There is a widely held belief that a certain minimum level of corruption is something the Indian voter takes for granted. This belief generally emboldens even the relatively clean among the ruling coalition to tolerate higher levels of corruption within the system. Lack of will to move against such brazen acts of irregularity is then justified in the name of “compromises” that are necessary to run coalition politics. Once there is a valid justification for allowing “compromises”, there is no stopping those who are naturally inclined to milk the system. The UPA’s tolerance of the minister for telecommunications, A Raja, clearly falls in this category. There is mounting evidence, already collected by various official agencies, on Raja’s shenanigans in regard to the manner in which he gave away scarce 2G spectrum for a song to various telecom operators in 2008. In spite of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s advice, he resisted conducting an auction to get the best price for 2G spectrum, a resource which telecom companies are scrambling for.
Raja has been trying to hide behind various technicalities to justify his actions in 2008. He gave away 2G spectrum on a first-come first-serve basis, at a price benchmarked to a 2001 auction when the telecom sector was one-fifth of today’s size. However, his goose is now cooked as the auction of 3G spectrum conducted recently under the supervision of the empowered group of ministers has earned the government over Rs 60,000 crore. This has further magnified the irregular manner in which the telecom department gave away 2G spectrum. While the CBI is investigating the case, the CAG has reportedly castigated the telecom department for causing the exchequer a loss of Rs 26,000 crore by not auctioning 2G spectrum.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too seemed to implicitly agree that the response to the auction of 3G spectrum further weakens Raja’s justification for handing out 2G spectrum the way he did. At his first press conference earlier this week, the Prime Minister said, “It is true that if you compare the figures of what was collected in 2G and then through the auction of 3G spectrum, there is a huge gap. Some complaints were received by the CVC and passed onto the CBI. The investigation is on.”
In fact, this newspaper is in possession of a letter written by the Prime Minister to the telecom minister in 2007 advising him to consider auctioning 2G spectrum. If auction was not possible, a proper benchmarking to current market price be done, was the PM’s suggestion. Indeed, this principle has been adopted by the telecom regulator recently, though a trifle late.
It appears that the UPA government tried various official channels to prevail upon Raja that he must auction 2G spectrum. Apart from the Prime Minister’s advice to Raja, the law ministry also said auction was the most appropriate method. The law ministry suggested that the decision on spectrum allocation be taken by an empowered group of ministers. Raja openly defied this suggestion and, in fact, complained to the Prime Minister about the impropriety of his powers being taken over by an empowered group of ministers. Of course, when things became too controversial later, Raja yielded to an empowered group of ministers. Eventually, it was the empowered group of ministers that decided to conduct the auction of 3G.
It may be recalled that even under UPA-1, Raja had tried to defy the entire Cabinet, headed by the Prime Minister, by asserting that spectrum allocation is a policy that need not go to the Cabinet at all and that it is entirely within the telecom department’s domain to decide how to allocate spectrum. Thus, he challenged the principle of collective responsibility on which the Cabinet is run. It was then that Raja, in his unorthodox style, gave Reliance Communications a dual technology licence overnight, even before announcing a policy on granting permission to operate dual technology. Next morning, Reliance Communications informed the stock exchange about its dual technology licence, but the government announced the decision only in the afternoon. Many found it unorthodox that a company should inform the stock exchange of something ahead of the government formally announcing its decision! The other stupendous Raja act was when he suddenly announced one afternoon that whoever pays up first gets 2G spectrum. There was a huge scramble among players to get bank drafts ready. One company Swan, whose antecedents are still murky, had a bank draft from a Mumbai branch ready within two hours of the telecom department declaring on its Web site that whoever pays first would be treated ahead in the queue! This was first-come first-served, Raja style!
Clearly, Raja was running the department of telecommunications in a manner that would do a banana republic proud. However, the larger moral/political question to ask is: how was he allowed so much rope when the entire Cabinet, from Prime Minister to law minister, was telling him that he should follow transparent rules. This question cannot be answered by PM Manmohan Singh. This question should rightly be put to Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, who is also in charge of running the UPA coalition. Sonia Gandhi must tell the nation why is the Congress so beholden to the DMK supremo Karunanidhi who recently made a rare trip to New Delhi only to tell her that Raja is an innocent Dalit boy who is being harassed by everyone. Sonia Gandhi must also tell us why the Congress is getting so badly blackmailed by Karunanidhi when the minority DMK government in Tamil Nadu is surviving on Congress support. Why can’t the Congress leverage that to make the DMK members behave in New Delhi? This is a puzzle that remains unresolved even today.