The court summons issued to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as an accused in the coal blocks allocation case would have normally elicited a sharp and gleeful reaction from the Congress party’s political rivals. But on Wednesday the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which has much to gain from the Congress’s embarrassment, did not mount an all-out attack on the former prime minister. Instead, one BJP minister went as far as to describe the court order as a case of “judicial activism”.

The BJP found it difficult to dub Manmohan Singh as being dishonest and corrupt, and his personal integrity continued to elicit grudging praise from BJP leaders who were quick to declare that their party will “not go out of its way to taint him or save him”.

BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli came out with an insipid response, stating that “if the court has summoned him, it is a legal step. They can argue it in the court. Cannot ignore the fact that there was a scam, and that has been proven by the coal block auctions recently.”

Instead of targeting Singh, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar shifted the blame to the Congress, saying the party was responsible for bringing former prime minister “to this threshold”. “It is a Congress scam and because of the Congress’s sin, Manmohanji, the economist former prime minister, has to face this,” Javadekar told media persons.

Different target

The BJP hopes that sustained legal scrutiny will impel Singh to spill the beans on the Congress leadership, which will provide it sufficient ammunition to discredit Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Since Singh is no longer a political rival, the BJP would prefer that the coal fires should singe the Congress party’s First Family.

“We have to see how long Manmohan Singh will remain silent,” declared a hopeful BJP minister.

However, the former prime minister’s personal integrity is not the only factor pulling back the BJP from extracting political mileage from the latest development in the coal blocks allocation case.

Besides Singh, the special court has also summoned industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla and former coal secretary PC Parakh as accused in the case.

According to the court, the former prime minister was roped into the criminal conspiracy to “accommodate” Hindalco (a flagship firm of the Aditya Birla group) in the Talabira-II coal block allocation in 2005. Two top officials of Hindalco – Shubhendu Amitabh and D Bhattacharya – are also in the list of accused.

'Morale of bureaucracy'

Having got the unstinted support of the corporate sector in the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is nervous that the court summons to a leading industrialist could alienate other businessmen and impact adversely on the investor sentiment in the country.

A senior BJP minister said that if such “judicial overreach” continued, domestic industrialists would “feel discouraged and be pushed into taking their investments abroad”. He described Kumar Mangalam Birla as a “gentleman among industrialists whose dealings are known to be above board”. “Even his contributions to political parties are made by cheque,” said the BJP minister.

These court summons come at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised both Indian and foreign investors that his government will make it easier for them to do business in India. His Make in India initiative and the move to ease environmental clearances for industrial and infrastructure projects are all aimed at boosting investment.

Similarly, the BJP is unhappy with the summons issued to former coal secretary Parakh who was described as “an upright and honest” officer. The party is worried that this will impact the morale of the bureaucracy and could actually slow down decision-making. “Officers will now be scared of clearing files and taking decisions,” a BJP minister pointed out.

As a result, BJP ministers played down the court summons, saying nothing substantive would actually come out of it and there was no question of any arrests being made.

On its part, the Congress was quick to defend the former prime minister and accuse the ruling BJP of politicising the judicial process to divert public attention from its “black” land acquisition bill.