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Who sold us the 2G 'scam'?

January 23, 2018 12:21 IST

'And who sold this belief?'
'Public-spirited individuals' like Subramanian Swamy.'
'Independent public servants' like Vinod Rai.
'Anti-corruption activists' like Kiran Bedi.
And 'outspoken television anchors' like Arnab Goswami,' says Mihir S Sharma.

Vinod Rai, as the comptroller and auditor general, claimed the nation had lost Rs 1.76 lakh crore as a result of the 2G 'scam'. Photograph: Kind courtesy BCCI
IMAGE: Vinod Rai, as the comptroller and auditor general, claimed the nation had lost Rs 1.76 lakh crore as a result of the 2G 'scam'. Photograph: Kind courtesy BCCI

The correct definition of 'fake news' is something false and/or sensational that's being put about as being fact-based.

Most properly, this applies to stories such as those circulating just before the US election in 2016 that Hillary Clinton was abducting children using a Washington, DC pizzeria as a cover.

But the broader 'fake news' climate through which the world is now suffering in is one in which false impressions can be created through sensational coverage, groupthink, and overheated social media.

This takes a small and complex if comprehensible story and turns it into a giant scandal purely through repetition and exaggeration.

That was the sort of atmosphere that surrounded coverage of Clinton's emails during the campaign.

 

I have good news for all patriots: That sort of exaggeration is in fact an Indian invention.

Not, sadly, dating back to Vedic times, but more recent.

Those who can remember the years 2010 to 2014 -- even those of us trying desperately to forget them -- were privileged to be there the first time the political discourse in a great democracy was warped by misinformation, gullibility, and lack of perspective.

Some of this is now falling into place -- far too late, of course, but still.

The trial court judgment acquitting former telecom minister A Raja and others of corruption in the distribution of 2G licences is an important step forward.

Or it would be, if anyone was capable of admitting that they were mistaken.

Let's be clear as to what is going on here: We have been defrauded for years.

We have been led to believe that lakhs of crores worth of corruption -- world-beating corruption, unique corruption, unprecedented corruption, real corruption, non-notional corruption -- took place under the United Progressive Alliance.

A Supreme Court decision cancelling telecom licences, on the grounds that procedural arbitrariness was built in to long-standing policy, was sold as justification for this belief in spite of the fact that the Court did not adjudicate disputed facts.

And who sold this belief? 'Public-spirited individuals' like Subramanian Swamy made it a cause célèbre.

'Independent public servants' like Vinod Rai gave the 'scam' a media-friendly hook.

'Anti-corruption activists' like Kiran Bedi went to town publicising it.

And 'outspoken television anchors' like Arnab Goswami demanded punishment on behalf of the Nation.

This entire ecosystem -- for there was an ecosystem that worked towards what the trial court judge has called 'public perception created by rumour, gossip and speculation' -- was once viewed as independent.

Anyone who injected a tone of doubt or questioning into that triumphal anti-corruption narrative was accused, essentially, as being in hock to the government or to the Radias of the world.

Today, however, the antecedents and leanings of this ecosystem are clear.

Swamy has been given everything he could want by the government that was elected on the back of the 2G 'scam' -- a car, a position, security -- though not, of course, what he most wants, the finance ministry.

Rai runs the Banks Board Bureau and the Indian cricket board.

Bedi was a BJP candidate for CM and now is a lieutenant governor.

And Goswami has been given his own channel by an NDA MP.

The judge's words on what happened are clear: 'Some people created a scam by artfully arranging a few selected facts and exaggerating things beyond recognition to astronomical levels.'

What will it take for us to admit we were taken in by this?

What I had called a 'moral panic' about corruption has poisoned our discourse to this day.

It means that a completely indefensible policy like demonetisation can be sold as a means of tackling the corrupt.

It means that genuine policy reform -- privatisation of public sector banks, for example -- can be postponed indefinitely.

The hysteria of 2010 to 2014, as I argued at the time, was essentially flawed in that it 'suggests India has people that are corrupt, not institutions that are poorly designed'. And that flaw is now clearly visible.

We have changed the people in charge, without changing anything else -- and the noisy anti-corruption ecosystem has fallen silent.

Mission accomplished, after all.

Two caveats. First, it is possible that this judgment will be overturned, or a more stringent chargesheet involving the draconian provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act -- against which there is really no defence for any public servant -- might be brought.

We cannot speculate as to why that might hypothetically happen. But we will nevertheless know this: Nothing that has been brought out in this judgment in terms of the facts of what happened will be changed.

What we should all hope for, at this moment, is stock-taking on the part of the media and others who helped turn the 2G 'scam into fact when the entire story was built on such shaky foundations.

We should hope this stands as a warning against groupthink, against rumour, innuendo and speculation.

Our hope is unlikely to be realised, it is true. But momentary defences of fact and rationality, such as are glimpsed in this judgment, allow us to keep that hope alive.

Mihir S Sharma
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