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Who authorised the Raja tapes?

May 27, 2010 09:37 IST
'Yatho Raja tatho Pinarayi!'

Or shall it be a case of 'What is sauce for the Pinarayi isn't sauce for the Raja'?

Only the prime minister and the Congress party know which it shall be.

But what we all know is that the investigating agencies are using different yardsticks to measure the culpability (or otherwise of) Union Telecommunications Minister A Raja and of Kerala CPI-M boss Pinarayi Vijayan.

I hold no brief for him -- quite the contrary, if anything -- but what is the gist of the case against Pinarayi Vijayan in the Lavalin scandal? Nobody is claiming a clear body of evidence against the man himself, anything that indicates incontrovertibly that money was paid directly to him. No, the case against Pinarayi Vijayan is that the state exchequer lost a large sum while he was in charge.

Very briefly, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India concluded that the state had lost roughly Rs 375 crore (Rs 3.75 billion) thanks to contracts signed with the Canadian firm Lavalin when Pinarayi Vijayan was Kerala's electricity minister.

A Central Bureau of Investigation investigation led to the CPI-M leader being named as one of the accused. The Left Democratic Front ministry refused permission to prosecute Vijayan, but Governor R S Gavai overruled his ministers and gave the CBI the green signal.

I have no quarrel with the governor's call. If anything, I completely agree that any minister or bureaucrat who causes such enormous losses should be prosecuted.

But how can you have one set of laws for Pinarayi Vijayan and another for A Raja?

Vijayan stands accused of running up losses to the exchequer; so does Raja. The difference is one of scale -- where the Lavalin case involves 'just' Rs 375 crore, the 2G sell-off could have cost India as much as Rs 60,000 crore (Rs 600 billion). Yet while the powers-that-be seem ready to call Vijayan to answer for himself there is little apparent readiness to move against Raja.

The prime minister was asked directly about his colleague's role in the sale of 2G licences at his first major press conference since the last general election. He was noncommittal, neither offering a clean bill of health nor yet putting him in quarantine. Dr Manmohan Singh merely said that A Raja had told him that he had acted as per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's guidelines.

The CBI report says something else. 'The licenses were awarded to these companies by putting a cap on the number of applicants against the recommendations of the TRAI.'

Either what A Raja told the prime minister -- which Dr Manmohan Singh repeated without comment to the media -- is incorrect, or the CBI got its facts completely wrong.

The facts of the case are undisputed. In 2008 A Raja's department issued new licences at a fee of Rs 1,651 crore (Rs 16.51 billion). There was no auction, the prices were some seven years out of date, and there was no fixed time cap for those who got lucky in the first-come-first-served approach. (The prices fixed in 2001 were from an age when there were barely five million subscribers; there were hundreds of millions when the 2G licences were given away in 2008.)

The fortunate few included Swan Telecom and the real estate major Unitech. Swan Telecom then turned around to sell a stake -- reportedly 45% -- to Etisalat for close to thrice what it had paid to the Government of India. Unitech too sold a stake -- 60% was mentioned -- for an enormous profit.

Neither company had put up a network or gone after any subscribers when they started selling out. Effectively they made gigantic sums of money simply by winning spectrum licences doled out by A Raja's department. (What is more, the cost of the shares they still held following the sales obviously went up too.)

How much did the Government of India lose because it refused to follow a transparent auction?

In 2010 the Government of India decided to adopt the TRAI's preferred method of auctions when it came to the 3G licences. The result was that the government mopped up some Rs 67,000 crore (Rs 670 billion).

Unitech paid Rs. 1,650 crore (Rs 16.50 billion) for its licence; Swan Telecom paid much for its piece of paper, Rs 1,537 crore (Rs 15.37 billion). Compare those to the gigantic sums paid out for the 3G licences -- still more being shelled out for Broadband Wireless licences as I write -- and you can see how much the public exchequer lost.

If Pinarayi Vijayan faces criminal charges for causing losses, can A Raja be held innocent? One supposedly overpaid; the other seems to have underpriced. But what is the difference in effect?

Do note, however, that A Raja was not operating in a vacuum. We now know of the existence of the so-called Raja Tapes, recordings of various conversations. They betray, among other things, just how determined his party was to ensure that Raja kept the ministry of telecommunications.

Two senior journalists have been named in the tapes, as helping negotiate with the Congress. This, if true, was a shameful breach of media ethics.

These conversations, please understand, were not a one-off exercise, and nor should anyone pretend that they were recorded by accident. I learn that they run to at least 1,200 hours of conversation -- over fifty full days if played from end to end. (They could be even longer.)

I also understand that the recordings were both authorised and authentic. In other words, they are admissible evidence in a court of law.

But who would tap a Union minister, that too at such length? The okay must have come from the highest reaches of the government, pointing directly to Congress ministers.

It is, as I said in my last column, no secret that a section of the Congress believes that some in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Raja's party, are just too greedy for their own good. Is that why the taps on A Raja, a minister in a Congress-led coalition, were authorised, and how they were carefully leaked to the media?

With both Parliament and the courts not sitting during the blistering Delhi summer I believe A Raja is safe in his seat for at least two months. Beyond that, well, it is anybody's guess how long he lasts in office -- and how many others might be implicated.

Or will the Congress decide that causing losses in Thiruvananthapuram is reason enough to prosecute Pinarayi Vijayan but that causing several times greater losses in Delhi is no reason to go after A Raja?

T V R Shenoy