India’s 2G scandal: Curiouser and curiouser
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India’s 2G scandal: Curiouser and curiouser

The 2G scandal is getting curiouser after weeks of relative quiet on what might be India’s biggest scam.

Out in the open – thanks to the nation’s Right to Information Act – is a note sent by the Finance Ministry to the Prime Minister’s Office saying the ministry could have held its guns on auction of spectrum, forcing former Telecom Minister Andimuthu Raja to cancel the 2G spectrum licenses given away at throwaway prices. Its subtext: Current Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee is questioning his predecessor P. Chidambaram’s decision to over-rule ministry officials and allowing Raja to get away with the spectrum sale, causing huge, perhaps inestimable, loss to the exchequer. Mukherjee unearthed a note written by Deputy Director P.G.S. Rao and sent it to Vini Mahajan, joint secretary in the PMO, along with a cover letter.

This is not the first time of Mukherjee vs. Chidambaram, who was reluctant to let go of finance while Mukherjee picked finance midway through UPA’s term. And then several months ago, Mukherjee wrote to the PMO, raising suspicions that his offices were bugged by the Home Ministry.

The latest revelation has given the opposition and Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy –who has played a critical role in forcing a deeper investigation of the 2G scam – fresh arsenal. Swamy is waging a battle in the Supreme Court to prosecute Chidambaram; and the Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking the resignation of the home minister.

The note raises two key questions.

One, it was sent to the prime minister in March. What, if anything, did Manmohan Singh do about it? At the least, did he seek an explanation from Chidambaram?

Two, did Chidambaram offer any rationale for overturning the Finance Ministry’s long-held stance that 2G spectrum should be auctioned? It is possible that Finance Ministry officials were given some sort of explanation by the minister at that time.

Unless we know this, or there is some other evidence, it is hard to accuse Chidambaram of any wrongdoing. After all, ministers do over-rule the bureaucrats in a number of things. But then, it gets murky because nobody knows what transpired between Chidambaram and Raja, who met several times during that period but chose not to keep minutes of their discussions. Strangely, Raja has tried to implicate Singh in the case, threatening to call the prime minister as a witness in his defence, but not named Chidambaram.

Chidambaram expressed anger when asked embarrassing questions during a tour of earthquake-hit Sikkim. But his Congress Party is putting up a stodgy defence on his behalf, more so than usual because, if Chidambaram falls, the UPA government could take a big hit.

One thing is clear: the 2G scam isn’t going away in a hurry.

A trial court is already questioning the independence of the telecom regulator TRAI, which has repeated Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal’s fuzzy math on zero loss to the exchequer from the sale of 2G spectrum. Even the Central Bureau of Investigation estimates the loss at Rs. 22,000 crore ($5 billion), though its figure is considerably lower than the Rs. 176,000 crore ($40 billion) loss estimated by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Separately, Swamy’s case in the Supreme Court, seeking to implicate Chidambaram, is set for a denouement.

The nation has a lot to look forward to, the opposition has huge expectations and the UPA might have a lot to fear.