The nation was shocked a few days back when in a new twist to the 2G spectrum, 17 of the accused including former Telecom Minister A. Raja and DMK MP Kanimozhi were acquitted of all charges by a special CBI court. “I have no hesitation in holding that the prosecution has miserably failed to prove any charge against any accused,” said CBI judge OP Saini.
This judgment is very surprising as the TIME magazine had listed this Telecoms Scandal as one of the Top 10 abuses of power. This entire alleged scam also cost the then ruling Congress heavily in the 2014 elections, being one of the key reasons why it was reduced to a paltry 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. Almost everyone was sure that before long, the ministers and bureaucrats involved in this scandal would find themselves behind bars. So, what exactly happened? Let us revisit the events leading up to the recent acquittal.
The word ‘spectrum’ refers to the range of radio waves used for communication. It is a national resource and the government divides the spectrum into certain bands. For a telecom company to have access to across India, it needs to have a ‘spectrum license’. The government auctions the licenses to companies which can then use it to provide a number of services.
A. Raja was accused of conspiring with telecom companies and not following standard procedure during the auction. Cheap telecom licenses were a major irregularity that led to the 2G spectrum allocation scam. The cut-off dates were extended arbitrarily by a whole week, licenses were not allotted on a first-come-first-serve basis as they should have been and neither the due process for auction was followed nor were bids invited. The PMO and the Finance Ministry wrote to A. Raja asking him to follow the stipulated guidelines and make the whole process transparent. However, Raja either rejected or turned a deaf ear to these recommendations. The CAG report in 2010 held Raja responsible for flouting rules, favouritism and costing the government a ‘presumptive loss’ of Rs.1.76 lakh crore. Several politicians, journalists and businessmen came under the radar. The Income Tax Department tapped the phone lines of Niira Radia, who headed a PR agency which represented Tata and Ambani groups. The tapes hinted at mediation by Radia and journalists like Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi in cabinet formation during UPA-2 during which Raja was given the telecom portfolio. BJP leader Subramaniam Swamy also brought up charges against former Finance Minister P Chidambaram and industrialist Ratan Tata. In January 2012, the Supreme Court quashed the telecom licenses awarded by the government and declared the allocation of the 2G spectrum as ‘illegal’ and a gross abuse of power. As per CBI reports, Raja received around 3000 crore rupees in bribes. The CBI also alleged that Raja was involved in a Rs.200 crore bribe to a DMK run TV channel in exchange for a license to Swan Telecom Ltd. During his defence before the trial court, Raja stated that the CBI had failed to furnish proof to support its claim. He maintained that the Cabinet sanctioned all the policies regarding the 2G spectrum. He also said that he wasn’t aware that DMK was running a TV channel.
In 2014, the 2G spectrum re-auctioning saw bids crossing the expected mark of 30,000-40,000 crore and all the telecom officials heaved a sigh of relief. The recent acquittal has also brought a great sense of relief to all the accused as well as the DMK and the Congress. However, this case is far from over. The CBI has decided to file an appeal against the verdict. It is clear that every institutional and constitutional authority, including the Telecom Regulatory Authority, CAG, CBI, Enforcement Director, and above all, Supreme Court of India, found irregularities in the 2G Spectrum allotments. The Supreme court found enough evidence not only to order a prosecution, but also to cancel licences. But the special court didn’t find the accused guilty allegedly due to the incompetence of the prosecution. So, what’s the final say on this scam? Who is lying? If there was no corruption, where did the CAG get the figure of Rs.1.76 lakh crore? If there was indeed obvious corruption, how did the prosecution and the CBI fail to prove the charges against the accused given that they had seven years to collect enough evidence? It seems that only time will be able to answer these questions.
By Niranjan Jahagirdar