New Delhi: A. Raja’s lawyer on Monday put the government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a politically difficult situation by claiming that some of the former telecom minister’s actions in the controversial 2008 sale of second-generation (2G) telecom spectrum (now called the 2G scam) enjoyed tacit official approval.
He also accused the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) of going soft on Ratan Tata and alleged that Tata Teleservices Ltd made Rs14,000 crore in the scam. A spokesperson for Tata Teleservices declined to comment because the matter is before the courts. Tata Teleservices sold a 26% stake to NTT DoCoMo Inc. for around Rs14,000 crore.
The government refuted the allegations made during Raja’s defence in the special court.
The claims regarding the government have been made previously by Raja, but coming on the eve of the crucial monsoon session of Parliament—due to begin on 1 August—they will provide fresh ammunition to an increasingly belligerent opposition.
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Raja, who has been in judicial custody since February, told the special court, which has been trying the case, that P. Chidambaram, then finance minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and Singh had approved his actions. The former minister has been accused of tweaking the eligibility criteria for spectrum to favour Swan Telecom Pvt. Ltd and Unitech Wireless Ltd; these companies then brought in the UAE-based Etisalat and Norway-based Telenor ASA as equity partners, respectively.
CBI has also contended that this was a divestment of shares and not issue of fresh equity and, hence, a violation of the telecom policy.
Raja’s lawyer Sushil Kumar said in court that both Chidambaram, currently home minister, and Singh approved the sale of equity by Swan and Unitech. “Let the PM deny it,” said Kumar, and added that the sale was done in accordance with corporate law.
Unitech Wireless sold 67% equity for Rs6,120 crore while Tata Teleservices got Rs13,973 crore by selling 27% equity, he added. Still, Tata Teleservices has not been accused by CBI of committing any offence, Kumar said.
Kumar’s statement was part of the initial defence he offered on behalf of his client against the framing of charges in the case. He also pointed out that both Singh and Kapil Sibal, the current telecom minister, have maintained that the exchequer had suffered no losses.
Kumar argued that CBI cannot continue its investigation once the trial begins. Raja wants the trial to be either stopped until the investigation is completed or no more fresh charges be brought against him.
A rattled government took pre-emptive political action by fielding Sibal in a press conference to defend itself, even as its political rivals moved to seize the advantage.
Chidambaram said attacks against him were being stepped up because of other cases related to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and right-wing groups.
“I think they know that there is no connection to the so-called scam in 2G. I think they are targeting selected ministers for other reasons in this case,” he was cited as saying by PTI. “What I suspect is that we have quickened the investigations into a number of bomb blast cases where right-wing fundamentalist organizations are involved. We have quickened...we have persuaded the court to hear two Ayodhya cases on a more or less day-to-day basis.”
The BJP was quick to demand the resignations of both Singh and Chidambaram.
“Today, Mr A. Raja, the former telecom minister, has himself disclosed and admitted in the court that indeed the Prime Minister and the then finance minister P. Chidambaram were in the know of all this, and the entire transaction had their consent and approval,” said BJP president Nitin Gadkari. “The BJP, therefore, demands that both the Prime Minister and (the current) home minister (Chidambaram) must resign as they have got no legal, political and moral authority to remain in office.”
Chennai-based political analyst and editor of Thuglak weekly Cho Ramaswamy said Raja’s allegations were not new. “The UPA government has become immune to all kinds of allegations and they will go on denying the charges. So this (Raja’s defence) is not likely to make any fresh impact,” he said.
Expectedly, Sibal dismissed the demands for resignation, saying that Raja’s defence cannot be taken as evidence against the government. “It is unfortunate to see the president of the BJP asking for the resignation of the Prime Minister and (then) finance minister on the basis of a statement made by an accused, who is under investigation by CBI, as evidence,” he said.
The minister added that the dilution of stakes was allowed because of the migration policy approved in 2003 under the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime.
But the BJP said it was open to a probe for policy implementation even during the NDA regime.
Pointing out that the matter is before the courts, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari defended the Prime Minister. “The Prime Minister of India’s honesty, rectitude and integrity does not need anybody’s certificate,” Tewari said, adding: “The accused may well say anything that he wants in his defence.”
Ruhi Tewari, Anuja and PTI contributed to this story.