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A Rs 1.76 lakh crore question to the PM

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A Surya Prakash
First Published : 14 Nov 2010 11:26:00 PM IST
Last Updated : 15 Nov 2010 01:11:29 AM IST

Now that the comptroller and auditor general’s opinion on the underselling of 2G Spectrum licences by telecom minister A Raja is in the public domain, we have a better idea of the price Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made us pay just so that he may remain in office. Initially it was assumed that the fraudulent allotments had cheated the public exchequer of Rs 70,000 crore. The revised estimate is that the total loss caused by this minister could be an unbelievable Rs 1.76 lakh crore. This figure is truly mind-boggling because, as J Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK leader, said the other day in a television interview, most citizens would find it difficult to imagine the number of zeroes that go to make this number.
However, since this could well be the biggest scam indulged in by a minister or government official in the history of mankind, one must give it a shot. The number in question is Rs 17,60,00,00,00,000. That is why the continuance of A Raja in the Union Cabinet poses the most brazen challenge to the idea of accountability in our public life.
The 2G Spectrum allotments were made after Raja became the telecom minister in 2007. Among the charges levelled against him are that he gave these licences away at throwaway prices; that the allotments were made to companies which did not have the experience and expertise in telecom; that he advanced the cut-off date for applications, possibly to favour some entities; and that there was evidence of collusion between the minister’s office and some bidders. The bidding process was so scandalous that the Central Vigilance Commission and the IT department began investigations because prima facie they saw this as a case of corruption and favouritism. Government agencies taped the minister’s conversations with a lobbyist and found that the entire licensing procedure had been vitiated. They also picked up leads about possible kickbacks being deposited in tax havens and ploughed back into the country.
Strangely, the PM allowed Raja to remain in office even as central investigators snooped around the minister’s offices for clues and evidence to nail him. Yet, Singh and the Congress would like us to believe that they are concerned about standards in public life. The biggest joke of course is the belated attempt by the Congress to play the probity card by taking ‘action’ against the Ashok Chavan and Suresh Kalmadi. The latter was forced to quit as secretary of the Congress parliamentary party, an inconsequential office that burdens the incumbent with the ‘onerous’ task of posting invites to party MPs to attend a few meetings of the CPP annually! That the party’s commitment to clean governance is nothing more than a sham becomes obvious when one recalls the indefensible decision of the UPA government to appoint P J Thomas as the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC).
Following a judgment of the Supreme Court and consequent amendment of the CVC Act, the CVC is appointed by a committee comprising the prime minister, the Union home minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Overruling the objections of the Leader of the Opposition, the government chose Thomas, who is named as an accused in the palmolein import scandal in Kerala and whose conduct as telecom secretary till recently will warrant scrutiny in the light of the 2G Spectrum revelations. As telecom secretary, he opposed inquiries by the CVC and the CAG into the allotment of 2G Spectrum licences. Such a person is now the CVC and the prime minister expects us to believe that Thomas, as CVC, will ensure a credible probe into the role of the telecom minister and others including himself in the allotment of 2G Spectrum licences!
The audacity displayed by the government in making this appointment prompted some public spirited citizens including J M Lyngdoh, former chief election commissioner, to knock on the doors of the Supreme Court with an appeal that it be annulled. The apex court is hearing this petition and as a first step has called for the file. The court has said that it would like to ascertain whether ‘proper consultation’ was made while appointing Thomas and whether the appointment satisfied the criteria laid down, namely whether the appointee was an ‘outstanding civil servant’ with ‘impeccable integrity’. The 2G spectrum licence allotments is also before the court.
It is said that the PM is a ‘clean’ politician whose personal conduct in financial matters is above reproach. However, this means nothing so long as he allows members of his Cabinet to merrily swindle the exchequer. Apologists for the Congress say that the compulsions of coalition politics prevent the PM from proceeding against Raja. If that be so, we are left with no option but to conclude that Singh’s desire to survive in office far outweighs his concern for probity in public life. He seems to have just three priorities: survival in office, protecting the Congress’ interests and ensuring that the UPA remains intact. Singh has already given us sufficient indication that national interest is not a priority for him when he took that untenable decision to appoint P J Thomas as the CVC. That is why one must turn to the most credible of our institutions — the Supreme Court — to set matters right.
Since both these issues are before the court, one hopes the petitioners will urge the apex court to direct a credible police agency, if there is one, to probe the 2G Spectrum scam and urge the court, in larger public interest, to oversee the investigation. Let there be no doubt that in the absence of judicial supervision, an inquiry by the CBI, supervised by P J Thomas will carry no conviction.
In any case, now that we know the extent of damage he has caused to us, we should not settle for mere resignation of the minister. Nothing short of a full and proper criminal prosecution of all those involved will meet the ends of justice and act as a deterrent for other scamsters in the Union council of ministers. Meanwhile, here is a Rs 17,60,00,00,00,000 question for the PM. How much more should the exchequer bleed before you call it a day?
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