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The CBI raids the DoT, raising questions about the 2G spectrum allotment that A Raja would not like to answer, says Shantanu Guha Ray

Messy deal Telecom Minister A Raja says 2G spectrum decisions were cleared by the CCEA
Photo: Ganesh Lad

THOSE IN the know in the Indian Capital call it “the little Gaza Strip”, a clear reference to the perennial tension and conflict that have plagued it for over a decade. Only, this particular area of strife is the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), whose offices in Delhi were raided recently by sleuths of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), over an alleged scam in the 2008 allotment of 2G spectrum. So used to discord are the boffins of the DoT that they were unruffled by the raid. In fact, many worked even as the CBI officials searched files in one of the floors.

Not without reason. A week later, Minister for Telecommunications Andimuthu Raja himself had managed a clean chit from no less a person than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who told reporters that Raja was not an accused in the case.

Still, pieces of the controversy — which the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) calls India’s biggest scam, at Rs 60,000 crore — are now falling into place. Two of Raja’s confidants, Ashok Chandra (who until recently headed the wireless cell), and AK Srivastava (a deputy director of the same cell) were named initially by the CBI in its chargesheet, but then dropped. The CBI now claims it is investigating the accounts of some unknown DoT officials and unknown directors of companies like Swan, STel, Unitech, Datacom, Loop Telecom and Sistema Shyam Teleservices (which were awarded the 2G licenses in January last year).

Raja, after the shock of the raids, is back on his feet. His defence: he merely signed files and opened up the sector, as his predecessors had done. “I have had my share of controversies, but those were less than the ones in my seat before me. Please remember that the Cabinet cleared all the files pertaining to granting of 2G licences. The Prime Minister was kept in the loop throughout. All my predecessors followed the same procedure. So did I. In terms of legal norms, there is no deviation,” Raja told reporters in Delhi, after he had finished a marathon meeting with his confidants. In fact, some of his lobbyists— who were seen busy defending the minister on various television news shows— claimed that the minister’s decisions were based on approvals from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the watchdog, and had the sanctions of then Solicitor General, GE Vahanvati.

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TROUBLED SPECTRUM

Law Minister HR Bhardwaj wanted an EGoM to discuss 2G; Raja refused

PM Manmohan Singh asked Raja to seek personal clearance

Raja consulted External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Solicitor General GE Vahanvati

Two DoT officials, RJS Kushwaha and D Jha, transferred for opposing Raja

2G spectrum allocated in Jan 2007

DoT offices raided by the CBI; two officials, Ashok Chandra and AK Srivastava, questioned

CBI chargesheet has no names. Scam could be over Rs 60,000 crore

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But what the apologists, and indeed Raja, skirted around was the fact that it was the PM who had in 2007— in a twopage letter — categorically asked Raja not to go ahead with cheap pricing and the first-come-first-serve model. Singh, in fact, was alerted about this by Law Minister HR Bhardwaj, who had also demanded a EGoM (empowered group of ministers) on the issue. Bhardwaj had also demanded that the country’s Attorney General should oversee the issue and give his remarks on the same. Furious at the demand, Raja had sent a strongly-worded letter to Singh, questioning Bhardwaj’s wisdom.

IRONICALLY, NO one — including Singh — is ready to now take on the minister who has DMK supremo K. Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi backing him. Still, DoT officials say there could be other uncomfortable questions for the minister when Parliament meets next month for the winter session, particularly the unceremonious exit of two competent bureaucrats. DoT officials told TEHELKA that the two, Joint Wireless Cell Advisor RJS Kushwaha and Deputy Wireless Advisor D Jha, were summarily removed after they put in writing their objection to the auction.

Tough call CVC head Pratyush Sinha had asked the CBI to probe charges against DoT

Officials of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) remain tightlipped on the issue but it is widely believed that these two officials were largely instrumental in tipping off the CVC (it alerted the CBI and pushed for the raids). Also upset about the minister’s arbitrary decision was the then telecom secretary, Siddhartha Behuria, who during his tenure had made his displeasure over the events public. But ironically, Behuria is not talking on the issue.

That the CBI will find it difficult to pin down Raja is clear. He is on the offensive and the PMO has gone silent on the controversy, though political observers say the raids – which had the support of Prithviraj Chauhan, the minister of state in the PMO — were a subtle move by the Congress to keep tacit pressure on its allies, the DMK and NCP (some party heavyweights are rumoured to be close to one of the companies that benefited from the auction). But the current mood within the party was to wait and watch. “It is still a puzzle as to why the raids took place and what the Congress wanted to achieve, apart from annoying a key coalition partner,” says a political observer.

There are others who, ignoring what Singh had actually said more than two years ago, are busy explaining that there was no ambiguity over the procedure and even in the subsequent resale by companies to make a windfall profit.

The PM had asked Raja not to go with low pricing and the firstcome- first-serve model

Those who alleged that Raja should have revised the 2001 recommendations for sale price of spectrum when it was finally allotted in 2008, were quickly silenced by Raja and his coterie (which includes an influential female lobbyist), who claimed that the TRAI did not back such a move. Raja’s men have also said that the TRAI had government backing when it said that government earnings need not be the only criterion for allotment. Ensuring low operating costs and a transparent and continued expansion of the sector would easily make up for initial losses. “We are still not convinced. The firms — after being allocated the spectrum — took on foreign partners through stake sales and reaped huge profits. This is India’s biggest scam,” top BJP leader and former telecom minister Arun Jaitley told the media.

But Raja blames it squarely on the market forces that decided such valuations against anticipated business revenues. “Why should I blame them if they want to offer a big price?” argued the minister on television, adding, “the sales were not a violation of FDI policy since approvals came from the Cabinet.”

With the TRAI silent, Raja and the PMO too are lying low. No one wants to debate the issue, considering that Raja continues to have the backing of the DMK leader and the Dravidian party is a Congress ally. So should the country’s “biggest scam” be ignored? Right now, it seems that all we are getting is a no reply.

WRITER’S EMAIL
shantanu@tehelka.com

 

 

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