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What Anil Ambani's appearance at the CBI HQ really means

Last updated on: February 17, 2011 11:35 IST
Sheela Bhatt explains the significance of Anil Ambani's appearance at the CBI headquarters on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's interaction with the editors of India's leading television channels was overshadowed within a few hours by Anil Ambani, the chairman of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group.

There was no novelty value in Dr Singh's statements to the media except asserting to Congressmen that he was here to stay and what he said about former Gujarat minister of state for home Amit Shah, without naming him.

The prime minister has alienated the Bharatiya Janata Party further by implying that the Gujarat government led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi is not cooperating on the Goods and Service Tax bill because the Union government did not drop the charges against Shah for his alleged involvement in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter killing.

Dr Singh implied that the BJP was trying to bargain its support for the GST bill to the government. The GST bill is an important measure for India's economic reforms. Besides this snub to the BJP, no earthshaking statement emerged from Dr Singh's media interaction on Wednesday morning.

A few hours later, corporate history was made when one of India's richest men, the younger son of the most powerful business icon, and a financial whiz himself, faced a volley of hostile questions from Central Bureau of Investigation officers.

Anil Ambani, who reportedly owns some of the best sports cars in the world, and whose wife former Bollywood actress Tina Ambani is rumoured to own Rs 300 crore (Rs 3 billion) worth of jewellery, showed up humbly at the CGO complex in New Delhi where various Union ministries have their offices.

Anil Ambani remained at the CBI headquarters for nearly two hours in connection with the agency's investigation into the 2G scam. The media was told he went to the CBI HQ because the Bureau had sought clarification on certain documents relating to Swan Telecom -- one of the companies allegedly involved in the 2G scam. But couldn't one of his company directors have gone instead to explain?

Ambani's company owned a 9.9 per cent equity in Swan Telecom before Swan applied for a new licence for 2G spectrum. Swan was promoted by the DB Realty group headed by Shahid Usman Balwa, who is currently in CBI custody.

The CBI is desperately probing the link between Swan Telecom and Kalaignar television, the channel controlled by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi's family.

Ambani's company issued a statement saying he had 'met CBI officials today to clarify ongoing issues, relating to telecom matters for the years 2001 to 2010' during the course of his weekly visit to New Delhi.

Ambani, his company clarified, was not summoned by the CBI; he only 'met' CBI officers. This is what Ambani claims; the CBI has kept quiet.

In the late 1980s the CBI, under its then director Mohan Katre, had refused to register a case against Anil Ambani's father, Dhirubhai Ambani. It was later reported that Katre's son had a joint venture with the Ambanis. In fact, it is said, Dhirubhai even managed an extension for Katre as the CBI director.

Should Anil Ambani's visit to the CBI headquarters be credited to the Bureau's impartial and uncompromising investigation of the 2G scam?

It seems unlikely. The CBI's 'meeting' with Ambani was probably provoked by politics, his rivalry with elder brother Mukesh, the Supreme Court's pressure on the CBI and due to a few obvious facts which even the CBI could not ignore.

What is important to keep in mind is that given a choice, if the media pressure and legal troubles ease, this government would certainly like to prove that the 2G scam was an issue related solely to government policy.

Ashwani Kumar, the Union minister of state and a confidante of the prime minister, claimed so on Wednesday evening. There is no way any government or its ministers could be charged for a criminal offense in "policy matter", Kumar claimed, adding that it is unheard of.

Kumar was speaking on television just as Anil Ambani left the CBI headquarters.

Telecommunication Minister Kapil Sibal and Ashwani Kumar say that A Raja's decisions could be termed an adoption of a wrong policy.

The Budget session of Parliament begins next week. The Supreme Court has asked the CBI to go after the beneficaries of the 2G spectrum allotment, so this drama is on. The government is now smart in playing out the issue before the television cameras.

Nobody can predict where the 2G scam will end with the government's belief that A Raja's decision was strictly a policy decision and thus cannot be challenged in court with criminal liability.

Anil Ambani's 'meeting' with CBI investigators should be taken with a pinch of salt in the ongoing 2G scam soap opera.

After all, Kapil Sibal's claim of a zero loss to the exchequer was not a slip of tongue.

The prime minister is not in a position to say much on the 2G scam because only after the entire round of CBI interrogations conclude will some clarity emerge through the filing of a charge-sheet.

In less than 75 days from now the CBI will have to file a chargesheet against A Raja and others. There seems no escape for the CBI in that regard.

That is the best and postive outcome of the Supreme Court's pressure on the CBI. The rest is hype.

When Anil Ambani walked into the CBI headquarters one thought of his father Dhirubhai. Let us wait for the CBI chargesheet to find out if those heady days of unrestricted power that the Ambanis wielded is finally over or not.

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi