Missed call & missing millions

More than a fortnight has passed since a High Court judge made a startling accusation in open court that he was being pressurised by a central minister over phone to grant bail to a father-son duo in a criminal case. And a week has passed since the explosive issue was given a quiet burial. The outrage lasted just a week. Indeed, sometimes the law takes its course rather quickly and at the highest plane when it comes to exonerating high profile ‘innocents’!

When the disclosure was made, no less than the Chief Justice of India declared indignantly that he would brook no such interference with the judiciary and wanted the Government to act. At the end of the week, however the judicial anger abated and the same Chief Justice announced that no minister had spoken directly to the judge and only a lawyer had held the phone to the judge suggesting that the minister was on the other end. The judge did not take the call, according to the CJ. The judge has fallen silent after his initial outpouring, but has recused himself from the case. So we have two loose ends: a judge who was actually spoken to by a minister and a minister who spoke without ‘actually speaking’! Thus ended the case of the mysterious ministerial missed call with the acquittal of Mr Anonymous.

The issue raises many questions. The HC judge’s spontaneous allegation is totally at variance with the CJ’s averment a week later! But even if we were to ignore the inconsistency, the question lingers as to why then should the judge withdraw from the case! Does it not mean that the judiciary can actually be intimidated, if not by ministers directly, then at least by the mere mention of their names? So what about ordinary litigants who have no ministerial connections or access to lawyers who can invoke them? Should they too follow suit and withdraw their suits? A bad precedent, indeed. But worse, is the official concealment of the minister’s identity. Does not the nation have the right to know the name of the minister? The judiciary has the cover of contempt and is also insulated from the RTI. But since when have ministers come under those shields? Surely, the Government must have received official communication from the judiciary as promised by the latter! And it is most certainly answerable to the people who elected it!

But then opposition leaders and media are not as discreet as the judiciary. They have categorically named DMK’s A Raja as the Mr Anonymous on the other end. And to back their claim, they have produced extensive, emphatic evidence linking the minister to the defendents of the case. The case itself is as murky as it comes: the father-son duo seeking anticipatory bail are under CBI investigation for fudging medical exam mark lists; the one who blew the whistle was murdered, with his relatives and friends demanding a CBI probe for that too. The matter is hence sub-judice, but our concern is the extra-judice issue of ministerial excess. Beyond a feeble denial, Raja himself has made no major effort to clear his name. Well, he need not, in a way, what with protectors in high places. Anyway, he has survived bigger scares and the current episode, even if true, is just a passing page in his encyclopaedic biography of big ticket deals !

So whether or not we believe Raja is ‘that’ minister, we can at least take the opportunity of studying the political curriculum vitae of the most prolific profiteer of a plum portfolio. He has a habit of interfering in the course of justice: He has consistently scuttled CBI probes against many of his bureaucratic cronies. But spectrum remains his flagship scam. According to some reports, the spectrum scandal of 2008-vintage is the biggest ever in free India’s financial history. Raja sold 2G bandwidth to a cherry-picked band of ‘bidders’ at between Rs 1500 to Rs1600 crores per licence, based on 2001 auction prices. He, of course, did not hold any auction but adopted a first-come-first-served basis and that too at hardly a hour’s notice on the web! Anyway, the ‘chosen’ ones were ready with their fee and walked away with the licences. Only to unload in quick time a good part of the stakes in those companies, in the absence of a compulsory lock-in as is usually mandated, for hefty premiums. Many of these beneficiaries are real-estate companies with their exposure to telecom limited to making and receiving phone calls. Even by conservative estimates of the finance ministry, along with other, the loss to the exchequer on account of Raja’s loaded dice was over Rs 50,000 cr and this was when the stock markets had fallen over 50%. The real rip-off is a staggering Rs 100,000 cr. We see so many zeroes only in GDP figures! And by the law of conservation of monetary mass, this loss must be somebody’s gain! A minister should have been asked to quit even if he had acted in good faith for causing this big a hole in the nation’s pocket. But in Raja’s case, accusation of corruption came not just from the media, telecom watchdogs and political parties, but his own current colleague himself. Yet the clean MSingh, not only winked then, but also buckled to blackmail again after polls ‘09. Well, we hear, 3G is now coming up for sale. We know who the ‘bigger bandwidth’ will benefit the most!

But the Raja-Chinese bhai bhai deal takes the cake for its sheer audacity; in monetary terms it is pittance: only Rs 35000 … crores, stupid! Now there is a clear injunction from security agencies to the telecom ministry against purchasing communication equipment from Chinese companies, because the latter are invariably owned, directly or indirectly, either by the Communist party of China or the Chinese government itself. But on 15 May, a day before the counting of votes of the LS poll, and his last day in office, and after 5 p.m., Raja’s ministry awarded a tender for the said amount for around 9.3 crore cellphone connections to two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE. For, that matter, the Chinese have even earlier been beneficiaries of his largesse. According to experts, the latest deals would grant the Chinese critical access to digitised maps, site surveys, classified documents, communication systems etc besides unhindered roaming for its officials in the areas they have the contract for. Indeed, security analysts dread that, given China’s penchant for Cyber Network Attacks, India has already ensured its first defeat in case of war for it would be the Chinese Government that would be running our communication set-up! Indeed, in this deal, more than the sinister speed and the sumptuous sleaze, it is the blatant brazening out of national security concerns that is most ominous.

The litany of Raja-leelas is endless .. no, no, we are not talking of those rumoured family affairs. Indeed, the minister merits intense scrutiny on many counts. Blow-by-blow accounts of his scandalous dealings and point-by-point rebuttals of his defence are widely available in the public domain. When confronted with his man’s misdeeds, K dismissed the charges as a ‘conspiracy against a humble dalit’. Now that’s a dangerous argument that can actually be used to explain why Raja has consistently dodged action, including in the current episode. And w.r.t that, we are surely not shocked. Calling up a judge for the sake of petty anticipatory bails, even if he did, is hardly a sin by his standards. So we are not asking if Raja is the one. But can the Government clarify whether he is not, now that his name has cropped up? The Curriculum Vitae needs to be updated quickly! Before the Tele-minister makes his next call!

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Jawahar T R