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Heady Growth To Rs.1,76,645 crore

Omkar Goswami


Dear Prime Minister

In a different age, when you were the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, fresh from your stint as the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, the country erupted with the Bofors scam. We were amazed and angered by the kick-backs allegedly offered by Bofors AB to the ruling party to secure the contract for its 155 mm field gun. The bribe bandied about by the press and various agencies ranged from Rs.37 crore to Rs.40 crore. Even at current prices, it wouldn’t suffice to buy a modern 3,000 square feet apartment in the swankier parts of New Delhi, let aside downtown Bombay. Yet, it caused a huge political upsurge — mighty enough for the Indian National Congress to lose the 1989 general elections, despite enjoying its greatest majority in the Lok Sabha since 1951.

Bofors is a pre-natal play compared to what we are seeing today. According to the report of the Comptroller and Accountant General (CAG), the illustrious Mr. A. Raja, until very recently India’s Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology, had connived with various telecom players and middle men to ram through multiple 2G spectrum deals that have cost the exchequer Rs.1,76,645 crore.

Forget about the exactitude of the CAG number. Even if we were to be generous to Mr. Raja and assume that his modest price for saving telecom operators some Rs.1,76,000 crore was a mere 10 per cent, we are still looking at a kick-back of Rs.17,600 crore, in whatever form. I have been told that for such deals of the century, 20 per cent is the more likely price. Be that as it may. The point worth noting is that in comparison to Raja’s scam — and the 10 per cent that we assume was pocketed — Bofors pales to insignificance: at Rs.40 crore, it was a mere 0.2 per cent of what the perpetrators of the 2G would have pocketed. Probably even less.

After Mr. Raja was finally sacked, everyone across the political spectrum has categorically vouched for your unimpeachable honesty and incorruptibility. These virtues of yours are beyond question; as indeed your dignity, equanimity, capability to work, basic sensibility, dollops of patience and the vision that you have of tomorrow’s India.

Having said that, two things surely need discussing. The first is how can you credibly portray a modern, legally sound, fair and institutionally-driven India in face of so many instances of brazen corruption? All tumbling out of the cupboard — one mightier than the other. The second has to do with coalition governments. Is the dharma of coalition so important — or the fear of losing a key political partner so pervasive — that even an incorruptible and ramrod straight person like you must keep turning the Nelson’s eye, till there is no blind eye left to turn.

How can it be that your office didn’t know of the way Raja was systematically hijacking the 2G licensing process. While few had a fix on the exact magnitude of the crime, I dare say that every serious newspaper reader knew that things were utterly rotten in Raja’s ministry. It cannot be that your staff were not in the know of Raja’s blatant shenanigans. Because if that were the case, then it raises frighteningly fundamental questions about the remit of the Prime Minister’s office.

Would we be incorrect in assuming that your office knew that a monstrous scandal was being played out — one that was grossly wrong, utterly unfair to the exchequer, and could seriously damage the reputation of your government and you? Would we be wrong in asking who connived with Raja to allow him the space to do what he did? Should we assume that your staff were somehow convinced that Raja was doing right for the nation, and succeeded in convincing you as well? How could Raja ignore the advice of Ministry of Law and the Ministry of Finance, cock a snook at the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, and avoid placing any of his key revenue losing proposals to the Union Cabinet? Is it the case that the files never come to you, despite more than enough noise in the press? Did you not ask for them?

None of these questions reflect adversely upon your personal integrity and probity. But should these not be asked?

The coalition dharma is even more frightening. It means this: “Give your key coalition partners a very long rope. Assume, often blithely, that they will do nothing to severely embarrass your government. When they do, turn the blind eye whenever you can. Punish only when the crime becomes unbearable.”

This dharma can only damn us. Irrevocably. Perhaps you and the leader of the party has realised it now. We hope so. And that Mr. Raja marks the end of the mind boggling kingdom of sleaze.

Published: Business World, December 2010


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