There is an apt Hindi saying, ‘ulta chor kotwal ko daante’ (the thief scolds the policeman), which describes Andimuthu Raja’s aggressive statements after being exonerated by a trial court in the 2G scam last December.
Cock-a-hoop after Special Court Judge O P Saini pronounced all the accused “not guilty”, a verdict that shocked most people, Raja is now all for prosecuting Vinod Rai (the Comptroller and Auditor General who red-flagged the scam). He is bitter about former (and late) attorney general Goolam Vahanvati for denying there was a meeting between him, Pranab Mukherjee and Raja to discuss the availability of spectrum, and angry with P Chidambaram and the Union cabinet for not speaking up for him when the chips were down, and he was about to be sent to jail.
Vinod Rai, the man who blew the whistle loudly so that everyone could hear, is his pet punching bag, as is evident from the interview he gave to The Times of India. Raja wants him prosecuted, or at least have a commission of inquiry instituted against him for having “the temerity to dub himself the ‘Nation's Conscience Keeper’.” Rai, says Raja, indulged in “malicious vigilantism” that made “a mockery of his constitutional responsibilities” by putting out a massive loss figure and making Raja the centre of the scam.
But the only thing one can hold against Rai was his decision to put a sensational number of Rs 1.76 lakh crore as estimated revenue loss due to Raja’s allocation of spectrum in 2008 at 2001 prices. Rai offered several estimates of loss, but the big number was logged into public consciousness. Raja can perhaps have some grouse about this, but to think Rai is worthy of prosecution is nonsense.
Raja’s game should be obvious: the targeting of Vinod Rai is probably intended to intimidate the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from pursuing the case further in the high courts. It will also make the Supreme Court, which relied partly on his report to cancel 122 licences, more careful when the case finally comes up before it.
About Vahanvati, Raja said there was a meeting set up by Manmohan Singh in December 2007 in which Pranab Mukherjee, Vahanvati and he were to discuss the issue of spectrum availability. But Vahanvati told the police that no such meeting took place and Mukherjee kept his silence. This was an “utter lie”, says Raja.
Raja blames Chidambaram for avoiding him when the scam was exploding in the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) face and he had wanted to share his views on what happened. This is what he said: “Chidambaram's stand on the 2G case is still a puzzle to me. He is an administrator of strong acumen, an able lawyer and a seasoned parliamentarian. Yet I was surprised to see him shying away from discussing the 2G situation with me and even avoiding speaking to me when we happened to pass each other in the airport.”
Chidambaram has certainly been shifty in the 2G scam. He and his ministry initially wanted spectrum sold by auction, or at least through a market-determined mechanism, but when Raja got his way, he accepted it as a fait d’accompli. After Judge Saini verdict, Chidambaram claimed that the “allegation of a major scam involving the highest levels of the government was never true, was not correct and that has been established today.”
But as late as in November 2014, Chidambaram seemed to be suggesting that the licences ought to have been cancelled by the UPA after Raja went ahead and allotted them in January 2008. He is quoted by The Hindu as saying: “The argument against cancellation was that those who lose the licences would launch litigation. Facing those litigations would have been a better option than suffering from an adverse judgment” (by the Supreme Court in 2012). Now, if he thought everything was fine, why would he have advocated cancelling the licences?
However, given that Chidambaram was himself facing a case at that time seeking to declare him a co-accused in the scam, giving Raja the wide berth was hardly surprising.
As for Vahanvati, it is clear that the UPA was trying to defend Manmohan Singh and the government, and the same could be said about Pranab Mukherjee, who was, by 2012, aiming to become the next president. And so, if the duo did indeed pretend that the meeting did not take place when it had indeed taken place, Raja has some reason to be aggrieved that he was being sacrificed to save the government.
However, where Raja’s belligerence sounds hollow is his defence of his version of the first-come-first-served policy, where his ministry arbitrarily decided to advance the cutoff date for the licences and then compounded this further by making licences available only to those who came first in with drafts.
According to Raja, the advancement of the cutoff date was not his idea, but that of his officials. Read what Raja told The Times of India on this: “Who put the cutoff date? Vinod Rai says it was unilaterally done by Raja to favour some companies… I established in (my) book and court that Raja was initially against any cutoff date. My officers wanted to have a cutoff date, I was convinced by the officers to have a cutoff date… so I put my signature.”
