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'Candid' Tata says he's a victim of telecom policy

Last updated on: April 5, 2011 09:29 IST

'Candid' Tata says he's a victim of telecom policy

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Saubhadra Chatterji in New Delhi

Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata and Niira Radia, the head of Vaishnavi Communications, on Monday denied charges of cronyism and influence-peddling during their appearance before Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in connection with the probe into the 2G spectrum allocation scam.

"It is an exaggeration to think that either Niira Radia or I can manipulate government policy or influence decisions about Cabinet berths," Tata told the PAC in his first appearance before the probe body.

Tata said his company was, in fact, a victim of government policy. It had to wait for 85 days to get the GSM licence, whereas three other companies got licences because of the first-come-first-serve policy, Tata said.

The PAC probe is running parallel to the investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which on Saturday charged the Reliance ADA group and the Indian partners of Telenor and Etisalat for wrongfully getting 2G licences and spectrum in 2008.

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Image: Ratan Tata (L), chairman of the Tata Group, enters Parliament complex.
Photographs: Stringer/Reuters
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In what could lead to more revelations, the PAC has asked Reliance Communications chairman Anil Ambani, Unitech Wireless managing director Sigve Brekke, Etisalat DB Telecom CEO Atul Jhamb and S-Tel CEO Shamik Das to appear before it on Tuesday.

Radia's taped conversations with Tata and various journalists, bureaucrats and corporate heads were leaked a few months ago. The tapes revealed corporate rivalry, corruption and cronyism in the process of allocation of 2G spectrum.

Tata on Monday accepted that the voice in the tape was his.

While the PAC found Tata "forthcoming" and "co-operative," it warned Radia about the dangers of "trying to be evasive".

In the tapes, Radia is heard boasting about her contacts, urging journalists and others to use influence to appoint certain individuals as ministers and acting as a deal-maker between the family of DMK chief M Karunanidhi and those who wanted 2G licences.

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Image: Corporate lobbyist Niira Radia enters the Parliament complex.
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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Radia on Monday tried to tell the PAC that the tapes were only partly true and the leaks were out-of-context conversations. She said she would apply to CBI for getting the full tape of the conversations and send them to the PAC.

When Saifuddin Soz of the Congress sought Tata's views on the loss to the exchequer estimated by CBI and the Comptroller and Auditor General due to the scam, Tata said, "I can't corroborate or quantify the loss as it has never happened. If you compare the 2G values with the 3G figures, it might look like that (loss), but at that point of time, the policy in place was different."

Biju Janata Dal member Bhratruhari Mahtab asked Tata about his letter to Karunanidhi written on November 13, 2007, praising A Raja (the then telecom minister) for his "rationale, fair and action-oriented policies".

At this point, Tata got support from unexpected quarters. Tiruchi Siva, the DMK nominee on the PAC, took up the microphone and defended Tata.

"It was not an official letter to the Tamil Nadu chief minister. Second, in this federal structure, states, too, contribute a lot towards the policy-making process at the Centre."

Mahtab said the private letter was carried by Radia in a sealed envelope and asked how the PAC got the copy. "I don't know. I didn't leak it," Tata said.

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Image: CBI officials carry the 2G spectrum case charge sheet to a court in New Delhi on April 2, 2011.
Photographs: Parivartan Sharma/Reuters
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Tata was accompanied by Madhav Joshi, chief legal officer and company secretary of Tata Teleservices (Maharashtra) and N Srinath, MD and CEO, Tata Teleservices. According to sources, most of the technical questions were answered by these two officials.

While Tata faced a number of questions about the tapes and his alleged influence on the government's decision-making process and Cabinet formation, he was also asked about the Rs 1,600-crore (Rs 16 billion) the Tatas had given to Unitech.

"This money was given as a soft loan to Unitech and it returned the money with interest," said Tata.

"While Tata was forthcoming, Niira Radia tried to be evasive. She was not clear in her answers. She gave very loosely-worded answers on the taped conversations. She was not in a mood to place the entire facts before the committee," PAC chairman Murli Manohar Joshi told reporters.

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Image: Murli Manohar Joshi.
Photographs: Reuters
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According to sources, Joshi lost his cool at one point and told Radia, "It seems you don't understand the importance and stature of this committee. You have come before the Indian Parliament. I hope you understand the consequences you may face for trying to mislead the panel."

Tata, however, offered to revert to the PAC within "two-three days" on questions to which he couldn't reply immediately.

Radia, too, denied any attempt to manipulate the second UPA Cabinet formation. "How can I do that? I am just doing a PR job," she said.

She admitted she had accompanied Tata to Chennai to resolve a land issue but added, "I am the PR agent for the company."

She also said that she knew A Raja, Kanimozhi and many other political leaders, industrialists and top journalists but said "it is a part of my job".

Radia came with two senior colleagues Manoj Warrier and Yateesh Wahaal.



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