principle of ‘zero loss’ in the allotment of 2G licences but cleverly refrained from repeating his opinion after much media and political bashing. Yet another erudite colleague, Law Minister Salman Khurshid, who sat next to Chidambaram, chose to keep quiet on the zero sum game. However, Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal was totally at sea as he couldn’t defend the actions that were taken during the period when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in charge of the coal portfolio.
Chidambaram should have realised that he was chosen to fight and win a battle of perception, and not performance. For the past two years, UPA II has been paralysed and has been prevented by both its allies and the Opposition from taking any productive decision. The government has to deal with innumerable scams that keep tumbling out of the CAG closet and from elsewhere. While the Opposition is ratcheting up its mission to tar the government’s image successfully, UPA leaders are fighting a losing battle by resorting to zeroes again and again. The Opposition has mastered the art of inflicting wounds in a calibrated manner. They first trained their guns on a weak UPA ally in the 2G scam—the DMK. Then they made former Maharashtra chief ministers soft targets to reinforce the ruling party’s tainted image. To demolish the UPA’s credibility, now they have singled out Manmohan Singh, the clean and honest face of the government. Ministers like Chidambaram have an uphill task of not only defending the indefensible but also of saving and salvaging the image of those who have won or influenced the outcome of elections in the past. Since the finance minister’s name is being whispered as one of the prime ministerial candidates, he has been given an envious task of protecting his own political relevance.
Undoubtedly, genuine questions can be raised about the figures concerning the monumental loss the government would have suffered by avoiding the coal block auction route. Chidambaram rightly put it when he said that if the mines were not mined, then where is the loss? But there is equally strong counter-argument. According to Naresh Gujral, senior Akali Dal Rajya Sabha member, the share prices of most of the listed companies who got the coal blocks rose by 100 to 800 per cent soon after they received their allotment papers. The government may not have lost anything but the companies made humongous gains. According to Gujral, JSPL’s share value rose from Rs 46 in July 2006 to Rs 550 in December 2007; Sterlite’s from Rs 70 to Rs 270, JSW Steel’s from Rs 200 to Rs 1,400 and Reliance Power’s issue price was fixed at Rs 450 against its face value of Rs 10.
Chidambaram was at his best defending the government, especially soon after the Supreme Court rejected petitions seeking his inclusion as an accused in the 2G cases. He enjoys credibility and dependability for the delivery of what he promises. During his three-and-a-half-year tenure as home minister, no major terror attack happened in India. Earlier, as finance minister, he introduced innovative economic reforms. He is a master number-cruncher and an exceptional combination of a legal eagle and a creative argument-smith. But his political loyalty betrayed his confidence in algorithmic reality. Around 600 AD, Aryabhata invented the zero as part of his positional decimal number system that later used the letter “kha” as a placeholder. But it was Brahmagupta who developed the concept of the zero as an independent number and wrote rules for adding and subtracting it from other numbers—a zero can’t be used independently. It can either be added or subtracted from a number. The zero is a positive numeral and not a negative one. The CAG may have added few extra zeroes in its quest to calculate presumptive losses, but the loss itself can’t be denied. It is like saying the government hasn’t suffered any loss because the thief hasn’t sold any public property so far.
The government is justified in finding fault with the numbers, but it has launched a vicious campaign against the institution of the CAG and given a potent weapon to the Opposition to damage the UPA further. With election-wary allies, the government may not fall even if BJP MPs resign from the Lok Sabha. However, its authority and acceptability will be further eroded if it is not able to fight its adversaries politically. With a divided Opposition like the BJP and NDA, the Congress and Chidambaram do not need an enemy. They need a new idea and not just a zero. Chidambaram could have come up with a brighter idea—buy back the coal blocks from the allottees after returning the allotment fee along with simple interest and then auction them according to rules. Adding one zero to another will only yield more zeroes.
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