The question is this: isn’t it a trifle disingenuous to claim that he agreed with his officials much later when the whole allegation is that he together with his officials plotted the scam? And how does this prove that the arbitrary shift in the cutoff date, which he agreed to, was a bonafide action? The logical conclusion is this: if the shift in the cutoff data was malafide, whether the idea originated from the bureaucracy or himself is immaterial. All are guilty.
As T N Ninan points out in an article in Business Standard, “within a matter of hours on a fateful day in January 2008, the first-come, first-served policy had been twisted out of shape — not once, but twice. First, by retrospectively changing the qualifying date, and then by changing the ranking method for those who got a letter of intent”.
If there was no malafide intent, at the very least it was colossal misjudgment on the part of the minister for signing what his officials proposed, since it meant a loss of transparency in how licences were awarded. One can hardly blame Vinod Rai for what Raja himself was signatory to.
Raja also has a bone to pick about the allegation that the spectrum allottees of 2008 “sold” the airwaves for exorbitant sums to foreigners. He is quoted by TOI as saying: “A person who paid (an) entry fee of Rs 1,650 crore got the spectrum. Now licence is mere paper, spectrum is mere air, how can he run the business? So, the word 'sold' is wrong; they were searching for a partner to bring the equity, the money will go to the company to create infrastructure. After all, one telecom tower costs Rs 50 lakh. They were trying to get FDI, permitted by law, permitted by finance ministry, not permitted by Raja!”
But Raja stands partly indicted by his own observations. If spectrum is “thin air”, and licence is “mere paper”, what did those who got the spectrum sell, since they had no business, no investment in the ground. All they had was paper and air. No one pays for these. Clearly, it was the underlying asset that was being valued by foreign investors. Foreign investors pay for real assets, not pieces of paper.
Raja’s over-the-top desire for retribution is understandable purely as a human response to being put in the dock, but there is little reason to believe that he was wrongly sent to jail for a crime he did not commit.
However, he can claim one thing: if anything wrong happened, it had the sanction of the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister, and the Defence Minister, as they were all aware of what Raja was up to.
Raja also washes his hands of the Rs 200 crore found in the kitty of Kalaignar TV, owned by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi’s wife Dayalu Ammal and daughter Kanimozhi. The money flowed from outfits linked to DB Realty, one of whose companies (Swan Telecom) got Raja’s licences, to Kalaignar TV.
Raja said: “The transaction has nothing to do with Raja, it was completely legal and we cannot connect it with 2G. There was no link between the two. No questions were put to me with regard to Kalaignar TV. There were no witnesses. There were only suggestions: oh-you-only-arranged-money. There were no witnesses from the CBI side or corporate side that the Rs 200 crore was linked with Raja, that Rs 200 crore was facilitated by Raja directly or remotely, no suggestion was put to me. Is this a case?”
However, consider the circumstances in which Raja was made telecom minister. In May 2007, following a family feud, the Marans of Sun TV fell out with Karunanidhi, and, as a result, Maran was replaced by Raja. It was in this context that the Karunanidhi family planned the launch of their own TV venture, Kalaignar TV, which needed corporate funding to get off the ground.
In 2009, when the UPA came back to power, the Marans and Karunanidhi had by then patched up, but it was widely reported – the leaked Niira Radia tapes indicated the same – that Raja was retained in the ministry at Kanimozhi’s insistence. She was even alleged to have threatened suicide if Raja was not given the Communications portfolio.
So, while the CBI may have failed to prove the nexus between Raja’s decision to award licences and the money flowing to Kanimozhi’s Kalaignar TV, the explanation for the money trail is missing.
Raja also claims that the decision to not raise spectrum prices was driven by the need to increase teledensity and make phone calls free. He brags: “When I assumed charge, rural teledensity was mere seven per cent, overall not even 22 per cent. I wanted to inject competition. Are we not reaping benefits today? I assured in Parliament to Arun Jaitley that tariff will come down by 20 paise or 30 paise. My dream is a voice-free country. There should not be any charge for 2G.”
But despite the launch of spectrum auctions after the scam, tariffs have been falling for some time. And voice calls have become free with the entry of Reliance Jio, and had nothing to do with Raja’s decision to sell spectrum cheap. Free voice calls and high spectrum prices have gone together, giving the lie to Raja’s claims.
There is only one reason why Raja is shouting from the rooftops about his innocence and the guilt of the former CAG and others. He knows the game isn’t over, and that the CBI can still make a comeback in the high court. He has chosen the well-worn tactic of using attack as the best form of defence.
The last thing the government should do is get cowed down by his belligerence.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!