» News » Chidambaram appointed EGOM head; BJP unhappy

Chidambaram appointed EGOM head; BJP unhappy

By Renu Mittal
Last updated on: July 06, 2012 22:30 IST
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In a move indicative of a hardening of stand against the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling Congress has decided to cock a snook against the BJP. Renu Mittal reports.

The government has appointed Home Minister P Chidambaram to head the Empowered Group of Ministers on Telecom which has been vacated by Pranab Mukherjee and which was later refused by Nationalist Congress party supremo Sharad Pawar.

The EGOM will decide how much telecom companies will pay for the 2G spectrum. The BJP and other opposition parties have been demanding that Chidamabram should be held accountable for the 2G scam which is currently under the CBI microscope.

Congress sources say that Sonia Gandhi might be in favour of making Chidambaram the union finance minister and the fact that the government has shown it will not be pressurised by the opposition campaign.

The prime minister wants to keep the portfolio with himself for at least 2 months as he wants to streamline the policies and procedures in the ministry.

Congress leaders aver that the party has also approved of the stern talk made by Chidambaram against West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee in Kolkata on Thursday where he spoke of the 'culture of violence'.

A senior All India Congress Committee functionary said that Mamta has gone too far in passing a resolution against the Centre in the West Bengal assembly, even though the Congress tried to tone it down. The Congress members walked out of the assembly after she refused to listen to them.

Chidambaram's attack on Mamta also appears to have won him the approval of Pranab Mukherjee who has been overheard praising Chidambaram these days, even though the general impression in the past was that the two did not see eye to eye on most issues and there was open hostility on certain matters.

Sources say the fact that Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has in an interview to a national daily tried to pass off most of the blame for the country's economic situation on to Pranab, and has instead tried to distance himself from the decisions has not gone down too well within the party and the leadership.

For the first time, a meeting of the Congress core group was held on Friday evening minus the presence of Pranab, where they took stock of the presidential elections and the campaigning.

A senior leader admitted that Pranab would be badly missed as he had a solution and a historical perspective on most issues, and it would be difficult to match up to his wisdom and experience.

Senior leaders say that after Pranab's exit from the government, a great deal of  realignment is expected within the government as a number of leaders are openly lobbying and currying favour to occupy the posts held by him.

Chidambaram would also like to take Pranab's place as the leader of the House, but for the moment, it looks like Union Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde will continue to be the frontrunner, since he is a Dalit, as well as being senior.

There is also the question of whether there would be an official number two in the cabinet, a post held by Pranab. While Pawar is the senior-most after Pranab da, A K Antony is looking to occupy the position by virtue of being the defence minister.

So far there is no decision since the official list of seniority in the cabinet has been withdrawn and a fresh list has yet to be released.

While a number of ministers are eyeing the Empowered Group of ministers and GoMs vacated by Pranab da, the eGoM on telecom has ministers Kapil Sibal, Ambika Soni, Salman Khurshid, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and others.

It will among other things decide on the one-time fee for existing holders of 2G spectrum. The union cabinet will give a final go-ahead on the fee. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India had recommended that telecom firms holding more than 6.2 MHz of 2G airwaves will have to pay a one-time fee.

India's telecom industry has turned into a minefield over the last few years, spawning India's largest-ever scandal. A Raja, who was telecom minister in 2008, is accused of favouring companies who bribed him to get second-generation frequency and licenses.

At the time, Chidambaram was finance minister; the opposition alleges that he did not take any action to check  Raja's alleged scam. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court cancelled 122 of those licenses and said they must be auctioned.

The ministers' group will oversee the bidding process, but the reserve or base price will be determined by the Cabinet. The Supreme Court has said that the auction must be completed by the August end.

The TRAI has controversially fixed the reserve prices for the auction of spectrum for 900 MHz at Rs 7,244 crore, while that for 1800 MHz was fixed at Rs 3,622 crore.

The prices are estimated to be 10 times higher than what was fixed during the first round of spectrum allotment in 2008.

Telecom companies have claimed that this reserve price is too high, and that buying spectrum at the new prices will result in a 100 per cent hike in charges for consumers.

The BJP has however not let up on its attack on the government with party leader Yashwant Sinha targeting the prime minister by calling him an 'overrated economist and an under rated politician'.

Sinha said the prime minister has sought to put the entire blame for the state of the economy on Pranab even though the finance minister constantly consults the prime minister during the budget preparations and it is the PM who finally approves the budget.

The opposition is likely to carry this line of attack on to the monsoon session even as the specific target will be both the prime minister and Chidambaram. But for the moment, it looks like the government has decided to shake off the pressure mounted by the opposition and run the government as it sees fit.

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Renu Mittal in New Delhi