“If Manmohan as Finance Minister could appear in security scam probe, why not Chidambaram?”

The Joint Parliamentary Committee on 2G spectrum allocation suffered a second blow on Thursday, with CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta walking out in protest against Chairman P.C. Chacko’s unwillingness to summon Finance Minister P. Chidambaram as witness.

Mr. Dasgupta told The Hindu he feared that “the tactics of deliberate inaction and procrastination being deployed to counter demands for questioning important political witnesses would make the JPC a laughing stock in the eyes of the nation.”

The JPC’s credibility is already at rock bottom after the walkout by all six BJP members at its last meeting held 22 days ago. Both Mr. Dasgupta and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha have detailed their objections in letters to Mr. Chacko, with the latter marking a copy to the Speaker for “necessary action.”

“It is vital that the committee not only be impartial and objective, but that it should also appear to be so before the people of the country whose interests we represent,” Mr. Dasgupta writes.

Insisting that Mr. Chidambaram’s name be added to the witness list as he “can throw light on the Ministry of Finance’s inability to prevent the DoT from unilaterally going ahead with the allocation of the 2G licences in spite of opposition from various quarters,” Mr. Dasgupta pointed to “a past precedence of a Finance Minister appearing before a JPC to clarify on issues.” In the 1990s, the then Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, appeared before the JPC constituted to examine the securities scam.

Mr. Sinha accused Mr. Chacko of deliberately not having finalised the witness list for the last three months, especially in regard to the demand for recording the evidence of the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister, which was “absolutely necessary.”

“You have been avoiding taking a decision on this for reasons best known to you. When we tried to raise this issue once again in the meeting of September 18, you behaved in a totally non-democratic, in fact, in an autocratic fashion and did not allow some of my colleagues and me to even raise the issue. This behaviour of yours was shocking in the extreme and we were left with no option except to walk out of the meeting,” Mr. Sinha writes.

Members say their growing distrust with the outcome of the JPC proceedings is on account of Mr. Chacko’s dilatory tactics in taking decisions, including unexplained cancellations and gaps between meetings and more recently, his open refusal to comply, along with statements to the media that the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister would not be called as witnesses.

Report not ready

Eighteen months since its formation, the JPC is still far from preparing a report, with Mr. Dasgupta requesting Mr. Chacko “to ensure that henceforth the JPC meets expediently and that the committee is able to examine witnesses and complete its deliberations in a manner that the report can be placed in the budget session of Parliament.”

However, Mr. Chacko chose to deflect this difficult call by telling the media after the JPC meeting that the decision to summon the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister would now be taken by the Speaker.

The JPC, which was scheduled to question Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati, instead questioned on Thursday the then Additional Secretary in the Finance Ministry, Sindhushree Khullar.

Members say that in sharp contrast to her former boss, the then Finance Secretary, D. Subbarao, who admitted to the JPC that he could have done more to stop the 2G scam by enforcing his advice that spectrum be auctioned, Ms. Khullar was neither helpful nor forthcoming. She insisted that she had done her duty.

When Mr. Dasgupta asked her why non-papers, instead of a formal communication, were used to communicate the objection of the Finance Ministry on 2G spectrum allocation before Letters of Intent were eventually awarded on January 10, 2008, Ms. Khullar said she had no comments to offer.

It is learnt that at this point, Congressman Shashi Tharoor came to her assistance by pointing out that if a non-paper is signed, which is the case, then it ceases to be a non-paper.

Mr. Dasgupta raised serious objection to this, saying it was gross impropriety for a JPC member to contradict the questioning of another member while coming to the assistance of a witness. It is learnt that despite this objection, Mr. Chacko did not restrain Mr. Tharoor.

Mr. Dasgupta further asked why Ms. Khullar did not question the postponement of the crucial meeting of the full Telecom Commission (TC) on January 9, 2008 despite the Finance Ministry objecting to the process being followed by the Telecom Ministry nor raise the issue of spectrum pricing when the TC finally met on January 15, 2008.

Ms. Khullar responded that it was not on the agenda. However, it is well known that the agenda is circulated to all members of the full TC ahead of the meeting, allowing each member to request for items to be placed on the agenda.

Even during the meeting, additional items can be added with the permission of the Chairman who, in this case, is the Telecom Secretary.

“Ms. Khullar’s failure to act in time cannot be condoned as she is responsible for allowing the DoT to get away scot-free with its arbitrary and illegal allocation of spectrum, despite advice by the Prime Minister and the Finance Ministry to hold auctions,” a JPC member told The Hindu.

For now, the strategy of the BJP and Mr. Dasgupta is to continue to put pressure for a comprehensive and credible list of witnesses that includes important political protagonists in the 2G scandal. They are not resigning from the JPC in the hope that the Congress will eventually concede to this demand.

Remaining in the JPC further allows access to documents and briefings of the meetings which, if nothing else, can be of invaluable support in the preparation of a strong dissent note.

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