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27 December, 2017

A scam vanishes into thin air

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

It can only be likened to the fabled Indian rope trick. As the nation stood transfixed by the 2G scam, billed as the biggest of its kind, it vanished into thin air. 

The scam broke seven years ago even as the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government headed by Manmohan Singh began its second five-year term. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Vinod Rai, in a report placed before Parliament, estimated that the allocation of 2G telecom spectrum by the first UPA government had resulted in a presumptive loss of Rs1.76 trillion to the exchequer. 

The supposedly irregular allocations were made by A. Raja, of the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam, who was Minister of Communication and Information Technology in UPA 1. He had announced that the government had decided to allocate spectrum on a ‘first-come first-served’ basis, instead of auctioning. By the stipulated date the Department of Telecommunications received 575 applications from 46 firms. 

When the CAG report came Raja was minister in UPA 2. The opposition, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, disrupted the proceedings of Parliament day after day demanding his resignation. After consultations with DMK chief M Karunanidhi in Chennai, he announced his resignation “to avoid embarrassment to the government” and to facilitate smooth functioning of Parliament. “I will prove that I did everything according to the norms,” he added. 

Criminal investigation of the 2G allocations had begun a year before the CAG report with the Central Vigilance Commissioner, acting on a complaint by a non-government organisation alleging irregularities, ordering a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation. 

Soon the courts entered the scene. The Delhi High Court ruled that the setting of cut-off date for spectrum applications was illegal. In March 2011, the Centre, on the orders of the Supreme Court, set up a special court to try the accused in the spectrum cases.  

The special court heard three cases, two filed by the CBI and one by the Enforcement Directorate, against Raja, Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi’s daughter and DMK MP, and top officials of the government and of telecom companies.

Even as the special court was hearing the cases, the Supreme Court, in separate legal proceedings, cancelled all the 122 spectrum licences issued by Raja and ordered that fresh allocations be made through auctions. 

The widely publicised spectrum cases and the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare badly tarnished the image of the Manmohan Singh government and paved the way for the BJP’s spectacular success in 2014 under Narendra Modi’s leadership.  

Last week Special Judge OP Saini, in a 1,552-page judgment, took the prosecution cases to pieces and threw them out lock, stock and barrel. He said the CBI’s “well-choreographed chargesheet” was based “mainly on misreading, selective reading, non-reading and out-of-context reading” of the official record. There was no evidence to indicate criminality in the acts of the accused. 

The CBI and the ED had cited a loan of Rs2 billion provided to a Tamil television channel controlled by Karunanidhi’s family by a beneficiary of 2G allocation as evidence of corruption and money laundering. However, the judge said, the prosecution put no question to any witness to establish that the loan was illegal gratification. 

The judge added that he had sat in the courtroom for seven years but not a soul turned up to provide evidence to establish corruption. 

In the circumstances he concluded that some people had created a scam where there was none by “artfully arranging a few selected facts and exaggerating things beyond recognition to astronomical levels”. 

Judge Saini’s is not the last word on the subject. The CBI and the ED have said they would appeal to the High Court against his judgment. Above the High Court, there is the Supreme Court.  

The CBI had once enjoyed a high reputation as an investigating agency but it is now generally seen as a tool in the hands of its political masters. Some time ago the Supreme Court dubbed it as a caged parrot. 

There have been insinuations that the Modi government may have allowed the 2G cases to collapse to prepare the ground for an alliance between the BJP and the DMK in Tamil Nadu for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.   

The CBI has failed miserably in several high-profile cases in the recent past. Maybe, in the light of experience, there is a need to redefine ‘scam’ in the Indian context as a political scandal, real or imaginary, which offers immense scope for partisan warfare, helps bureaucrats attain celebrity status, enables investigative journalists to earn reporting laurels before subliming into history. 

The saddest part of the story of the scams is the erosion of people’s faith in the institutions to which they look up to sustain the democratic system. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 27, 2017.

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