Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Manmohan Singh cannot disown 2G responsibility

(First published in The Pioneer dated October 4, 2011)


Some people may think otherwise, but the fact is that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot escape responsibility for the 2G swindle. At every step, from the time his now incarcerated Telecom Minister A Raja conceived the scam to its implementation to the various objections raised on it by some important government functionaries to the tacit and sometimes open approval by others, the Prime Minister was in the know. Yet he did nothing to halt the scandal in its tracks.

It is important to understand this fundamental point, because all through Mr Singh has got away by initially feigning ignorance, then lamenting the compulsions of coalition politics, and finally using the ace that not even his worst enemy could question his personal integrity. But now, more than ever after the 2G taint has directly hit the Congress with Mr P Chidambaram as the target, the Prime Minister appears vulnerable as never before. Whatever he or his spin doctors may say – the latest being that he cannot be held criminally liable for the lapses – he is a suspect in the public eye for being a silent spectator and, therefore, a sort of collaborator in the entire episode.

Let us begin with the Law Ministry’s letter of November 1, 2007 to the Telecom Ministry – a letter that the Prime Minister would have been aware of, because Raja replied to the Law Ministry’s letter not to the Law Minister but to Mr Singh directly. Then Law Minister H R Bhardwaj, clearly upset by the methodology adopted in allotting the spectrum, wrote to the Telecom Ministry, “In view of the importance of the case (2G spectrum allocation) and various options indicated in the statement of the case, it is necessary that the whole issue is first considered by an Empowered Group of Ministers and, in that process, the legal opinion of A-G (Attorney General) can be obtained.”

The Law Minister was responding to an opinion sought by the Telecom Ministry on going ahead with the allocation of 2G spectrum licence on first-come-first-served basis and on prices fixed in 2001. An enraged Raja wrote back – not to the Law Ministry but directly to the Prime Minister, as mentioned earlier – questioning the idea of an EGoM to decide on spectrum pricing. He said in that letter, “The Ministry of Law and Justice, instead of examining the legal tenability of these alternative procedures, suggested referring the matter to EGoM. Since generally new major policy decisions of a department or inter-departmental issues are referred to the GoM, and needless to say that the present issues relate to procedures, the suggestion of the Law Ministry is totally out of context.”

This was on November 2, 2007. The same day, the Prime Minister wrote back to Raja and cautioned him against taking any measures without informing him. “I would request you to give urgent consideration to the issues being raised with a view to ensuring fairness and transparency and let me know of the position before you take any further action in this regard,” Mr Singh directed the Minister. The Prime Minister also instructed him to adopt “correct pricing of spectrum and revision of entry fee”.

Thus, the Prime Minister was all along in the loop. But he did nothing to ensure that his directions were followed by the Telecom Minister. There was no tangible follow-up on Mr Singh’s part on what was turning out to be a huge scam.

Towards the end of November the same year, came another shocker for the then Telecom Minister. The Finance Ministry got into the act, with then Finance Secretary D Subbarao sending a stinker to the Telecom Secretary on the issue. Mr Rao wrote, “It is not clear how the rate of Rs 1600 crore, determined as far back as in 2001, has been applied for a licence given in 2007… In view of the financial implications the Ministry of Finance should have been consulted in the matter before you finalised the deal.”

Mr Subbarao added, “Meanwhile, all further action to implement the above licences may please be stopped.”

“If the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Telecom both agree…” – remember the Prime Minister’s clarification at a media interaction. But the Finance Ministry had not agreed to the deal. We know with the fresh revelations that only then Finance Minister P Chidambaram had consented – despite his initial reluctance – to whatever had happened, suggesting to the Prime Minister that it may be treated as a “closed chapter”. So, again, Mr Singh had the option to not treat it as a closed chapter, given the stink, and seek a review. He did not, and went along with Mr Chidambaram’s opinion. If today Mr Chidambaram is in the dock for that recommendation, how can the Prime Minister remain untainted for accepting the ill advice?

And, Mr Singh was wrong on another count: Even the Telecom Ministry had not, if one goes by the assertions of senior Ministry officials, agreed to Raja’s policy. Neither then Telecom Secretary D S Mathur nor then Department of Telecom Member (Finance) Manju Madhvan was on the same page with Raja. One had to leave in disgust while the other was swiftly replaced with the then Minister’s yes-man after he retired. With senior officials in the Department of Telecom registering their protest to the deal, the only way to believe the Telecom Ministry was in “agreement” is to accept that Raja alone was the Ministry!

Mr Singh cannot even say that he acted immediately after the matter came to light. The Pioneer was the first to report on the shady dealings as far back as in December 2008, and it went on to unravel layer after layer of the scam in a series of reports thereafter all through 2009 and 2010. That in turn triggered a flurry of activity, with the Comptroller & Auditor General, Central Vigilance Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the courts turning the heat on the government. Raja, who presided over the scam as Telecom Minister had to depart and was eventually arrested.

But, at least a year before The Pioneer launched its scathing expose the matter had come to Mr Singh’s notice. Besides the official correspondences involving the Telecom Ministry, the Law Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in late 2007, that showed how the then Minister was manipulating the policy to favour a select few, the Prime Minister too had written to Mr Raja asking him to implement the policy in a fair and transparent manner. All of this is in the public domain now, as is the fact that Mr Singh took no action whatsoever.

Finally, the Prime Minister, being the innocent bystander that he has claimed to be all through the scam history, must tell us whether he was aware at least of the Finance Ministry’s recent note to the Prime Minister’s Office that, among other things, pointed to Mr Chidambaram’s “closed chapter” suggestion. If yes, why then did one of his senior Ministers claim that no such note existed, before it was secured – not for the first time, it now appears – through an RTI application? And, if he was not aware, then he is clearly clueless about what is happening in his office.

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