What is illegal from the point of view of administrative law may not necessarily be an offence from a criminal court’s perspective. The Supreme Court declared in 2012 that the allocation of 2G spectrum by the Congress-led UPA government was illegal and an arbitrary exercise of power. It went on to cancel all 122 telecom licences allotted to companies in early 2008 during the tenure of A. Raja as Communications Minister. With the trial court’s en masse acquittal of all those arraigned by the Central Bureau of Investigation in the 2G spectrum allocation case, the claim that this was the biggest scam in India’s history lies in tatters. Every ground that the CBI had adduced to prove that Mr. Raja manipulated the first-come, first-served system to favour Swan Telecom and Unitech Wireless, among others, and helped them make a windfall profit by offloading their stakes, has been rejected by Special Judge O.P. Saini . The immediate fallout is that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, to which Mr. Raja belongs, and its national ally, the Congress, will at last be in a position to shake off the perception that they were irredeemably beset by corruption. The Congress, in particular, is now in a position to reiterate that the spectrum allocation resulted in ‘zero loss’; also, that its rule between 2004 and 2014 was not as scam-tainted as it was generally made out, a perception that has impacted its electoral performance since. Attention will now turn to Vinod Rai, whose sensational report as Comptroller and Auditor General, pegging the loss as a result of not auctioning spectrum at ₹1.76 lakh crore, contributed to the perception that a huge scam had taken place.
Many had argued that the figure was only notional. Mr. Raja said that not revising the entry fee and not auctioning spectrum ensured cheaper telephony, increased tele-density and contributed to the sector’s overall development. He has been undoubtedly vindicated, but there is a lesson for everyone in the long 2G saga: public perception and audit reports cannot be the sole basis for criminal trials; investigating agencies must carefully sift the available material before deciding to prosecute. Eliminating graft from public life is not only about making allegations stick during election time, but also about diligent investigation and efficient prosecution. The CBI’s image has taken a beating, with the court calling it out for its waning enthusiasm in pursuing the case. There is a cloud over the present government’s commitment to fighting corruption. It may yet have a chance to redeem itself, as the CBI has said it will appeal the verdict. An appeal is in order given the sweeping dismissal of the CBI’s contentions, so sweeping that it dismisses, arguably a tad too breezily, what the prosecution said were suspicious quid pro quo transactions. It is said that the folklore about corruption is bigger than the actual incidence of corruption. Could this be true of the 2G ‘scam’ as well?