|Mr Raja’s questions|
|Wednesday, 27 July 2011 00:00|
A Raja in jail is proving to be an even wilier adversary than when he was in office. If he was brazen enough to have a press conference to say the Prime Minister had been incorrectly briefed immediately after the PM had made a public plea for telecom auctions in December 2007, he’s done one better by dragging in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then finance minister P Chidambaram into the 2G mess by claiming they were in the know of everything. As part of his shock-and-awe tactics, he’s even said why arrest Sanjay Chandra, why not do the same with Ratan Tata … That was on Monday.
On Tuesday, he used the old chestnut about being misquoted by the media on the PM, then renewed his assault on the PM by saying the PM could have called for a Group of Ministers meeting on 2G as he was Raja’s senior … More accusations, u-turns, and god knows what can be expected, not just from Raja but from the other accused.
While telecom minister Kapil Sibal has said you can’t take an accused at face value, the reason why this is great strategy is that, since there’s a grain of truth in what Raja says, the entire story seems plausible. Raja’s letters to the PM, for instance, very clearly show he kept the PM in the loop all the time. Sadly, instead of challenging Raja and telling him that his no-auctions policy was unacceptable, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) let matters be by merely acknowledging his letters—there is, of course, the note that has to get top billing in the hall of infamy where an official in the PMO says a note has to be shared unofficially with Raja’s ministry as the PM wants to keep an arms-length distance! The finance ministry, which initially batted for auctions, decided to back off and, the then finance secretary D Subbarao wants us to believe it was because he got busy in budget-making. So when Raja says he kept everyone in the loop, he’s right.
The government, and it’s not just Sibal we’re talking of here, has been over-smart by arguing that promoters of companies like Swan and Unitech were not selling their equity, but that the companies were merely expanding their equity base. This is the kind of sophistry that lawyers get crores for, but the short point is that until Raja gave these companies licences at a fraction of what they were worth, the companies were worth nothing. After they got the licence, Uninor and Etisalat paid several times more than what the promoters had given the government, so it was the licences they were paying for. It’s poetic justice that this specious stake non-sale argument used by the government has now come back to haunt it.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), similarly, has been put in a tough spot by Raja’s court room defence. Although a total of 12 companies got licences from A Raja, it is a bit difficult to believe, as CBI appears to be saying, that there was a conspiracy hatched with just two or three players. CBI’s argument here is that since the papers are so voluminous, it is examining each company’s role in parts, and will gradually come to each one of them.
Even assuming this is true, CBI will certainly have to show money trails and, at least so far, we haven’t seen too much evidence of this—indeed, this is the crux of the defence being mounted by some of the accused.
The larger question which Mr Raja’s shock-and-awe strategy is aimed at obscuring, is that none of this proves him innocent. For one, no matter how much he protests it (ably assisted by Sibal), Raja was not following the NDA’s policy. The NDA’s policy, cleared by the Cabinet in 2003, was that all licences were to be auctioned; since Cabinet decisions are not writ in stone and every government has the right to come up with its own policy, UPA-1 came up with its own policy, on December 14, 2005. This said all licences were to be given at 2001 prices. This was under Dayanidhi Maran’s stewardship, so if there’s any policy Raja was following, it was that of his own government.
Raja’s larger guilt, and this is where all the charges of criminal conspiracy are coming from, is that he came up with a brand new policy to make sure a few firms got favoured. First, after having said he’d accept applications for new licences till October 1, 2007, he announced on January 10, 2008, that only applications made up till September 25 were to be accepted. If this wasn’t bad enough, he announced on the same afternoon that licences were to be granted on the basis of which firm made its payment first—since firms had always been given 15 days to make payments, most were caught unawares, and only those who had their drafts ready were in a position to profit from this. To make things worse, it turns out that this notice, put out through a press release, wasn’t put up on the main PIB Website either where it could be seen by a larger number of persons. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is Mr Raja’s guilt that is on trial, and for that, this is all that matters. Whether he kept the PM in the loop is incidental as far as the legal case is concerned.