New Delhi: The government, which has been striving to contain the political fallout of the telecom scam, took another step in that direction by asking for the Supreme Court’s oversight of the ongoing probe into the allocation of second-generation (2G) mobile phone spectrum and licences in 2008.
The apex court, however, is yet to pass a formal order to this effect because the case, brought before it through a public interest litigation (PIL), is still being heard.
The government’s move came a day after it launched a damage control exercise by announcing a review of its telecom policy and promising action against errant telecom operators who may have bent the rules.
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Now, with the decision to allow Supreme Court oversight of the probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the government is hoping to deflate the Opposition’s demand for an inquiry by a joint parliamentary committee (JPC).
Union minister Kapil Sibal, who took charge of the telecom ministry last week following the resignation of A. Raja, signalled the government’s strategy.
“There are three issues in front of us right now regarding JPC: one, future policy on spectrum, which the JPC cannot decide as it is very technical, market-driven...two, the procedural—the ministry is taking all possible actions and here there is no role of JPC; three, the culpability issue —the investigative agency and the Supreme Court are looking into this,” Sibal said.
“Where is the rationale for the JPC?” he asked.
However, the stalemate in Parliament showed no signs of ending.
“The entire Opposition is united on its demand for a JPC. The government has not given us any assurance...(finance minister) Pranab Mukherjee told us in so many words that the demand for JPC is unacceptable,” said Sushma Swaraj, leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
The logjam in Parliament persisted despite an all-party meeting convened on Tuesday by Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar to broker peace between the government and the Opposition.
Opposition parties are demanding that a JPC be constituted to probe the 2G scandal, suspected corruption in the organization of the Commonwealth Games and wrongdoing in the allotment of flats in a Mumbai housing tower (Adarsh Society) to politicians, military figures and bureaucrats. The government has rejected the demand, resulting in Parliament failing to do any business since the winter session began on 9 November.
“First and foremost, everyone attended the meeting I called. Both sides regret that Parliament has not been working and they want it to function properly. However, both sides are sticking to their positions,” said Kumar, adding that she would continue her efforts .
In the first 13 days of the winter session, the Lok Sabha functioned for only 5 hours and 51 minutes out of 78 hours earmarked for legislative business, according to New Delhi-based PRS Legislative Research. The figures for the Rajya Sabha in the same period are 1 hour and 28 minutes and 65 hours, respectively. The session is due to end on 13 December.
In the Supreme Court, solicitor general Gopal Subramanium and K.K. Venugopal, who appeared for CBI, conceded the demand of the petitioner, Center for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL), for the apex court’s oversight of the investigation. But CBI maintained that whatever oversight is exercised by the court would have to be in line with the law.
This would mean that the central vigilance commissioner would periodically keep the judges informed of CBI’s progress.
However, justice G.S. Singhvi observed that it would be difficult for current central vigilance commissioner P.J. Thomas to remain objective, given that he was earlier the telecom secretary under Raja.
The apex court could appoint R. Srikumar, former director general of Karnataka police, who was recently nominated to be a commissioner in the Central Vigilance Commission, to monitor the CBI probe, according to arguments presented in the court.
In the same court proceeding, CPIL lawyer Prashant Bhushan asked the court to ensure that tapes of the conversations that corporate lobbyist Niira Radia had with people, including businessmen and journalists, didn’t vanish like essential documents related to the allotment of flats in Mumbai’s Adarsh Society did.
He also pleaded that as long as the tapes remained part of the evidence backing his case against CBI, department of telecommunications and Raja, they must continue to remain public.
The court partially accepted Bhushan’s request and directed the income-tax department to ensure that the original recordings were preserved.
However, no order was passed on Tata group chairman Ratan Tata’s request that his privacy be protected, because that is a separate petition that is still to be heard by the court. Tata, several of whose conversations with Radia have been transcribed and published by two news magazines, has asked that the government prevent further leaks of information and their publication.
Bhushan said that he wanted only those parts of the tapes that were relevant to public interest to remain in the public domain and added that he had no objections to confidential portions being protected.
Prashant K. Nanda, Sahil Makkar and PTI also contributed to this story.