Chidambaram, Mukherjee seek to bury note row

Chidambaram, Mukherjee seek to bury note row

New Delhi: Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and home minister P. Chidambaram sought to bury any differences between them by issuing a joint statement on Thursday on a controversial 10-page note that surfaced last week.

The finance ministry note sent to the Prime Minister’s Office in March suggests that Chidambaram, who was the finance minister before Mukherjee, could have prevented the second-generation (2G) telecom spectrum allocation scam if he had insisted on awarding spectrum through an auction.

His Congress party and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government it leads are mired in a series of controversies and scams, the biggest of these being alleged improper allocation of 2G spectrum in 2008.

In the joint statement, Mukherjee distanced himself from what he said were “inferences" in the note. “Apart from the factual background, the paper contains certain inferences and interpretations, which do not reflect my views," he said.

The UPA government’s 2007-08 telecom policy was a continuation of the 2003 policy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government, he added. The BJP is now the main opposition party.

Mukherjee also said the note was an “inter-ministerial background paper" prepared by a group of officers after it was decided to produce a “harmonized note based on facts" for government representatives following media reports on the 2G scam that appeared in January.

Earlier in the day, Chidambaram met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh immediately after the latter arrived from his visit to earthquake-hit Sikkim. Mukherjee also arrived at Singh’s residence and the two ministries came face to face for the first time since the controversy erupted. Singh also met Congress president Sonia Gandhi later in the day, PTI reported.

The Congress put up a brave front. “After the whole incident, Chidambaram will emerge as a stronger leader among the party ranks because he has the sympathy of all the leaders," said a Congress leader on condition of anonymity. The BJP lashed out against the joint statement, saying it was “unfortunate and disappointing" and demanded Chidambaram’s resignation.

“This is not about an ego battle between two ministers. It is not an internal matter of the Congress party, but an issue that concerns the loot of public money," BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said. “Chidambaram’s role has to be investigated... He has no right to continue as a Union minister."

The controversy began the day Mukherjee left for the US on 21 September to attend the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, after Janata Dal party leader Subramanian Swamy filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court demanding an investigation against Chidambaram.

In his affidavit, Swamy submitted the 25 March finance ministry note, approved by Mukherjee, stating that the telecom department could have invoked a clause of cancelling the licences had the finance ministry stuck to its stand on auctioning the spectrum.

PTI contributed to this story.