In public life there are five broad positions that one might be judged for: upright conduct and performance; improper and morally questionable behaviour; decision not sustainable in law; an honest mistake; conduct smacking of sleaze and graft deserving sanctions under criminal law. The tactical mistake made by our detractors in the Coal Blocks affair is that they did not or could not distinguish between the five; they an untidy manner slipped from one to another, causing considerable noise but shedding little light and certainly not covering themselves in glory.

They could have scored valuable points by biting what they could chew and maintaining a sense of proportion. There are aspects of Coal Policy on which reasonable people can disagree but that is all that can be said. Disagreement does not mean one side is wrong and the other right because there is an arguable case for holding that there is No right Answer only the Best answer according to the rules by which one approaches a subject.

Not engaging in a productive debate in Parliament is undoubtedly an indication of BJP's reluctance to let the truth and the whole truth emerge because they are part of the story and uncomfortably so. They prefer ex parte pronouncements and that too in the hope of confusing the five strands mentioned above to the extreme prejudice of the Congress party. One is reminded of Stalin's "scorched earth" policy and Hitler's infamous question put to his commanders, "Is Paris burning?" It is Opposition's job to 'oppose and if possible, depose' but when that is taken to the extreme of destruction of institutions and the economy, they should not forget that destroyed beyond repair our polity will become impossible for even those who wish to capture it through unfair means.

Many things are being argued about the Coal allocation issue and such allegations as deserve to be investigated are being or will be scrutinized dispassionately and independently. But more important questions remain untouched: is the doubt being cast on coal allocation an ideological one or a difference of management perceptions. The Left Front clearly believes that participation of private business is ipso facto unacceptable with or without auctions; on the other extreme there are people who are suggesting, though somewhat discreetly, that coal should be denationalised. These vastly varying and opposing positions must indeed be debated in a manner that makes them clear to the citizen and the latter's opinion equally clear to Parliament and government.

Lest we be accused of obfuscating the immediate concern it is important to address the things being said. To begin with since the CAG Report is being used as a sling to shoot barbs at the Congress party a few points need to emphasised. CAG did not say there was a loss to the Exchequer but did say 1.86 thousand crores windfall benefit accrued to the beneficiaries. What difference does it make? Well, if a negligent loss was caused it is one thing; if an unintended gain accrued to someone it is quite another; if the gain can be linked to quid pro quo or use of influence in conflict of interest situation it entirely different and calls for severest scrutiny and sanction. The problem, as stated above, is that the response being expressed for one charge legitimately belongs to another. Furthermore if the 1.86 figure is subject to the exclusion of 20 power related Blocks (that will not be auctioned because of competitive tariff bidding at the other end), 14 per cent royalty, and 33 per cent corporate tax on profits what will remain in the hands of beneficiaries. And the CAG Report itself says that auctions could have tapped only "some" of the profit in any case. Surprisingly the figure was not mentioned. As a result there is an actual or presumptive loss of money, confidence and reputation for the country when we can least afford it, not to mention the impact on our Parliamentary system. However we do have is a huge investment in mining, power, steel and cement, as well the jobs and downstream opportunities, the delay in making the Blocks operational notwithstanding.

The two other points  need to be laid to rest. First, that it was the UPA II that admitted as early as 2005 that auctions were imperative and yet delayed the switch and used the intervening period to allow undue benefits. One is reminded of the romantic question: "is it better to have loved and lost or not to have loved at all?" We thought that time had come to switch as the economy boomed to 9 per cent GDP growth and demand grew exponencially. But for a sustainable legal regime several decisions had to be undertaken. Was it possible to move ahead with administrative Orders alone? Was it the Coal Nationalisation Act 1973 or the Mines and Mineral Development and Regulation Act needed to be amended? Were the main stake holders, ie State Governments on board? Between 2005 when the idea was mooted and 2008 when legislation was moved and sent to the Standing Committee, and finally its passage in 2010 with Rules cleared in early 2012 with tough negotiations with States at every stage. Anyone familiar with legislative process and the time-lines involved would know that this is not in the least unusual. At the root of the Federal struggle was the right to choose and retain investment within the State as well as the proceeds of the auction etc. It was not till 2010 that we got the green flag.

The second point is whether during this period the process of allotting 57 Blocks  (20 to PSUs) should have been suspended? This is being asked as though the CAG Report is a sudden discovery. The Opposition wants to 'delete' from public domain the letters written by their CMs first to oppose auctions and then to support particular parties in the Screening Committee. If you want to see examples of incredulous expression on the face of public figures watch the BJP leaders closely when these letters are mentioned! We were clear that supply of raw material to the life-line of the economy could not be blocked for an indefinite period. But the Screening Committee process was strengthened considerably. No one complained: not the States, not the unsuccessful parties, nor any MP or News Channel. Now we are being told that our decision cannot seek the protection of economic necessity because the Blocks are not operational. So it is implied that the actual benefit sought has been frustrated. Yet if we say it is too soon to argue about actual loss we are ridiculed for repeating the "zero" loss thesis. What is all this if not a "zero sum game"? Someone thinks the UPA should be condemned for trying, condemned for not achieving the object (for a host of reasons) and should be condemned for not surrendering and pleading guilty by cancelling all Blocks. We on the other hand believe that the tough get going when the going gets tough. Meanwhile the BJP should give up hope of finding political gold in the coal mines.