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Monday, May 24, 2010
May 24 will go down as one of Telecom Minister A Raja's happiest days. The tainted Minister received a public endorsement from the Prime Minister, who gave him a clean chit in the various scams surrounding the 2G spectrum issue, by taking his clarifications at face value.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s press conference on May 24 on completion of the UPA-II government’s one year in office was remarkable for just one thing: his spirited defence of tainted Telecom Minister A Raja. The Prime Minister was reticent on most matters and proffered sedate remarks, but suddenly opened up when questions on Raja’s involvement in the 2G scam came up.
Singh based his defence on the clarifications Raja had given him. One, that the Minister had followed TRAI guidelines; two, that he had implemented a policy already in place since the NDA times; three, new entrants would have been disadvantaged if a new system had been introduced.
While this is not the first time the Prime Minister has backed his Telecom Minister, it is certainly the first occasion after so much muck has been dug up about Raja that the Prime Minister has publicly endorsed the Minister.
“What he (Raja) did was implement a policy that was already in place,” the Prime Minister said, referring to the process followed for auction of 2G spectrum at prices prevailing in 2001.
“It would have been unfair to new entrants if a new yardstick was used”, he claimed.
The question from the media was raised in the wake of charges that precious airwaves for 2G were sold to telecom firms at throwaway prices, resulting in losses worth billions of dollars, seen in the light of $15 billion the government will get from 3G spectrum auction.
The Prime Minister’s shocking defence comes despite mounds of evidence against Raja that the media – most notably the English daily The Pioneer – has published over close to 18 months now. That the revelations are not figments of imagination but based on concrete material, is clear from the fact that the Central Vigilance Commission directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the 2G scam.
But even if we for a moment accept that what has been published does not make Raja guilty until his complicity is proved, the Prime Minister should have waited for the probe to be over. The Telecom Minister’s exoneration comes at a time when the CBI is yet to conclude its inquiry. Where was the need for Manmohan Singh to jump the gun when the probe is on? And, now that he has given Raja a clean chit, there is no point in his rider that, if any corruption was proved, he would take action. “Our government has been very clear on corruption. If I come to know that there is any involvement at any level, we will take action", he said with mock force.
Brazenly defending the suspect Minister, the Prime Minister gave this explanation: "I think one has to look at the whole problem in proper perspective. There was a particular policy which was in place since 2003 before our government came into power."
Interestingly, Singh rested his defence of Raja on the Minister’s own clarification! It becomes clear now that our upright Prime Minister swallowed every word that the tainted Minister said in his support. What then, is one to make of the following CBI statement: “Prima facie it does appear that 2G licences were given by putting a cap on the number of applicants against recommendations of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and by awarding licences to private companies on first-come-first-serve basis on the rates of 2001 without any competitive bidding”.
The Prime Minister obviously did not deem it necessary to seek an expert opinion on Raja’s clarifications. In the press conference, he appeared convinced that Raja was clean – not because any probe had said so, but because the tainted Minister said it himself!
Singh’s ‘assertiveness’ – “I have been given this task (of Prime Ministership). It is still unfinished. Till I finish the tasks, there is no question of retirement” – was clearly missing on the Raja issue. While no one expected him to acknowledge in public the Telecom Minister’s dubious role, he overshot the runway by endorsing the Minister.
One understands the compulsions of alliance politics, especially when it comes to the numerically important DMK to which Raja belongs. But one cannot sympathize with the Prime Minister because he has only recently acted differently when it came to Congress ministers. Shashi Tharoor, against whom nothing, but nothing, was proved, had to quit after Singh failed to stand by him. Tharoor was in every single parameter a better equipped minister than Raja, yet he had to go, while Raja continues with impunity.
Only recently, DMK supremo M Karunanidhi hurled the charge against Raja-baiters that they were attacking the Minister because he was a Dalit. But there has been not a squeak of protest from the Prime Minister over this blatant politics of caste. Surely, this is not the sign of an ‘assertive’ Prime Minister.