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August 24, 1999
The telecom tangle in which the Vajpayee government found itself for weeks together is a telltale commentary on the kind of irresponsible democracy practised by opinion makers in our country. The President, an NGO, the Election Commission, the political Opposition and the media -- all showed an almost disregard for the national interest when it was linked to their near pathological animosity towards the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. And the government fell into the tangle because it failed abysmally in communicating its position professionally and precisely.
Simply stated, the background of the telecom storm was as follows:
* In 1994, the telecom sector was for the first time opened to the private sector both in regard to basic and cellular services. Bids were invited by the government on the basis of an annual licence fee, the quantum of which depended on the geographic region for which the bid was made.
* Expecting swift growth, Indian and foreign competitors made unusually high bids.
* The rate of growth in demand for telecom services was generally far below the estimates of the bidders. Compounding the matter was the governmental delay in issuing clearances --seven of these being required sequentially. The target of one year for such clearances was exceeded by anything between 87 days and 375 days.
* By the middle of last year, the financial loss being incurred by these private telecom operators had mounted so much that they began explaining their plight to the members of Parliament. The result was a letter by 47 MPs -- including 33 of the Sonia Congress -- on June 9, 1998 to the Vajpayee government expressing the view that if the relief sought by the cellular operators was not granted, the Indian companies, not having resources to fund the huge losses, would become prey to rich multinationals, thereby defeating the government policy of Indian promoters holding a 51 equity control for reasons of security.
* The government asked the Bureau of Industrial Costs and Prices to study the issue urgently. The Bureau concluded that the low demand growth for telecom services, the high licence fees and governmental delays in issuing clearances had made large sections of the industry unviable.
*A group of experts headed by the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission was set up to quickly devise a new telecom policy. This high-powered panel's main recommendation was that the licence fee regime be replaced by one in which firms pay to the government a percentage of the actual revenues they earn.
* The Vajpayee Cabinet approved the new policy of revenue sharing on March 20, 1999; its copies were placed in the Parliament library on April 1 --- 16 days before the government fell and 25 days before the Lok Sabha was dissolved.
* Soon, two crucial questions arose in quick succession. The first one was: "Are the existing operators liable to pay what they had undertaken to pay in the agreements they had entered into?" This was because some operators were reneging on their commitments either for reasons of financial inability or because governmental delays had made the agreements unenforceable.
The second poser was: "Will it be in accordance with the law as well as with the original agreements to extend the revenue sharing option to existing operators?"
The "caretaker" government referred these two questions to its attorney general, Soli Sorabjee, an unimpeachable man of eminence. His answer to each of the two questions was "yes." In his affirmative opinion on the second question, the attorney general also laid down a schedule for paying overdue licence fees by existing operators before being allowed to migrate to the revenue sharing package from the cut-off date of August 1. That opinion came on June 16, 1999.
* Even before the attorney general's first opinion came, the Minister for Communications, Jagmohan, took a stern view. He felt the operators were the guilty ones and should be given no option but to pay up the pending licence fees, failing which their licences would be revoked and re-auctioned. By yet again displaying his characteristic obstinacy bordering on the oppressive, Jagmohan overlooked the government's culpability in delaying clearances.
More importantly, he overlooked the disastrous impact on the operators' existing assets, the debilitating delay of the litigation that was sure to follow, the plight of thousands of existing users on being denied a vital service, the fate of the Rs 52 billion already invested by financial institutions in the operators' companies and the grossly negative influence on the general investment climate, especially of foreign origin. Result: Jagmohan lost the communications portfolio which was taken over by Vajpayee, the PM whose concern for infrastructure and information technology had been manifest all along.
* The attorney general's opinion of June 16, 1999 led to the revenue sharing package of July 6, 1999. And that should have led to the revival road for the predominantly sick private telecom sector.
But we are a democracy where a President, not our Constitution, coined the farcical phrase of "working" President; we are a democracy where the political Opposition believes that its raison d'etre is to oppose anything that the Vajpayee government does or wants to do; we are a democracy, finally, where one can get away by publicly saying anything anywhere as long as it does not offend the minorities, especially the Muslims.
Hence the telecom tangle that engulfed the political scene after July 6.
It began with the country's President. He was the first to seek clarification from the Vajpayee government. This was justifiable under Article 78 of our Constitution that confers the right on the President to be informed about the country's affairs. But Mr Narayanan ignored the fact that, constitutionally, it is the prime minister who is the channel of communication, the only link, between the President and the council of ministers.
Thus the President betrayed his intentions by calling Jagmohan for discussing the telecom subject on which he had lost his portfolio. It was crystal clear that Mr Narayanan either did not trust the prime minister to give him all the facts or did not think him capable of knowing all the facts or was looking for some "inside" dope. This shocking act of our Constitutional head set the cat among the pigeons.
An NGO went to court protesting against the migration package's content and intent. It was the same NGO that had earlier gone to court pleading that the high licence fees would throw an unbearable burden on telecom users.
The Election Commission stepped in, claiming to respond to the call of the political Opposition that had also started making noises. When given a detailed note by the government, the EC did not ask for more information but egoistically proclaimed that it was not given enough of it. So inflated is our EC's ego it also rendered unsolicited advice to the Delhi high court where the NGO's case was.
The Communists make their own law and their interpretations of it, don't they? One of their Rajya Sabha MPs wrote a signed press article saying, 'The Constitution makes it unambiguously clear that a government which has lost its majority on the floor of the House cannot take any new policy decision.' He therefore dubbed the government's decision on the migration package as 'an act of Constitutional impropriety.' If so, why, for Marx's sake, didn't the Commies challenge the package in court as ultra vires the Constitution of India?
The other Opposition blokes had also pounced on the issue. "Scam!" they screamed. "Needle of suspicion points to the PM" they roared. The urgent need for the migration package was ignored. It was crystal clear that they were not against the package per se but could not stomach the thought that the Vajpayee government was getting another feather in its cap.
Then there is our media. They revelled in reporting the Opposition's charges one day and the government's refutation the next day. No one challenged the Opposition to give proof of a scam, to offer a solution for the predicament of the telecom operators. Nor did they hesitate to twist facts. Thus The Hindu of August 11, 1999 reporting the high court order stated that "Though the attorney general argued for making the order binding on the Election Commission as well, the Bench rejected his request."
The attorney general shot off a letter protesting that the argument attributed to him had not at all been advanced by him and that, therefore, the Bench rejecting or accepting his request did not arise. The Hindu did publish his letter, but tucked it inconspicuously among others; significantly, the editor of the "esteemed" newspaper did not add a line of regret to the rejoinder. It was crystal clear that at least one top national newspaper did not care how it treated the country's attorney general.
And a word on some smart alecs of our idiot box. That Star TV is anti-Vajpayee is no longer a disputed issue. But there's another channel too that is following suit. The other day it hosted a panel discussion featuring Cabinet minister P R Kumaramangalam. Confronted by a Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader who kept quizzing him on the telecom subject by quoting from official papers and letters supplemented by the anchor's own statistics, Kumaramangalam lost his cool after some time and berated the anchor for calling him for a discussion without prior information on the topic to be debated. It was crystal clear that the anchorman had not played by the rules in his effort to malign the Vajpayee government.
Finally, there's the government's own role in letting the telecom tangle turn and twist. Never once after July 6 did it lay down for the public the whole background in one go. Its spokesperson got entangled in denying allegations, in flaunting a supportive MP's letter here and a letter there, in throwing challenges for a debate.
A comprehensive but concise press note or even a full-fledged advertisement in the newspaper did not occur to them. Its representatives shouldn't have been allowed to appear on television discussions unless they were assured a full presentation of their case, uninterrupted by others. It was crystal clear that the Vajpayee government had not yet learnt the ABC of professional PR.
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