No other controversy undid the Congress- led UPA government as the 2G telecom scam. It eventually led to a huge win for Narendra Modi. It also brought into prominence a forgotten constitutional office, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, and the officer himself, Vinod Rai, who put a figure to the loss to the public exchequer. Rarely have people cheered so much for a government officer, least of all for a CAG.
Hence, the common man would think that the 2G scam probe would be a priority for the investigation agency in charge, the CBI. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) is also probing the money trail in the scam. However, it appears that an invisible hand seems to be guiding the investigation of this scam. Externally, lawyers and others are told that the ‘competent authority’ in the CBI is taking the calls.
At least, that is what the then 2G scam special prosecutor (now Supreme Court judge), Uday U Lalit, was told.
One of the accused in the scam is businessman Shahid Balwa, who was once known as the youngest rich man in India (circa 2010); who flew in his private jet in the august company of former Union ministers Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel.
According to the CBI chargesheet dated April 2011, the Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Communications (RComm) had illegally obtained 2G licences through a labyrinth of complex transactions (The footprint ADAG left behind, by Ashish Khetan, 26 February 2011).
Since the match was fixed, most of the players knew that the spectrum allocation in 2007 was to be given at 2001 prices. One of winners was RComm venture Swan Telecom, partly owned by Balwa and his partner Vinod Goenka. Eventually, Swan, with its licences and spectrum, was to be sold off to UAE-based Etisalat.
In the 2G scam trial, the CBI court framed charges against Balwa and Goenka.
Balwa petitioned the Supreme Court to quash the charges. The CBI had to file a counter-affidavit and it was expected that the agency would firmly oppose it and pray that the apex court allow the trial court to proceed.
However, a draft affidavit was sent to Lalit in April for his approval since he was the then special prosecutor in the probe. In this affidavit, the CBI had allegedly pointed out that RComm had sold off Swan Telecom before the 2G licence was granted. This, the draft counter-affidavit said, would make the RComm-Swan deal legal. It would reverse the CBI stand and the apex court may have given Balwa and Goenka relief and a major chunk of the 2G probe would have become irrelevant.
An accompanying letter spoke about a ‘competent authority’, which had approved the said draft counter-affidavit to be filed by the CBI.
It is believed that it was none other than CBI director Ranjit Sinha. In April, Sinha had wanted that the replies should be sent separately for each of the petitions, while a single counter-affidavit was originally being prepared.
Last year, a similar ‘competent authority’ had vetted a CBI affidavit. The then Union law minister, Ashwani Kumar, was caught when he tried to meddle with a CBI affidavit in the coal block allocation scam. He was later dropped from the Cabinet. Such interference earned the CBI the infamous label of “CAGed parrot”.
On 30 June, Lalit wrote to the CBI asking who had drafted and approved the counter-affidavit. He stated that the affidavit would weaken the CBI’s position.
However, the CBI director waited till fortune played him a hand — (on date) Lalit was made a Supreme Court judge. As per sources, in July, the CBI director supposedly went on to note in the file that the matter could be raised once Lalit assumed the role of an apex court judge and a new prosecutor was appointed.
In the Aircel-Maxis case, Malaysian telecom company Maxis had allegedly invested around Rs 650 crore to buy shares in Sun Direct TV, owned by Kalanithi Maran, brother of former telecom minister and DMK leader Dayanidhi Maran.
Sinha was reportedly unhappy with the investigation and apparently did not want the chargesheet filed. The director of prosecution disagreed and an opinion was sought from the attorney general (AG). The AG agreed with the investigation officers and director of prosecution that a chargesheet should be filed.
Despite the obstruction, based on the AG’s opinion, the CBI went ahead and filed a chargesheet against the Marans and others in the deal where Maran had favoured Aircel-Maxis when he had been telecom minister.
Most of Sinha’s peers in the government say that he is a meticulous man. But his efficiency seems betrayed when it comes to dealing with the 2G spectrum scam probe as it also was under question during the ‘coalgate’ probe when he gave in to the government of the day. So, what was his motivation to interfere in such a way that could even lead to a vigilance investigation into his affairs?
As per a media report, Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) officials AN Sethuraman and Tony Jesudasan, who is believed to be Anil Ambani’s righthand man, allegedly visited Sinha’s house around 50 times since May 2013. An internal inquiry has been started into this affair because the said report claims that these two officials visited Sinha’s residence in a company-owned car.
The visits increased when the CBI reopened the RComm-Swan case. The CBI office is not like a police station where people walk in and out and can seek appointments with anybody they like. Nor is the special investigation agency’s director similar to an SHO who can be met with by approaching his personal assistant.
So, how did the ADAG officials manage to frequently visit Sinha? And, why at his residence and not at his office, which would have had a larger audience privy to such visits?
These are the questions raised by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL), which has filed an application before the apex court alleging Sinha’s interference in the 2G scam probe. The CPIL has prayed that the CBI director recuse himself from monitoring the case.
This application came up before the apex court on 2 September. The bench directed CPIL counsel Prashant Bhushan to file a note, in a sealed cover, in the court.
The ‘sealed’ submissions are also likely to contain copies of the visitor’s register of the CBI director’s residence and other facts, which Bhushan told the court he had received a day prior to the hearing.
During the course of the hearing, senior advocate Ram Jethmalani (who appears for DMK MP Kanimozhi) stepped up to defend the CBI director. Jethmalani said that, in his 72 years of practice, he had never heard a CBI director stepping up to apprise the court of a fact that could potentially destroy the prosecution’s case, which is prescribed for advocates as a duty towards the court.
The CPIL states that there has also been persistent interference in the work of senior CBI and ED officers who are supervising the probe.
Arguing this point was veteran politician Subramaniam Swamy, who pointed out the apex court’s order of 1 May, in which the bench had ruled that ED deputy director Rajeshwar Singh should not be removed from the probe.
Notably, Swamy did not raise any objections against the CPIL’s application alleging Sinha’s interference. Singh had applied for part-time study leave, without affecting his duties, and the three-judge bench said that it wants to confer with the sleuth before ensuring he continues with the investigation. Singh and his team are responsible for digging up several of the money trails that have culminated into concrete chargesheets in the 2G probe.
Denying that it was looking into Sinha’s character, the apex court bench indicated that it will take a close look at CPIL’s submissions in regards to the CBI director.
Sinha has a few months left in his term but shouldn’t the Centre look at his overall conduct and assess if he should continue for the remainder of his tenure?