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2G scam: Why Dr Singh's credibility is at stake

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: November 18, 2010 16:24 IST
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Sheela Bhatt explains why Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is headed for politically troubled times over the 2G spectrum scam.

Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is heading for the most crucial time of his political career. On Tuesday, no less than the Supreme Court dragged Prime Minister's Office into the massive telecom scam and that gives a hint of coming of a political storm which has the potential to damage Dr Singh.

You don't need a pundit to predict that after going through the facts and figures coming to light from the Comptroller and Auditor General report on the 2G spectrum scam, popularly known as the telecom scam.

The 2G spectrum scam of 2010 threatenes to become as potent as the Bofors scam of the late 1980s. The Bofors scam had a strong emotional appeal because it was the scam related to the defence services and India's security interests; but here the sheer size of the "loot" (CAG claims Rs 176,000,000,000 was the loss because wrong method for the allotment of spectrum was adopted by the telecom ministry) that come election time would stir our political satirists.

A political tsunami is in the making in New Delhi. All eyes are on Congress President Sonia Gandhi to see if she will ssave her party first or the reputation of the PMO.

Something fundamental to current political set up is getting hit by the ongoing and slowly unfolding truth of 2G spectrum scam. All of India witnessed how Sonia refused to become the prime minister, how she nominated Dr Singh to power and trusted him to safeguard the interests of her party and reputation of her family. 

Now, for first time, events show that the outsourcing of the administration of the country has failed somewhere. And, the result is the bewildering loss to the exchequer. Congressmen would now ask the outsourcing firm how did this happen?

Congressmen are trying hard to cut their losses by securing Telecom Minister A Raja's resignation but if the Opposition parties formulate the right strategy, a mix of political maneuvering and media hype, then the Congress will be on the defensive and Dr Singh may find himself insecure.

After all, one can fix value to 2G spectrum loss, but Dr Singh's credibility can't be fixed in numbers.

After Raja's brazen act of allotting the 2G spectrum in January 2008, Dr Singh reportedly wanted to take action against him by shifting him from the telecom portfolio, if not sacking him from the Union Cabinet.

But compulsions of coalition politics forced him and Sonia Gandhi to go slow on the issue.

Dr Singh could not overcome the pressure from the Congress in tackling the Raja scam before it went into the realm of Opposition politics. This will prove very costly for the prime minister and his party.

As it's a well known fact that politically, Dr Singh was always weaker than the party. The inherent weakness of the personal arrangement between Dr Singh and Sonia Gandhi has contributed heavily in the making of this scam.

As things are unfolding it's becoming clear that Raja has not lost steam. This man as minister of telecommunications has used power brazenly and although he has now fallen from grace, Raja still remains quite an intelligent man.

He is going to fight his legal battle alone but his political battle will be sharper and he will club all his actions with the PMO.

Also, the bottom-line of the 2G spectrum is that behind the ugly story is corporate wars and greed. Anil Ambani and his company Reliance's name has already emerged as the beneficiary but other big telecom stars are not far behind.

The climax is still far away for this story. As we in media know that so many leaks in the story are made possible, also, by corporate houses.

All those tainted companies who got the cream of 2G spectrum are playing a game and might be keeping pressure on the Congress, the PMO and even the Opposition parties to not demand cancellation of the allotment.

It's believed that the only option to keep the 2G scam under check is to cancel the 2008 allotment, kick out the tainted telecom companies and prosecute Raja. It's a tall order for any government.

So, as Raja now embarks upon a long drawn fight for survival, he will have high nuisance value.

The Congress will, as it is the old habit of the old party, try to differentiate between "the party" and "the party-led government."

Notwithstanding the fact that the government is led by Dr Singh, who is the most loyal Congressman, it's very likely that he will be isolated if the people of India do not buy the argument that "the PM's advice not heeded by Raja."

A former cabinet secretary, in an off the record interview, tore apart PMO's defence. He told, "The entire bureaucracy in India is looking at the event with shock. Don't you know what the Transaction of Business Rules, 1961 is? Who are you fooling? The prime minister has unrestricted right to get any file, any record from any ministry. The finance minister, too, has the right to ask for any file if there are financial implications."

Under the Transaction of Business Rules any decision above Rs 500 crore has to go through the Union Cabinet. 

The retired bureaucrat further said, "The 2G spectrum scam is the total failure of the PMO. Who is the boss in the government? Who is the custodian of the Indian people's interest? It would take ten minutes to stop Raja from going ahead so brazenly for someone like the PM's Principal Secretary T K A Nair or the cabinet secretary. Nair has to just pick up the phone and tell the telecommunication secretary to meet Dr Singh, immediately."

He further said, "Do you think any IAS officer would defy the PMO's call?"

When the scam took place in Raja's office in January 2008, the cabinet secretary was S M Chandrashekhar. The retired cabinet secretary said, "He must clarify what was he doing, then? Kindly, don't fool the people of India."

"Even D S Mathur, the retired official of the telecom ministry who has spoken out so late against Raja, can't be defended," said the retired bureaucrat.

"When the nation is being looted, you can't sulk and go home. Mathur went home instead of participating in the wrongdoings of his minister; but he should have gone to Chandrashekhar and given him all in writing. How can you keep quiet?" he asked.

The official went on to say, "What I am saying is that the cabinet secretary should have written a two-line letter to the department of telecommunication that before allotment of the license for 2G spectrum, get it approved from the Union Cabinet. That would have been enough to stop the scam."

In fact, the PMO had told Raja to take the issue to the Empowered Group of Ministers. Raja ignored the PMO. The story of Raja is that the minister took the decisions disregarding the PM's and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India's advice.

The official said, "But then why did the PMO not initiate action to scrap the procedure which was violating all rules as they knew well? What stopped the PMO from responding to the likes of Subramanian Swami and many others?"

Of course, the former cabinet secretary told, CAG has not indicted Dr Singh nor his officers directly in it's report but if and when the matter goes to next stage, then Cabinet Secretary Chandrashekhar will have a lot to answer for.

The retired official said, "People of India should know this much that PM of the country has absolute power in running the country. He could have undone the decisions in no time even if Raja had flouted the rules and code of ethics."

Prashant Bhushan, the senior lawyer whose petition on 2G spectrum is being heard in Supreme Court, told, "After all, the ministers in the Union Cabinet function at the pleasure of the prime minister. Therefore, he was serious about this then it was not enough to make some noises. If he is trying to say that he was really serious, then he should have removed Raja long back."

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi