By Vipin Pubby
It was touted as the mother of all scandals which caused a notional loss of the mind-boggling figure of Rs 1,76,000 lakh crore. No election speech by BJP leaders to the run up for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was complete without reference to the 2G and other scams like gross irregularities in organising Commonwealth Games and allocation of coal mines.
The verdict by the CBI Special Judge, acquitting all the accused in the case, has boosted the morale of the Congress and it has called for an apology from the BJP. The verdict coming on the heels of Gujarat elections, where Congress had done comparatively well, and followed by quashing of an order to prosecute its former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan, was certainly good news for the Congress. It had been on the defensive as the Supreme Court had already cancelled all the allocations of spectrum done by Telecom minister A Raja in the UPA Government.
Although Supreme Court was mainly dealing with the method of allocation and the Special CBI Judge with the criminality involved, the contrary judgments have raised several questions. While the verdict is certain to be challenged in Supreme Court, the entire episode has inflicted considerable issues of credibility on various institutions like Parliament, Supreme Court, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).
To begin with the least important, the office of the CAG, it must be noted that it had remained a low-lying institution, preferring to remain out of public glare but quietly auditing government accounts, till a senior IAS officer Vinod Rai, brought it into the limelight. In its report submitted in Parliament in 2011, his organisation claimed that the “presumptive loss” to the nation was in the range of 58,000 lakh crore to 1,46,000 crore. The media as well as the opposition, for obvious reasons, went for the higher figure.
No one had ever heard about that kind of figure. Many tried to hazard the number of zeroes this figure would involve. The CAG, in its report tabled in Parliament, did not give a cogent reasoning for it to have arrived at this astronomical figure. Another criticism of the figure at that time was an estimated possible loss in 2002 on the prices prevalent in 2008. Anyway the figure was staggering and the opposition BJP made the best use of it. The CAG has obviously exceeded its brief and had come up with a number which catapulted the organisation into the public mind space. The figure, evidently highly exaggerated, would certainly damage the credibility of CAG and people would take all its future claims with a pinch of salt.
The CBI, which anyway didn’t have a great track record for convictions, too suffered a major blow. Although everyone demands an “independent” probe by CBI, the organisation is best used for brushing scandals under the carpet because of its (deliberate) poor Investigations. How could it take this “open and shut” case so lightly as to not establish a linkage between the so-called favour and the alleged payback by the company to the minister, is unbelievable.
As per the facts available, one of the beneficiary companies had paid Rs 200 crore to DMK run Kalaignar TV station. While Raja and other, including DMK chief Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi, claimed that the payment was a “genuine deal”, CBI made no efforts to establish a link between allocation of spectrum and money paid to the TV company. The CBI merely relied on the public perception of Raja and other alleged guilty rather than collecting hard evidence. Even the Special CBI Judge O P Saini, who delivered the judgment, stressed that “high profile nature of a case cannot be used as a ground for holding people guilty without legal evidence”.
The trial court judgment has also brought into focus the Supreme Court judgement in 2012. A division bench of the apex court, comprising Justice G S Singhvi and Justice A K Ganguly, had categorically said that the material before the bench proved that former Telecom minister Raja “wanted to favour some companies at the cost of public exchequer” and that the allocation of spectrum was “wholly arbitrary, capricious and contrary to public interest, apart from violative of the doctrine of equality”.
While quashing the allocations, it concluded that the “manner in which the exercise of grant of letters of intent to the applicants was conducted in January 10, 2008, leaves no room for doubt that everything was stage-managed to favour those who were able to know in advance the change in the implementation of the first-come-first-served basis”.
Although the Supreme Court was only looking at the procedure of allocation and not the criminality involved, which was being examined by the trial court, the virtually contradictory verdicts, have raised questions on judiciary. The question now is whether Supreme Court took a hasty decision in cancelling all the 112 licenses. These included licenses of foreign players like UAE’s Etisalat, Norway’s Telenor and Russia’s Sistema which had, in turn, led to huge loss of investors confidence.
Further it took a call based on the CAG report which was the domain of Parliament. Supreme Court should have waited for Parliament to accept or reject the report of the CAG. It elevated the report of CAG, which is supposed to be an audit of the government departments and not necessarily authentic, into a definitive document.
Parliament, which was perhaps a dysfunctional institution around that time, suffered the worst credibility as it should have placed the report before a Parliamentary sub committee which should have summoned Rai to give explanations. Perhaps the UPA itself was so benumbed by the figure that it lost confidence even in its allies and meekly accepted the presumptions in the CAG report which were not supposed to be definitive.
While these institutions eroded their credibility, the loss to the nation as a whole has been monumental. The India growth story suffered a serious setback. Investor confidence, including those of the top foreign countries, went into decline and the perception about India as a destination for investments suffered a dent. A high level judicial investigation is needed to fix the blame and learn lessons.