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Empowered role: Home minister P. Chidambaram. Photo: PIB

Empowered role: Home minister P. Chidambaram. Photo: PIB

Chidambaram may head eGoM on 2G

Chidambaram may head eGoM on 2G

New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is considering nominating home minister P. Chidambaram to head the empowered group of ministers (eGoM) to finalize procedures for the auction of second-generation (2G) telecom spectrum, two persons familiar with the development said.

If indeed it does, the move will be politically significant given that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led opposition has already targeted Chidambaram over alleged irregularities in the allocation of 2G spectrum and licences in 2008, when he was finance minister.

However, a senior cabinet minister, at a high-level Congress party meeting late on Friday, expressed reservations on Chidambaram’s nomination, saying it would be counterproductive, said a person familiar with the development in the government.

Empowered role: Home minister P. Chidambaram. Photo: PIB

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reconstituted the eGoM, the older version of which was dissolved after Pawar stepped down, with Chidambaram as the only new face. The eGoM is to decide on the reserve price of 2G spectrum, licensing and other matters related to the auction of the airwaves, the two officials cited above said on condition of anonymity. There has been no official notification of the reconstitution of the ministerial panel.

Other members of the eGoM are defence minister A.K. Antony, telecom minister Kapil Sibal, information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni, law minister Salman Khurshid, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office V. Narayanasamy and Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the two persons said.

Analysts say the proposal to nominate Chidambaram to head the eGoM indicates that the UPA, which has been weighed down by a series of corruption scandals and controversies including the 2G case, has become emboldened to take major political risks with less than two years to go for general elections.

“I would rather say this is an emboldened UPA and not as much an emboldened Congress... The UPA government is showing signs of being bold and showing that it has given up the diffidence that it had since the last three years," said Kumar Ketkar, a political analyst and chief editor of Divya Marathi, a Marathi-language daily.

The likelihood of Chidambaram being given a more active role in decision-making by being made the eGoM head is seen as a signal that the government intends to pursue its economic reform agenda, experts said.

Prime Minister Singh has taken charge of the finance ministry after Mukherjee quit and two prominent persons associated with the reform process—Ahluwalia and chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council C. Rangarajan—are getting actively involved in economic decision-making.

In an interview with the Hindustan Times published on Friday, Singh said the government will take initiatives to convince investors that India means business.

Ketkar said the decision to bring Chidambaram on board showed the importance of the politician, who moved from the finance to the home ministry after the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008.

“The question is always asked as to who is the number two in the government, now that Pranab Mukherjee has headed to Raisina Hill," said Ketkar. “He (Chidambaram) looks like the No. 2 in the government."

Agreed N. Bhaskara Rao, a political analyst who has been closely observing the Congress party for four decades. “It’s a political decision that indicates the Congress wants to polarize the political forces..."

BJP leader Yashwant Sinha said, “There are some contentious and complex issues before the eGoM and we do not want Chidambaram to head eGoM especially on spectrum."

Janata Party leader and now an ally of the BJP, Subramanian Swamy had moved the Supreme Court seeking a probe against the former finance minister, arguing that Chidambaram should be named as a co-accused in the spectrum scam along with former telecom minister A. Raja, who had to quit the Union cabinet following allegations of irregularities. The apex court rejected Swamy’s plea in February.

The Congress defended the move, with spokesperson Renuka Choudhary noting that Chidambaram may be heading the eGoM, but the panel would consist of other ministers as well. Anyone’s name can be dragged into a controversy, “but what needs to be looked at is what is the fundamental issue", she said on Friday.

Following the allegations of corruption in the spectrum allocation, the Supreme Court on 2 February cancelled all 122 2G licences allotted after 10 January 2008.

The eGoM has a number of key decisions pending, of which the most important is the reserve price, or base price, at which bidding for the spectrum will start. Other decisions include the final word on the number of slots to be auctioned and picking the auctioneer who will carry out the auction.

The eGoM will also have to take a call on the final guidelines for the auction. The department of telecommunications (DoT) released a preliminary set of guidelines on Wednesday.

The officials quoted above said the ministerial panel will recommend to the cabinet a one-time spectrum fee to be charged from incumbent operators. “The cabinet will take a final decision on the one-time pricing for the spectrum," one of the officials said.

In the February judgement, the Supreme Court cancelled 122 telecom licences and spectrum allocated to nine companies, and ordered DoT to hold an auction for the available 2G spectrum by 2 June, which was later extended until 31 August.

Shauvik Ghosh, Anuja and Sahil Makkar contributed to this story.


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