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'Spectrum: The PM is somewhat culpable'

Last updated on: December 13, 2010 11:04 IST

Image: Prashant Bhushan

Since the last few years, Prashant Bhushan, senior lawyer, has fired up the Indian political scene through his missionary legal practice.

In the legal fraternity he is a loner because he is, always, on the wrong side of the power set up in New Delhi. In fact, when one meets the slow and soft-speaker, he hardly looks like a lawyer who is capable of shaking-up the government and its cronies.

But, his fire lies in his eyes. The man is known for his radical ideas, politically incorrect action plans and pro-poor agenda. He uses the potent weapon of the law to rein-in power-wielders of various sectors who unabashedly exploit national wealth and people's rights.

He has been involved in cases like Bofors, Narmada and Jain hawala. He fights for accountability of public servants and against exploitation of India's mineral resources and now, he is trying to take the 2G spectrum scam to its logical conclusion.

His commitment to civil liberty, human rights and environment issues is exemplary. He and his famous father Shanti Bhushan, former law minister and distinguished lawyer, who fought against Indira Gandhi before and after the Emergency, are feared by power-brokers who manipulate the legal system.

Bhushan is facing contempt charges in the Supreme Court for speaking against corruption in the higher judiciary. He is, probably, the only man in New Delhi who is not afraid of the judiciary because he knows someone has to start cleaning the rotting system. Indeed, if his fight for bringing the Supreme Court into orbit of the Right to Information law fructifies, then the people will be indebted to his commitment for transparency in governance.

As we know, Bhushan had a legal victory when the Supreme Court took note of his petition against Central Bureau of Investigation's tardy investigation into 2G spectrum scandal and issued notices to the parties involved. His petition will make history if the Supreme Court agrees to monitor it or allows Bhushan's plea to have an independent committee monitor the 2G investigation under the supervision of the apex court.

In this exclusive interview to's Sheela Bhatt, Bhushan gives the background of his petition and other related issues.

Click next to read the fascinating interview

'The scam is a loot of public resources'

Tell us about your passion behind the petition related to the 2G spectrum scam.

I have always been concerned about corruption because I think corruption is one of the main problems in India. It's the cause of many other problems. Because of corruption, social justice cannot be delivered. Through corrupt practises, land is being acquired from the poorest of country and given away to the largest corporations.

The cases of corruption has always angered me, particularly, corruption in higher places. It has the most serious impact on society. Unfortunately, the common people don't know about this kind of corruption. They are not much aware about the loot of public resources for the benefit of a few corporates.

The simple point is that when land is acquired for rich corporates, poor people are directly affected but when 2G spectrum is allotted they are affected indirectly because public exchequer is deprived of huge sums of money.

When this big scam broke it was clear that some dilly-dallying and cover up was going on by the investigation agencies, so we moved the court.

How do you weigh the case from a legal point of view? The government side has said that the 2G spectrum allotment was a matter of policy.

It is absurd to say that this was the matter of (government) policy. Firstly, you can't have a corrupt policy. If you have a policy by which you say I will arbitrarily exclude 400 people and allot spectrum to 300 people on some distorted form of 'first come first serve' basis as if you are distributing some cinema tickets is absurd.

And when the public property that you are giving away is worth thousands of crores of rupees you can't accept such absurd an argument that it's a policy matter so any court or the agency can't probe it.

In any case, the Comptroller and Auditor General has given its report and even the CBI has submitted the status report and has registered an FIR. This shows that the 2G spectrum issue is far more serious than just a policy decision.


'I want a court-monitored investigation'

Image: The CBI headquarters in Delhi

You have asked for an independent probe

Yes, my petition in the Supreme Court is for a court-monitored investigation. We have asked for the appointment of a couple of retired officers of impeccable integrity and reputation who have the competence to supervise the investigation. These experts should keep reporting to the court to ensure that this investigation is proper, full and expeditious.

If at some point it's found that CBI officers are stalling the investigation or acting improperly then they will have to be removed and replaced. Our plea is that all the culprits should be brought to book.

Do you still have faith in the CBI? Your petition recommends the investigation by the agency.

See, I don't have faith in the CBI. But, there are always some good officers within the CBI who are honest and competent. The main thing is to ensure that honest and competent officers are able to work and other officers are kept under supervision.

And, those who are corrupt and can't work independent of the government should be removed from the investigation.


'The PM's is somewhat culpable'

Image: India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters

A Raja, the former telecom minister who is at the centre of the scam, says he is confident that he will be able to prove his innocence and he will expose what the National Democratic Alliance government's policy was, which he carried forward.

I think it is all bluff and bluster! It is incorrect to say that he was continuing with the NDA policy because that policy had become defunct as soon as the number of applicants exceeded the spectrum available. The 'first come, first serve' policy at 2001 prices could have worked so long as the number of applicants were less than the spectrum available.

Once the applicants became more than the available spectrum and it became clear that everybody cannot accommodated. Then you cannot follow the earlier policy without any auction.

The rationale behind the auction was that amongst the overflowing applicants those who were willing to pay the highest could have been given the spectrum or government should have opted for some other criteria. But, you can't allow applicants the 'first come, first serve' criteria. Spectrum is not cinema tickets.

See, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India recommendation was that no cap on the number of licensees should be there and, simultaneously, they said that the telecom ministry can give spectrum at 2001 prices. But, once the number of applicants exceeded the spectrum, you could not do without a cap. So, when a cap was introduced the rest of the policy got disturbed.

Then, the minister ought to have heeded what many other people were saying that he should have an auction to determine the spectrum price and select the highest bidders.

