Saturday, April 26, 2008

Shocking scandal: Govt must investigate Baalu's deed

The Pioneer Edit Desk

Union Shipping and Surface Transport Minister TR Baalu, who is also a confidant of DMK chief M Karunanidhi, is no stranger to controversies that raise serious doubts about his integrity quotient. In the past he has shown remarkable interest in pushing the disastrous Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project in defiance of popular outrage. Mr Baalu's critics insist that creating a shorter route for merchant ships is the last thing on his mind; he is more worried about idling dredgers and stalled work farmed out to contractors. The Minister's strenuous efforts, at times sly and slimy, to bulldoze the Government into going ahead with the Sethusamudram project irrespective of court injunctions, do generate a sense of unease about his true intentions. That Mr Baalu does not have a high integrity quotient is now demonstrated by his misuse of office to benefit two firms in which his wives and sons have more than a passing interest.

It transpires that he 'requested' -- an euphemism for arm-twisting or political blackmail, call it what you will -- ONGC and GAIL to divert Cauvery Basin gas to these firms at a time when there was a mismatch between demand and supply. The Petroleum Ministry is with the Congress and it does not require extraordinary intelligence to figure out why a 'request' by the resident strongman of the DMK in Delhi, whose proximity to the party boss in Chennai is no secret, was more than honoured, with officials scampering to do Mr Baalu's bidding. Such is this man's inability to distinguish between that which is patently wrong and morally right, that he had no qualms about standing up in the Rajya Sabha, where the issue has been raised for two consecutive days, and asserting, "What is wrong in it?" Only those who are entirely bereft of probity and believe that misusing authority is part of the privilege of holding public office can be so scandalously callous.

It would, however, be unfair to place the entire blame at Mr Baalu's door. Politicians like him cannot be expected to act honourably when in office. But what is distressing is that a man who makes a fetish of honesty and integrity presides over a Cabinet many of whose members are perceived to be lacking in both. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot pretend ignorance of Mr Baalu's dubious activities, nor can he take shelter behind the argument that it is ultimately the DMK's choice as to whom it wants as a Minister. Mr Baalu has claimed that he kept the Prime Minister informed about his 'request'. If this is true, then the Prime Minister owes an explanation as to why he did not reject the 'request' in keeping with his squeaky clean image that his publicists tirelessly project to prove he is a good man undeserving of uncharitable comments. Mr Baalu cannot get away with his obnoxious disregard for ministerial probity; the scandal should be investigated by the CBI and the full truth unearthed; till the inquiry is over, he should be made to sit out. At the same time, neither should the Prime Minister be allowed to get away by maintaining stony silence. He must explain to Parliament, and thus to the nation, as to why the 'request' of a Minister with a dubious record was entertained. Stonewalling the issue won't do.

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