NEWS ANALYSIS “Individuals” he wishes to highlight would potentially include Manmohan, Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee

Former Telecom Minister A. Raja’s desire to testify before the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) could be extremely damaging for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), as it fuels a controversy the government is now trying to give a quiet burial to, after over two years of turbulent Parliamentary, judicial and media scrutiny beginning November 2010.

What’s more troubling is that the “individuals” whose role Mr. Raja wishes to highlight as part of his own defence would potentially include Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram who was the Finance Minister even at the time of the scam, and President Pranab Mukherjee.

The PM in his statement to Parliament, and through a TV Editors conference in February 2011, has clarified that he acted based on decisions conveyed to him by Mr. Raja and Mr. Chidambaram as well as on the basis of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommendations and the Telecom Commission. But a trail of letters between Manmohan Singh and Mr. Raja shows that the decisions declared “illegal” by the Supreme Court were intimated in writing — and well in advance of the January 2008 scam perpetrated by Mr. Raja — directly to the PM himself.

Mr. Raja’s refusal to hold auctions and follow a first-come-first-served process as well as the decision to illegally advance the cut-off date from October 1 to September 25, 2007, was conveyed to the PM on November 2, 2007. When the PM recommended — through a letter on the same day — that Mr. Raja consider “transparent methodology of auction wherever legally and technically feasible” and “revision of entry fee which is currently benchmarked to old spectrum auction figures,” Mr. Raja refused. He promised the PM through a third letter on the same day — that there was “no single deviation from departure in rules and procedures contemplated in all the decisions taken by the Ministry.”

Mr. Raja wrote to the PM again on December 26, 2007 — two weeks before perpetrating the 2G scam — informing him that he was planning to act imminently while modifying the definition of the first-come-first-served process. The letter detailed the modification of the existing priority linked to “date of application” to one based on “date of compliance with Letters of Intent” and claimed this decision came after his meeting with Mr. Pranab Mukherjee and “has been concurred [to] by the Solicitor General of India during the discussions.” Essentially, Mr. Raja’s defence rests on the fact that he took decisions after informing the PM, discussing it with senior Cabinet colleagues and after concurrence of the second senior-most law officer of the government.

As for Mr. Chidambaram, who has received a clean chit from the Supreme Court, multiple pieces of contradictory evidence exist, including government press releases describing his role, as well as the PM’s own statement in Parliament and to the press.

Incidentally, the JPC is under no obligation to restrict its questioning or conclusions based on the Supreme Court judgment — which offered a reprieve to Mr. Chidambaram. Additionally, a large number of new documents — memos within the Finance Ministry including one dated December 17, 2007 directly relating to the 2G scam — have neither been exposed nor formed the basis of evidence in the Supreme Court. However, these are available to the JPC.

AG shifts blame

The other key “individuals and sequence of events” to be pitched against Mr. Raja’s testimony if he were to appear in the JPC include the February 5, 2013 deposition of Mr. Vahanvati. The Central Bureau of Investigation and Mr. Vahanvati have accused Mr. Raja of having manipulated the press release which led to the 2G scam — by deleting a paragraph and overwriting in different ink on page 28/N of “secret file” no 20-100/2007-AS-I to convey an impression that Mr. Vahanvati had approved the press release. Mr. Raja disagrees. His letter conveys by name that the depositions in the JPC, including that of the AG, appear to be misrepresenting facts and are intended at “blame shifting.” It is this counter claim that should make it impossible for the JPC to ignore Mr. Raja’s public call to be summoned as a witness.

Further, it is learnt that Mr. Vahanvati, when questioned by the JPC a few weeks ago about his reasons for approving the first-come-first-served press release, conceded that he did so since this was consistent with what he and Mr. Raja had informed Mr. Mukherjee during a meeting in December 2007. Mr. Raja’s decision to contest Mr. Vahanvati’s testimony could put Mr. Mukherjee, who was also the chairman of the GoM on spectrum in 2007-8, in a spot.

JPC’s credibility

With such high stakes, it appears the UPA members in the JPC will continue to do everything in their power to quickly wrap up the proceedings without giving Opposition experts such as Communist Party of India leader Gurudas Dasgupta, and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Yashwant Sinha and Ravi Shankar Prasad a chance to question and use Mr. Raja’s contradicting testimony to re-insist that the PM and Mr. Chidambaram be called as witnesses.

With Parliament reconvening on Monday and the JPC scheduled to meet soon after, Mr. Raja’s demand could become a major rallying point for the BJP and Left Parties. The Opposition knows that Mr. Raja’s testimony is crucial not just for the JPC’s own credibility, but also because it affords an invaluable opportunity to use his words to embarrass senior functionaries of the UPA government in the run-up to the next general election.