‘STEAL A LITTLE and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king,’ rasps Bob Dylan in one of his most political songs. It could serve as the caller tune of India’s former Telecom Minister Andimuthu Raja, perhaps, a man who stole neither a little nor a lot but was crowned ‘Spectrum King’ and thrown in jail anyway for the ‘Rs 1.76 lakh crore’ 2G Scam. And now here he is, abristle with righteous indignation after a CBI court acquittal, out with a book titled 2G Saga Unfolds (Har-Anand Publications; Rs 795) written to give us an earful for all the pain he was made to endure for trying to bust a telecom cartel and make phone calls affordable to the masses. Since he is a learned man, the eminent sayings of everybody from Periyar and Thiruvalluvar to George Orwell and Bertrand Russell on truth and justice have been deployed in this 222-page enterprise, aimed none too implicitly at turning the 2G Scam of 2008 into India’s own Dreyfus Affair.
The one who Raja most wants chastened is former CAG Vinod Rai, for his ‘perverted political goals’, while the man he feels especially let down by is former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who ‘did not back me up’. As the hero of his own tale, Raja casts himself in perpetual battle mode, aware all through his stint of a conspiracy around his ministry to keep abundant spectrum away from the needy at the behest of a telecom lobby. It was a ‘stealthy ploy’ that even his boss had to be warned of, in his telling, and he dutifully managed to keep the Prime Minister both in the loop and off his turf on the issue of allowing new operators into the arena—all of it to be done in line with the Telecom Regulator’s rules, of course.
Much of Raja’s book is bewildering. The licence allotment process itself, drawn from smudgy guidelines that appear open to Rorschach-like interpretation, had rings being run around everyone by everyone else in the UPA Government and its bureaucracy, by the look of it, with files and notes being shuttled back and forth with intrigue enough to tempt the BBC into an Indian remake of Yes Minister. This whizzle-crackle of cross connections is not to be scoffed at, though; it allows Raja to apportion credit for his heroic deeds to a star-cast of babus and netas while also claiming it solely for himself. Grumbles did arise, but they were too juvenile to deter him. ‘It would be childish to posit that simply because a letter has come from the PM it is somehow legally binding,’ he writes, for instance, of Singh’s advice. One suggestion was to hold an auction even for 2G bandwidths, or at least raise the market-entry fee from the Rs 1,650 crore set in 2001; but since the idea was to cheapen telecom services, that would defeat his noble purpose. First Come First Served was the laid-down way to issue licences, and that’s how it would be.
On that point of principle, Raja deserves earnest empathy. Whether it’s better to auction or allot airwaves is a policy call, after all, not a judicial one. What’s more, CAG’s presumptive loss figure of Rs 1.76 lakh crore, the presumed sum an auction would have yielded, was patently absurd; not only was Raja’s aim not to stuff Central coffers at the expense of aam callers (who’d have to bear that burden on their 2G bills), the 3G price data that the auditor used as the basis for the hypothesis was nothing if not bizarre.
Ah, but Raja’s largesse did have a limit. Spectrum. There wasn’t enough for 575 applications from 46 companies. So, after one fine lunch on January 10th, 2008, his Ministry announced that eligible applicants—who had applied by a cut-off date advanced by a week—could turn up at Sanchar Bhavan for licences, and the first to pay the fee and submit other papers at a window open for an hour—3.30 -4.30 pm—that afternoon would get them. By 3.30 pm, this counter was stormed by dozens of bank drafts. Nine firms hit the jackpot. Why this should arouse any suspicion of tip-offs is a mystery to Raja, since news of possible allotments had been out for a month: ‘Is it not natural that applicants would have arranged for the entry fee drafts in advance?’
Tough luck, then, for those who waited for the Ministry’s official announcement. Even this press release, Raja sighs, someone had tried to twist at the last minute so that ‘First Come’ might still effectively refer to the act of applying rather than elbowing ahead at the appointed hour; armed with his own clarity on the appropriate sequence, Raja struck the offending stipulation off. ‘Was that really such a glaring flaw,’ Raja asks, ‘[that] I am to be held criminally responsible...?’
Maybe not. No bribery has been proven yet and Kalaignar TV may well have the right to bore viewers with anybody’s money. But what notion of nobility—or rationality—motivated Raja’s arbitrary reshuffle of the 2G queue, he is still to explain. In February 2012, the Supreme Court of India cancelled all 122 licences issued by his Ministry in January 2008, and that was that. Steal a little or nothing at all, such a sneaky exercise of self-exalted authority is scandalous all the same.