New Delhi: Union home minister P. Chidambaram was at the centre of political wrangling on Thursday, with the opposition seeking his resignation over decisions relating to the allocation of telecom spectrum dating back to his tenure as finance minister, and the ruling party defending his record.
Chidambaram said he would reserve his comments until Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, returned to India.
“As reported in the media, the Prime Minister called me last night from Frankfurt and spoke to me,” Chidambaram said in a press release. “The finance minister called me from Washington and spoke to me. I have assured the Prime Minister that I shall not make any public statement on the subject until he returns to India.”
Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is in the US for the annual International Monetary Fund-World Bank meeting.
The issue found its echoes in the Supreme Court, which is monitoring the second-generation (2G) spectrum allocation case. The bench comprised justices G.S. Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly indicated for the second day in a row that it didn’t see eye to eye with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or the government on not investigating Chidambaram’s role.
“The investigation going on in foreign countries has a direct nexus with what has already been investigated. It has not come to an end,” the court said to the government’s lawyer, P.P. Rao.
Rao had argued that the court might be crossing a line—referring to it as a Lakshman rekha— by continuing to monitor aspects of the case in which people and companies have already been chargesheeted and placed before a special court for trial.
The bench said no line was “sacrosanct” and that such a case, involving public functionaries and large sums of money, had not previously come before the court and, therefore, the law had to “evolve”.
The apex court will finish hearing arguments on whether Chidambaram should be investigated by next week and then take a decision. It could still direct the CBI to probe Chidambaram’s role following the surfacing of documents during proceedings in the 2G case.
CBI’s lawyer K.K. Venugopal told the court that the department of telecommunications (DoT) had “jumped the gun” in the licence allocation process and that Chidambaram could not be held responsible for this as the finance ministry was represented by subordinate officials when decisions were taken.
The agency’s officials also maintained that they had found no evidence against the home minister.
“We are opposed to investigation against Chidambaram. But if asked by the apex court, we will probe him,” a high-ranking CBI official said on condition of anonymity. “While investigating the 2G case, we went through all documents pertaining to the finance and telecom ministries.”
The CBI didn’t find any evidence of wrongdoing against Chidambaram, this official said. Chidambaram was the only one who insisted that spectrum should be auctioned, he said.
“But (former telecom minister) A. Raja ignored the finance minister’s advice and went ahead to issue letter of intent to telcos,” the official said.
The latest controversy featuring Chidambaram broke after a document submitted in the Supreme Court suggested that the 2G entanglement could have been prevented if he had insisted on auctioning spectrum.
The document, purportedly seen by finance minister Mukherjee, was sent to the Prime Minister’s Office on 25 March. The controversy has fuelled speculation over the widening rift between Mukherjee and Chidambaram.
It gave the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) more ammunition against the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, already battling a spate of corruption cases and failure on key policy issues.
The BJP on Thursday escalated its attack on the Union government, claiming an absence of leadership in the ruling Congress-led UPA.
The latest charge came a day after the finance ministry note surfaced that suggested Chidambaram could have but did not prevent the allocation of 2G telecom spectrum when he was finance minister.
BJP leader Arun Jaitley claimed there was an absence of leadership in the UPA.
“There have been very few situations in the past when the credibility of the government has been so low... The biggest worry in the current political situation of the country is the state of governance and administration,” Jaitley, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said at a talk at Constitution Club. Corruption is driving away investors from the country, he said.
Referring to a range of alleged scams including the 2G spectrum, the Commonwealth Games and the cash-for-votes cases, the BJP leader said the Congress’ leadership seemed to be faltering and weak.
PTI reported that Prime Minister Singh spoke to Chidambaram and is understood to have expressed full faith in his integrity. Singh is believed to have counselled Chidambaram “to be patient” till he returns from New York on Tuesday. Mukherjee said from the US that “the matter is sub-judice. I cannot make any comment on it”.
Several Congress leaders defended Chidambaram and denied reports of political rivalry between the two ministers.
PTI reported late on Thursday that two weeks before a decision was taken to allot new 2G licences in 2008, Mukherjee said DoT could “continue to follow the existing policy” for licence distribution till further changes are made. Mukherjee, who headed a group of ministers on spectrum-related issues, said this in a note to the PM, according to PTI. The note was revealed following a query by a lawyer under the Right to Information Act. Mint could not independently confirm the existence of the note.
Ruhi Tewari and PTI contributed to this story.