Former Indian PM Manmohan Singh is set to appear in court as one of the accused in a probe into illegal coal mine allocations. DW talks to Michael Kugelman about the corruption case and the chances of a conviction.
"I am upset, but this is a part of life," said the 82-year-old former prime minister in reaction to an order by a special court under India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that he was to appear in court on April 8.
Singh, who was India's premier from 2004 until last year, hasn't been charged with any crime, but faces allegations of criminal breach of trust, criminal conspiracy, cheating and corruption, which carry a possible life sentence, if found guilty. He is also is the highest-profile figure to be implicated in the investigation into the illegal award of coal mines, commonly known in India as "Coalgate."
India has one of the world's biggest proven reserves of coal, but last September the Indian Supreme Court cancelled 214 of the 218 government licenses for coal mines allocated to private companies between 1993 and 2010 for use in power plants and factories. The court ordered the firms to relinquish the coal blocks, or areas of unmined reserves, by March 2015.
The judges declared that the government-run procedure for awarding the blocks to private firms had been illegal as they were assigned in an arbitrary manner in the absence of a competitive bidding system. It is estimated that the scandal has cost the country tens of billions of US dollars.
In a DW interview, Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says the "Coalgate" scandal has long been seen as emblematic of the culture of corruption that prevailed during the former Congress-led government's time in power, and these latest court actions will only harden that view.
But Indians will not associate Manmohan Singh as a corrupt leader, unless charges are brought against him and he is convicted, the analyst adds.
DW: What exactly is ex-premier Singh being accused of?
Michael Kugelman: It's a very complicated case, but the accusations against Singh are quite clear: He's being accused of criminal conspiracy and corruption, and also being investigated for cheating and criminal breach of trust. It all sounds quite jarring for a man long seen as one of India's cleanest politicians - even as his party was consumed by case after case of corruption.
What is important to keep in mind, however, is that no charges have been brought against Singh - at least not yet. There's little reason to think charges will follow. Indian legal officials suggest they have sufficient evidence to prosecute others being hauled into court - including a former coal secretary and a prominent industrialist. But they haven't said this about Singh.
What lies at the core of the coal scandal?
Essentially the previous Congress-led government is accused of illegally awarding coal mining licenses to preferred companies, at very low prices, and with no competitive bidding. So low were these rates that federal auditors have said that the state of India lost more than $30 billion.
What makes the scandal so significant, other than the corruption and huge amounts of money estimated to have been lost, is that energy-starved India depends heavily on coal - both for domestic consumption as well as for industrial production. The reality of India's most strategic energy resource becoming enmeshed in scandal is not something to be taken lightly.
I don't think Singh can be linked directly to the scandal. I believe the links are more by association than by anything direct. Singh was prime minister when many of the allegedly illegal licenses were given out, and at one time he was also serving as coal minister.
That said, the judge responsible for the court order to Singh has said that the former PM took "extra undue interest" in providing one particular coal license. This suggests a possible level of direct involvement in at least one case. Whether mere "interest" translates to illegal acts, however, is another story.
What are the chances of Singh being charged with a crime?
The chances of Singh being charged with a crime are relatively small. I think the courts mainly want to question him about what he knows, and to provide information about the others being hauled into court, who face more serious legal problems than he does.
'Energy-starved India depends heavily on coal - both for domestic consumption and industrial production'
If Singh is transparent in what he says and cooperates with the court - and he has given every indication that this is exactly what he plans to do - then I think his legal troubles will end just as quickly as they began. The only risk for him is that the court is able to conclude that his "extra undue interest" in that one licensing case did involve breaking the law.
Singh's second term in office was mired in corruption scandals, how tarnished is his image in India today?
While in power, Singh managed to insulate himself from the corrupt reputation of his party and many of its members. His image certainly suffered during his latter years in power, but that was more because of the perception that he was out of touch, marginalized by Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, and representative of the ossified political class that many Indians were getting fed up with.
His image also suffered because under his watch, India's economy suffered a major slump - even though Singh, an economist, was responsible for the game-changing liberalization reforms that set India on a triumphant economic path in the early 1990s.
Singh being summoned to court will further dent a legacy that has already taken many hits. But ultimately I don't think Indians will associate him as a corrupt leader, unless charges are brought against him and he is convicted - and I think conviction is really unlikely.
How could this latest scandal further impact the image and popularity of the Congress party?
'Singh's image suffered due to the perception that he was marginalized by Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi'
Since Congress has already fallen so hard, it's difficult to imagine its image and popularity could suffer any more. But these new developments will deliver one more crack to the party's fragile armor.
The "Coalgate" scandal has long been seen as emblematic of the culture of corruption that prevailed during Congress' time in power, and these latest court actions will only harden that view. However, Congress can deflect some of the blows by pointing out that Coalgate is not exclusively a Congress scandal.
The Indian Supreme Court has branded as illegal about 200 hundred coal licenses awarded all the way back to 1993 - a time that included a period of rule by the BJP party, which leads the current government. In the coming days, and especially as the date of Singh's court appearance nears, we can expect Congress party leaders to offer some loud public reminders that the scandal has implications for the ruling party as well.
Michael Kugelman is a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.