King Con Resurfaces

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A Raja’s repeated controversies should have drowned him by now. Instead, he continues to walk on water. PC Vinoj Kumar finds out why

Smooth operator : A Raja(left) chats with AC Shanmugam(right), Chancellor of the Dr MGR Educational & Research Institute
Smooth operator  A Raja(left) chats with AC Shanmugam(right), Chancellor of the Dr MGR Educational & Research Institute

CONTROVERSIES SEEM to be chasing Union Communications and IT Minister, A Raja, one after another. In the latest one that surfaced recently, Raja has been accused of calling up a Madras High Court judge, asking him to grant anticipatory bail to the two accused in a case before him. A medical college student, Kiruba Sridhar, and his father, Krishnamurthy, are facing charges of replacing an answer sheet of Sridhar’s ophthalmology paper in order to obtain pass marks in the subject.

The judge, R Reghupathi, had stated in open court that a minister tried to influence him in granting bail to the accused. Though the judge did not name the minister, AIADMK chief, J Jayalalithaa took the name that was buzzing in the political grapevine, declaring it was Raja. She said in a statement: “Krishnamurthy hails from Perambalur. He is better known in Perambalur, Raja’s native district, as Raja’s benami. Before he became a union minister, Raja reportedly had his law office in a building owned by Krishnamurthy.” She also alleged Raja had invested, through his relatives, in a real estate company promoted by Krishnamurthy.

Jayalalithaa argued that though the judge refrained from naming the union minister, “it does not require any super human intelligence” to conclude that it was none other than Raja. However, the Chief Justice of India clarified later that the minister in question had not spoken to the judge. He told The Hindu that the defence lawyer approached the judge in his chamber and had told him that a minister was interested in the case and wanted to speak to him. The judge had refused to take the call.

For his part, Raja has dismissed the allegations against him as baseless. He denies even knowing Krishnamurthy.

Raja, who is the dalit face of DMK, has been courting controversies since he became the telecom minister in 2007. He first got into trouble over spectrum allocation last year. The main charge against him was that his ministry’s spectrum allocation for 2G telecom service providers on a first-comefirst- serve basis, dispensing with the competitive auction system, had caused a loss of thousands of crores of rupees to the exchequer. The deal got murkier when two of the companies, Swan Telecom and Unitech, sold their shares at huge profits. The CPM estimated the loss to the exchequer to be around Rs 60,000 crores. Swan, which reportedly bought a licence for 13 circles along with 2G spectrum for Rs 1,537 crore, had subsequently sold 45 percent of its stake to UAE’s telecom operator, Etisalat, for $900 million. Unitech had sold 60 percent of its stake to Norway’s Talenor for Rs 6,120 crores, much higher than the Rs 1,651 crore licence fee it had paid. Jayalalithaa went on record to state: “Charged with having caused a loss to the Government of India to the extent of nearly Rs 1 lakh crores through a faulty spectrum allocation policy during his earlier stint as telecom minister, Raja ought not to have been made minister again under the new UPA dispensation.”

Just two months ago TEHELKA reported that Raja had turned down a CBI request to prosecute some Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) officials in corruption-related cases. More recently, TEHELKA also investigated the role of Raja’s telecom ministry in awarding Chinese manufacturing companies with cellphone connection contracts, despite clear opposition from the Ministry of Defence, RAW and allied security agencies.

Charged with causing losses of Rs 1 lakh crore, Raja ought not to have been made minister again by the UPA, says Jayalalithaa

In spite of the controversial charges building up against him, Raja remains unfazed, continuing to enjoy the confidence of Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. At the height of the spectrum controversy last year, Karunanidhi had said Raja was targeted because he was a dalit.

Raja is arguably among the most powerful leaders in the DMK today. Political circles in Delhi got a sense of Raja’s standing in the DMK at the time of cabinet formation in May 2009. As DMK leaders were camping in the capital to negotiate for berths, several television channels carried stories, citing sources in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not keen on inducting DMK leaders, Raja and TR Baalu in his cabinet.

Since there were no immediate denials from the Congress, it was felt the Congress was using the media to send a message to the DMK that Raja and Baalu were unwelcome in the cabinet. Meanwhile, the Congress tacitly signalled that it was willing to give the telecom portfolio to Dayanidhi, Karunanidhi’s grandnephew and former telecom minister who fell out of favour with the DMK chief following a family feud. Karunanidhi would have none of it.

After talks between Congress and the DMK over cabinet allocation nearly broke down, Karunanidhi deputed Raja as the sole DMK representative at the swearing-in function of the first batch of ministers, sending a clear signal to the Congress that he would not compromise over Raja. The Congress finally relented and made an announcement through its General Secretary, Janardhan Dwivedi that the party had no objections to Baalu and Raja. In the end, Raja got back his portfolio.

RAJA’S GROWTH in the DMK has been phenomenal. At 46, Raja is already a fourth-term MP. He first entered Parliament in 1996. According to DMK Organising Secretary, and North Chennai MP, TKS Elangovan, Raja joined the DMK in the late 1980s. From his younger days, Raja was attracted to social reformer Periyar’s ideology. He joined the Dravidar Kazhagam – the party founded by Periyar – during his student days. “As 11-year-olds, we all attended Periyar’s meeting at Paadalur. Raja was fond of Periyar even at that young age. Politically, he was DMK-oriented,” says childhood friend, P Roche, now a school teacher in Perambalur.

Raja’s oratorical and writing skills were evident even when he was at school. Hailing from a village called Velur, near Perambalur town, Raja received his education at government schools and colleges. He did his masters in law at Government Law College, Tiruchillapalli. Till he became MP in 1996, he had a lucrative practice at the Perambalur court and was rated as one of the top lawyers in town.

Raja owes his rise in the DMK to the late Murasoli Maran, Karunanidhi’s nephew and right-hand man in the party. DMK leaders say it was Maran who made Raja a minister of state (MoS) for rural development in the NDA-led government in 1999. In September 2000, Raja was shifted to the ministry of health and family welfare, where he continued as MoS till the DMK withdrew from the NDA government in late 2003. In this period, Maran took ill and as health minister, Raja used his influence and extended all medical support to his ailing mentor. This brought him closer to Karunanidhi.

Maran died in November 2003, creating a political vacuum for the DMK in Delhi. In 2004, when the DMK joined the Congressled UPA government, Raja was elevated as a cabinet minister and given the environment and forest portfolio. In 2007, he was moved to the telecom ministry. In the May Lok Sabha polls, Raja contested from the Nilgiris reserved constituency as the Perambalur seat was de-reserved. He won the seat defeating his MDMK rival by a margin of about 85,000 votes.

Raja’s good fortune and public relations skills have clearly stood the test of time and controversy. But the political water Raja has been walking on for so long could soon turn into thin ice.

vinoj@tehelka.com

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