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India needs more of her PM than just integrity

By T V R Shenoy
November 24, 2010 19:49 IST
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Since Dr Manmohan Singh did not explicitly tell A Raja to stop, the telecom minister sped down his chosen road, says T V R Shenoy.

At some point Andimuthu Raja is going to fire off a pertinent -- and embarrassing -- question at Dr Manmohan Singh: 'Precisely when, Mr Prime Minister, did you specifically forbid me to stop whatever system I was using to distribute 2G spectrum?'

I am not sure if the prime minister has a straightforward answer.

In my last column I spoke of Dr Manmohan Singh as being, from my admittedly limited perspective, one of the three utterly incorruptible ministers in the Union Cabinet. That is still true, but India needs more of her prime minister than just individual integrity, she has the right to expect that the chief executive can crack the whip if he sees a colleague going astray.

The Comptroller & Auditor General has calculated in his official report that the exchequer lost the truly mindboggling sum of Rs 176,645 crore (Rs 176.64 billion) because A Raja's ministry did not follow the proper procedures.

Let us give the former communications minister the benefit of the doubt -- 'innocent until proven guilty' and all that -- and assume that this was due to carelessness rather than corruption. Was it still not the prime minister's duty to pull up his minister?

Much of the correspondence between the prime minister and the former minister is now out in public. We now know that on November 2, 2007 Dr Singh wrote to A Raja to consider both auctioning spectrum and revising the entry fee in a fair and transparent manner.

This raises the question as to why the prime minister did not simply order his minister to choose the auction route. Why did he ask him only to consider it as an option?

On December 26, 2007 A Raja wrote to the prime minister. This message mentions the personal discussion he had with the prime minister and the external affairs minister regarding the spectrum issue. (The then external affairs minister was Pranab Mukherjee, then as now the chief troubleshooter for the government.) Did the prime minister insist on auctioning spectrum at this meeting, or did he simply permit the then telecom minister to have his way?

It is also now known that the then Union law minister, H R Bhardwaj, said the entire issue of allotting spectrum should be considered by an empowered group of ministers. A Raja reportedly felt that this advice was 'out of context'. Did the prime minister go along with this view?

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister the Union Cabinet had authorised the ministry of finance to participate in the discussion when spectrum was to be allocated. Was this policy changed at some point? If not, did A Raja ever seek advice from the Union finance minister? If he did not, did the prime minister ask the telecom minister to do so?

D S Mathur -- secretary, department of telecommunications, and member (finance), DoT, retired on December 31, 2007. He had reportedly been objecting to his minister's chosen method of allotting spectrum.

On January 10, 2008 -- ten days after D S Mathur's retirement -- it was announced that any eligible applicant who had applied at any date up to September 25, 2007 would be granted a letter of intent. Was this decision taken after consultation with the prime minister?

The Comptroller & Auditor General has said that there was no due diligence in the examination of the applications, and that 85 of the 121 licences went to 'ineligible' applicants. 45 out of these 85 went to entities that, according to the Comptroller & Auditor General, did not satisfy even the 'main object clause' in their memorandum of association.

Please note too that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the independent regulator, now recommends cancelling 69 of those licences on various grounds. In other words, India got short-changed on both sides -- the payment for spectrum as well as on the services that were promised but not delivered.

Did Dr Manmohan Singh insist at any point that A Raja should change course?

Moving from the Department of Telecommunications to the Prime Minister's Office, we know that Dr Subramanian Swamy wrote to Dr Singh on November 29, 2008, seeking permission to prosecute A Raja. (According to Section 13 of the Prevention of Corruption Act of 1988, the prime minister's permission is needed to prevent ministers being harassed by anyone with an axe to grind.) When he was neither given nor denied permission, Dr Swamy wrote follow-up messages.

In the absence of answers Dr Swamy approached the courts. The solicitor general, Gopal Subramanium, responded that every message had been answered adequately. The Supreme Court then asked the Prime Minister's Office to file an affidavit with details of how it had acted upon the various messages. (An unhappy prime minister subsequently replaced the solicitor general with the attorney general himself.)

On the face of it, Dr Swamy was right to complain. To quote Lord Curzon's bleak description of Indian bureaucratic norms, 'Like the diurnal revolution of the Earth went the files, steady, solemn, sure, and slow.'

The affidavit filed by V Vidyavati, a director in the Prime Minister's Office, takes 23 eye-numbing paragraphs to describe how the question was tossed back and forth between various departments. 'Progress without action' sounds like a contradiction in terms but that is exactly what happened. (Or, to be precise, did not happen!)

If the traffic lights stop working you can be sure that every driver will engage in a headlong rush, reasoning that 'no lights' equals a 'green signal'. This rationale seems to have motivated A Raja as well when he made his choices. Since Dr Manmohan Singh did not explicitly tell him to stop, the communications minister sped down his chosen road.

Sadly, the usual consequence of non-functioning signals is either a traffic jam or an outright accident. Metaphorically speaking, we have already seen the first -- in the form of a gridlocked winter session of Parliament. For the sake of that decent and honest man, the prime minister, I hope the situation does not end in an almighty crash.

When A Raja asks Dr Manmohan Singh why he did not stop him, in unmistakable terms, how will the beleaguered prime minister respond?

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