Sunday, November 22, 2009

Raja defied PM, ignored Bhardwaj’s noting

[The Pioneer, October 28, 2009]

The 2G spectrum scam might not have taken place but for the clout that A Raja wielded in the UPA-I Government, when his party (the DMK) — as a major ally of the Congress — called the shots at the Centre. Documents available with The Pioneer show how the Telecom Minister got away with serious misdemeanour: He flouted Manmohan Singh’s written directions to take the PM’s clearance before acting on the matter; contemptuously dismissed a crucial suggestion by then Law Minister H R Bhardwaj for an EGoM to decide on spectrum licence auctioning; and claimed to have been enlightened (to go ahead in the manner he did) in a deliberation with senior Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee.

Bhardwaj was perhaps the first senior Minister then to smell a rat in Raja’s decision on spectrum allotment. On November 1, 2007, he forcefully advocated that an Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) be formed to decide the formalities in allotting the spectrum. Bhardwaj wrote, “In view of the importance of the case (2G spectrum allocation) and various options indicated in the statement of the case, it is necessary that the whole issue is first considered by an Empowered Group of Ministers and, in that process, the legal opinion of A-G (Attorney General) can be obtained.”

The then Union Law Minister was responding to an opinion sought by the Telecom Ministry on going ahead with the allocation of 2G spectrum on first-come-first-served basis and on prices fixed in 2001.

This sensible suggestion did not go down well with Raja. Without wasting time - on the following day, November 2, 2007 — a furious Raja wrote to the Prime Minister and questioned Bhardwaj’s wisdom in asking for setting up an EGoM.

The Telecom Minister’s letter is a classic example of arrogance. He wrote, “The Ministry of Law and Justice, instead of examining the legal tenability of these alternative procedures, suggested referring the matter to EGoM. Since generally new major policy decisions of a department or inter-departmental issues are referred to the GoM, and needless to say that the present issues relate to procedures, the suggestion of the Law Ministry is totally out of context.” (The emphasis is as in the letter.)

Raja also informed the Prime Minister that he wished to advance the cut-off date for the receipt of applications for the spectrum/licence from October 1, 2007, to September 25, 2007.

This was on the morning of November 2, 2007. The same afternoon, the Prime Minister — alerted by Bhardwaj’s noting on the mega scam-in-the-making — wrote back to the Telecom Minister and cautioned him against taking any measures without informing him. This was clearly a directive to freeze all action on 2G spectrum allotment.

“I would request you to give urgent consideration to the issues being raised with a view to ensuring fairness and transparency and let me know of the position before you take any further action in this regard,” the Prime Minister said.

In the two-page letter, Manmohan Singh also objected to Raja’s proposal to go ahead with the first-come-first-served model and cheap pricing. Singh instructed the Minister to adopt “correct pricing of spectrum and revision of entry fee”. The Prime Minister also asked Raja to clarify on the objections raised by TRAI over the first-come-first-served basis and the 2001 pricing for sale in 2008.

The unambiguity appeared lost on the Telecom Minister. Responding to the Prime Minister, Raja offered an evasive reply, though drooping with courtesy. The same evening, he wrote in his second missive to the Prime Minister, “I would like to assure you that all my decisions and endeavours are honestly aimed at the development of the telecom sector….” He then launched into a technical background on the telecom sector in the country. But not one word did he utter on the Prime Minister’s instructions to refrain from taking any decision without informing him (the PM). He also remained silent on the issue of auctioning.

After this flurry of exchanges, Raja suddenly went into a shell. Finally, breaking his silence 50 days after his last note to the Prime Minister, Raja wrote another letter to him on December 26, 2007. Therein, he claimed that he had received consent from the then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and the then Solicitor General (currently Attorney General) Goolam Vahanvati to go ahead with the spectrum allocation.

It is here that the Telecom Minister got enlightened. “In these circumstances, the discussions with External Affairs Minister and Solicitor General of India have further enlightened me to take a pre-emptive and pro-active decision on these issues as per the guidelines and rules framed thereunder to avoid any further confusion and delay,” a grateful Raja stated.

It remains a mystery why Raja quoted Mukherjee and Vahanvati as both have no locus standi in allotting the 2G spectrum. The Prime Minister routinely acknowledged the letter on January 3, 2008, but said nothing more. Certainly, he never supported or endorsed Raja’s decisions, as the Telecom Minister is claiming ad nauseum.

Ironically, while Bhardwaj is out of the Cabinet in UPA-II, Raja continues in the Ministry, defending what is increasingly becoming an indefensible position.

[The writer is Special Correspondent of 'The Pioneer' daily]