Maran is next on CBI’s calling list

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The investigating agency suspects that the former telecom minister had indirect stakes in Aircel. Raman Kirpal reports

Past imperfect Union Textiles Minister Dayanidhi Maran will be quizzed about his telecom days
Past imperfect Union Textiles Minister Dayanidhi Maran will be quizzed about his telecom days
Photo: Ap

AFTER A RAJA, the CBI’s next target in the 2G spectrum scam is Dayanidhi Maran. Perhaps the youngest minister at 38, he served as telecom minister in UPA-1 from May 2004 to May 2007. He fell out of favour with his grand uncle, DMK supremo M Karunanidhi, but returned in 2009 as textiles minister in UPA-2. The CBI suspects he has indirect stakes in Aircel, which he allegedly promoted during his stint as telecom minister.

A CBI source told TEHELKA that there is a watertight case against Raja and DB Group MD Shahid Balwa. “We have tracked 2G spectrum money worth Rs. 200 crore, which was transferred from DB Group to DMK’s Kalaignar TV,” said a source. “We are only waiting for a reply to our letter rogatory (LR) sent to Mauritius about a month ago.” This query is about Mauritius- based Delphi Investments, which has stakes in Swan Telecom. The reply will only throw up names of some more beneficiaries in the scam. The puzzle about Unitech’s role is also more or less solved. The CBI will next investigate the allocation of spectrum during Maran’s stint.

Maran’s tenure was marked by massive growth of Internet subscribers. Also, the share of foreign direct investment in telecom services was raised from 49 percent to 74 percent. In fact, Maran was also credited with massive cuts in mobile and landline call rates. But initial probes indicate that 2G spectrum money worth Rs. 1,000 crore was traded during Maran’s tenure.

After Reddy became Aircel’s part-owner, Maran appeared to become extra generous to the firm

In three years, Maran allocated over 70 GSM spectrum. C Sivasankaran, known for his unorthodox business style, had launched the Aircel brand in Tamil Nadu just four months before Maran took over. He was once a close confidant of Maran’s father Murasoli Maran in the 1990s. But he fell out with Maran when the Tatas aligned with Aircel. It was therefore not surprising that Maran targeted the Tatas and Aircel immediately after he took over as telecom minister. Tata Sky was in direct competition with Sun Network owned by Maran’s brother Kalanidhi.

Sivansankaran did an excellent job of promoting Aircel in Tamil Nadu. Within a year, he bought his rival RPG Cellular in the state and brought over 2.2 million subscribers into his net. Though Sivasankaran is known for launching new projects, building them up and then selling out, the CBI is intrigued by his sudden exit from Aircel. Almost a year after Maran took over, Sivasankaran sold his stakes to Malaysian company Maxis Communications and Apollo Group of Hospitals owner Dr Pratap C Reddy for Rs. 4,700 crore. Reddy came close to the Maran family in 2000, when Murasoli was cured of a rare type of cardiac condition by Apollo Hospital, Chennai. After Reddy became part-owner of Aircel, the ministry under Maran appeared to become extra generous to Aircel

Smooth operator C Sivasankaran fell out with the Marans after linking up with the Tatas
Smooth operator C Sivasankaran fell out with the Marans after linking up with the Tatas
Photo: India Today Group/Getty Images

In 2004, when Tata joined hands with Dishnet Wireless (now Aircel) , Dishnet sought licences under the Unified Access Service regime. The telecom secretary had endorsed the application, but Maran’s office put up a note demanding details that were ‘vague’ and ‘irrelevant’, says the Justice Shivraj Patil Committee report. Its mandate was to look into procedural lapses during 2001-09 in the telecom ministry.

After Aircel’s owners changed, the report reveals Maran cleared allocation of spectrum for Dishnet in Kolkata within a day. Dishnet has a cellular service in West Bengal, but it didn’t have spectrum. On 4 April 2007, a proposal was put up for allocation. Telecom Secretary DS Mathur cleared the proposal within a day, with a note that the matter had been discussed with Maran. Maxis, which holds 74 percent stake in Aircel, also has a sizeable investment in Sun Network thorough its sister concern Astro. Dr Reddy and his family reportedly control 26 percent in Aircel.

The Sun TV-Tata Sky spat over channel sharing was well known and Maran had a considerable say in Tata’s cellular and communication plans. Sun TV refused to comply with the Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunal’s directive to provide its channels to Tata Sky on an a la carte basis. Sun TV later stalled the process by obtaining a HC stay and thus gained time before the launch of its own DTH venture.

JUSTICE PATIL’S report has also faulted Maran’s functioning. Recounting procedural lapses, the report says that Maran did not consult the Telecom Commission, the telecom department’s decision-making body, and ignored the Group of Ministers (GOM) while taking crucial policy decisions.

Healing touch Apollo Hospitals’ Pratap Reddy and his family control 26 percent in Aircel
Healing touch Apollo Hospitals’ Pratap Reddy and his family control 26 percent in Aircel
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

“Actions during Maran’s tenure fell foul of the procedures laid down in the Government of India (Transactions of Business) Rules, which stipulate that when a policy has any financial bearing, no orders shall be issued without the concurrence of the finance ministry. The minister deviated from ‘extant policy’ by not discussing the issue of determining the entry fee for telecom licence with the finance ministry,’’ the report reads.

Maran also had his say on the crucial issue of spectrum pricing, which has been a controversial aspect of the 2G scam. He overruled a GOM constituted by the PM and got spectrum pricing removed from its terms of reference, despite strong reservations expressed by the finance ministry.

Intrigued by all this, the CBI is likely to summon Sivasankaran, Dr Reddy and Maxis Communications owners for questioning. The CBI is in the process of sending an LR to Malaysia to ascertain details of Maxis’ ownership, the sources say, while adding that Maran will also be questioned.

In his asset declaration for 2009-10, Maran did not appear to be particularly well-heeled, declaring only Rs.6.87 crore. He also owns a Mercedes valued at Rs. 8.10 lakh and a Toyata Innova at Rs. 12.24 lakh. His successor Raja appears to be even worse off, with assets of only Rs. 1.95 crore in 2009-10. The CBI has tracked Raja’s hidden money. Now it’s the turn of Maran.

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