Raja's supporters are pointing out that these are collective decisions of the Union Cabinet. Raja's supporters ask why make him only the villain of the story?

It is true that the prime minister appears to have shut his eyes after having sort of interceded with Raja initially. After having asked Raja to go for an auction, when Raja said no, the prime minister appears to have just closed his eyes. But, it was primarily Raja who was, really, driving this. The fact that prime minister closed his eyes makes him somewhat culpable but certainly his is not the same as Raja's.


'Raja misused his office to give huge largesse to companies'

Image: Former telecom minister A.Raja, who resigned after the scam broke out
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters

Do you or any agency have evidence of any transaction linking Raja in any manner?

That's not the only thing necessary in this case. There are three kinds of offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act. One is receiving bribes. Second, having disproportionate assets, third, is the issue of the criminal misconduct.

When a public servant misuses office to give largesse to somebody it's an offence. In this case it's clear that Raja misused his office to give huge largesse to these companies. Raja has definitely committed the offence of criminal misconduct.

Whether he has received bribes or whether he has disproportionate assets will be known only after the CBI investigation.

Where is the 2G spectrum issue heading?

I hope the court monitors the investigation and it will be done properly. At least, some of the main culprits will be arrested and prosecuted. The other issue is the cancellations of these licenses. The loss to the public exchequer can be regained only if the licences are cancelled and auctioned. We are filing a separate petition for that purpose. We hope that the court cancels the licenses. I doubt if government is serious about cancelling any of it.


'There is no reason for the govt to resist the JPC'

Image: BJP activists face police try to stop them during a protest against the 2G scam
Photographs: Pawan Kumar/Reuters

What are your views on the Bharatiya Janata Party's demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee?

I am surprised that this government is resisting a JPC so vehemently. There is no reason for government to resist it. It should have been agreed to. Stalling Parliament for so long is, also, not the right way to go about this case. The JPC won't harm my case. The criminal investigation can proceed side by side.

The other crucial issue is that if the CBI completes the investigation by February 2011, as promised, then, they will need the Prime Minister's Office's permission to prosecute senior bureaucrats above joint secretary and may be even Raja.

Yes, that's the crucial issue. That Supreme Court would monitor if the PMO or anybody is not giving permission. I am sure the officers who will be supervising the investigation would report to the court and the court will, hopefully, issue the suitable direction to the government. So far, the CBI has not said there is any impediment in the investigation.

So, you think the CBI is doing its job in this case?

I am not saying the CBI is doing its job. The CBI has not been doing its job but, we hope that if the court starts monitoring the investigation through competent supervisors then the CBI may start doing its job.

The common man asks cynically if the money looted will ever come back to the exchequer.

Money can be recovered if the licenses are cancelled and auctioned again.

'The Radia tapes show corporates control the establishment'

Image: Nira Radia
Photographs: Reuters

Many Congressmen say that corruption is not an issue in the minds of the people. People know, they argue, that corruption is part of India. Some also say corruption is a kind of destiny of the Indians. 2010 is a different time where a Bofors-type scandal won't catch attention in same manner, many Congressmen argue.

Corruption is an issue on the minds of the people but not the issue for mainstream political parties because they have, also, become corrupt in states where they are ruling and in New Delhi. The Nira Radia tapes shows that how whole system has become so corrupt where one lobbyist can influence politicians, bureaucrats and media -- all sections of the establishment.

There are tapes about influencing the judiciary, also. It shows how large corporations today control the entire establishment in the country. It's they who decide what kind of discussion will take place in Parliament.

A senior Congress leader told me that in Bihar nobody talked about corruption. He said not even Nitish Kumar talked about it. He says elections are not lost or won on the issue of corruption.

Well, it may be that corruption wasn't an issue in Bihar. But, if elections are held in the country today corruption will be a big issue.

In this case, the side story has become the bigger story. The Radia tapes have shaken the media. Can you tell us about it?

According to the CBI there are more than 5,800 conversations of Radia and her associates taped through her company's phones. Out of that only 108 tapes have come into the public domain. The CBI and income tax department certainly have all the tapes and now they have deposited one set of tapes in court. I don't know who else has them. Some people may have some other conversations, the media or anybody else may have them. I don't know.


'They want policy, debate in Parliament and decisions in their favour only'

Image: A view of Parliament building
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters

Did these tapes shock you?

No. I am not surprised because I have been aware since sometime the manner in which corporates have been going about it. They want everything to be done in their interest. They want policy, debate in Parliament and decisions in their favour only. They are able to control everything, including the media. The tapes provide graphic evidence how policy is being subverted, sessions of Parliament are being managed, stories in the media are being planted by the corporates.

The Radia tapes provide a rare glimpse for people to see how things are being run in the country. Now, you know who is running them and in what manner.

The Congress is shifting the entire blame of the 2G scam on the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. They give the excuse coalition politics and duty of running the government.

What is the point of running the government if the prime minister who prides himself on being clean says that in order to run my government I have to tolerate corruption amongst my ministers? I mean, for what purpose are you running the government if you say in order to provide a clean government you tolerate corruption?

If that's the price of running the government then you might as well get rid of such a government. This argument of compulsion of coalition politics, nobody can buy and nobody should buy. Then, you allow government to fall and let us see what the new election would throw up.

The Bofors case took 20 years in the courts, don't you think 2G scam will meet the same fate?

That could. That's the cynical view. But if you give up then nothing will happen. We have to keep trying that someday we will succeed and change something for the better.