In several phases of the Congress Raj, more specifically in the 1980s and later in the UPA decade post-2004, India witnessed a series of anti-corruption movements, the one defining moment of which was the kickbacks paid in the purchase of the Bofors gun deal, leading to the defeat of the Congress government in 1989.
Significantly, the decade also marked the departure of India’s oldest party from the Hindi heartland, notably UP, a situation that has remained unchanged in the last three decades.
During the course of the election campaign in 1989 – a lot less shriller than it is today thanks to the idiot box – this writer saw effigies of the Bofors Howitzer guns being burnt symbolically in the Hindi hinterland in areas, which had little idea or knowledge of an artillery gun. More important than the knowledge was the symbolism of corruption, which riled the common man no end. He was willing to go to any extent to punish an establishment seen to be politically and morally corrupt.
Notwithstanding many views on the subject of corruption – there are those apologists who question its centrality to a national political campaign – it remains an issue close to people’s hearts.
Nothing exemplified it better than the 2014 Lok Sabha where large scale graft charges in a series of cases like the 2G scam, brought down a Congress-led UPA government to its knees. The once-almighty Congress was reduced to a paltry 44 seats, despite introducing some of the most far-reaching social welfare reforms like MNREGA in its decade-long reign, which must be held as a benchmark in independent India.
This carefully cultivated anti-corruption edifice was delivered a body blow on Thursday when a CBI court held that the 2G spectrum scam of 2008 was ‘conjectured’ by some people. In the process, it acquitted former telecom minister A Raja, DMK chief K Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi, well known businessmen, a clutch of former bureaucrats and all other accused.
In its 1,552 page order, special judge CBI OP Saini – a former Delhi Police cop - ruled that there was no criminality or conspiracy in spectrum allotment and that some people had created a “scam by artfully arranging a few selected facts and exaggerating things beyond recognition to astronomical levels.”
But that was the political point. The more crucial element is the court’s observations, which lays the blame on multiple government agencies – from Manmohan Singh’s PMO to the ministry of finance and the department of telecom (DoT).
Critically, it said that key officials in the PMO, notably secretary Pulok Chatterjee and principle secretary TKA Nair deliberately suppressed the relevant and controversial part of the then telecom minister A Raja’s letter to the prime minister.
As in the Bofors case three decades before it, the role of officials is likely to come in for greater scrutiny in the days ahead, because officialdom is now looking like the weak link in the 2G scam, whose impact spanned the gamut of economy, governance and politics.
Judge Saini, towards the end of his verdict says he waited for seven years for someone to turn up with legally admissible evidence; yet no one showed up, which is no surprise.
It is critical to remember that policies and guidelines, which led to the 2G allocation spanned two governments, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP-led NDA and Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led UPA. The common thread that binds them together is the rather disappointing quality of work when it came to fleshing out details in policy. Given the ambiguous nature of guidelines and less than accomplished drafting, controversies of the type, which have erupted now, should be considered a given.
It is generally accepted that poor drafting has been the bane of India’s legislative framework. The telecom rules are an appalling instance of this. Definitions of critical terms such as ‘associate companies’, for instance are not clear.
Then again, one aim of the relevant telecom guidelines was to prevent an existing operator from cornering spectrum by securing ownership in another company bidding for the spectrum. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong in this approach.
However, the casual approach to drafting the guidelines can lead to legitimate questions about either the competence or motive of the executive that worked on them. If the idea was to prevent an incumbent telecom operator from taking an equity stake in another spectrum bidder, it did not need specialised knowledge of finance to be aware that money is fungible. If in one avenue, equity is shut, someone is bound to use another financial instrument like debt or preference share to violate the spirit of the guidelines. After all, there are a number of operators who would be more than willing to use the guidelines.
Given the disappointing way some of the more recent telecom spectrum auctions have ended, the court’s judgment does trigger questions on the actual cost imposed on India by a framework of ambiguous rules for spectrum allocation.
There is little surprise, therefore, that the prosecution has been shown in such poor light. Of course, officials will tell you privately that they were `asked’ to do the politicians’ bidding, which needless to say, cannot come on part of an official record, much less before a court of law.