Column : Lets play pin-the-tail-on-Arun

Written by Sunil Jain | Updated: Feb 20 2011, 03:37am hrs
Lets assume, for the moment, Arun Shourie is indeed guilty of what the Justice Shivraj Patil report has accused him of, that he allotted 12 licences at 2001 prices to Tata Teleservices in 2004 even though the Cabinet had agreed all future licences would be auctioned. Shouries explanation, that this was part of what the Cabinet approved, is a bit long-drawn and is not immediately convincing since the Cabinet decision was about older telcos migrating to a new licence and not about new telcos getting new licences. Shourie insists, for the record, that he has the documents to prove this is indeed the case, and that had certain critical documents been made available to Justice Patil, he would never have indicted Shouries process.

The point, however, is whether what Shourie did (he issued 26 licences in mostly low-growth circles in 2004 at the same rates charged to firms in 2001) can be used as an excuse by the UPA to issue, over the next five years, 180 licences at the same 2001 prices.

After all, it wasnt even as if Shourie was part of the same government.

And this is where you see both UPA-1 and UPA-2 have to be the most file-pushing government the country has seen in a long timefile-pushing in the mindless sense bureaucrats do, not bothering to apply their minds to anything except to see if theres a precedent. So, 18 months after Shourie ceased to be telecom minister, on December 14, 2005, UPA-1 came up with its brand new licensing regime. If the BJPs licence rules had 17 sections over 6 pages, UPA-1s had 74 sections over 28 pages, but the operating part was the same, that if any newcomer came asking for a licence, it would be given at the same price that was got from auctions in 2001! Eighteen months later, and a brand new government comes up with a new set of guidelines that are, in essence, the same as in the previous government. Continuity with change!

Indeed, while the government set up the Patil committee primarily to embarrass the NDA, it highlights far far more irregularities in the UPA period. The bald numbersShouries 26 licences versus UPAs 180tell you the larger story, but its a good idea to read the report for some of the more juicy tidbits like the one on how Swans and Allianzs licences were cleared within hours (this is why S Behura was arrested) despite officials pointing out why the licences should be rejected. There are a lot more, so Id strongly recommend you log on to www.dot.gov. in/miscellaneous/ OMC/ OMC.htm.

How much more lazy can you get A lot actuallyeven after A Raja has been arrested for corruption, his successor Kapil Sibal continues to say Raja did the wrong thing only because he was following Shouries footsteps. Raja tried to debunk the losses based on the 3G auction prices by saying one was PDS rice and the other basmati; Sibal repeated much the same argument except he did it with a Maruti and a Mercedes, and the PM went them one even better and argued that all consumer subsidiessuch as on rice, wheat and kerosenecould be considered to be a loss by that yardstick! Never mind that one is meant for the poor while the other was meant for rich companies (sure, the fertiliser subsidy is also given to fertiliser companies but theyre told they have to sell the fertiliser at a certain price). By the way, worth keeping in mind that one of the best-organised subsidy schemes in India is in the telecom sector, its called the USO fund. The more you call, the more you contribute to the fund (it has Rs 20,000 crore in it today) and the money is available to anyone who bids for building rural telecom networks.

It would appear everyone in the UPA forgot the Cabinet had decided in 2003 that all future licences would be auctioned, so an argument continues to be made (by even the PM) that Trai didnt recommend auctions in 2007. So who said the government had to go strictly by what Trai said Since this fact of the Cabinet decision of 2003 is really the central argument of the Justice Patil report, it is surprising that the PM was still briefed incorrectly.

Rajas affidavit kept saying hed kept the finance ministry in the loop, and he had to say that, since he was obviously lying and needed to cover his tracks. But after he was arrested, after a crack team investigated the matter for the PM (one of this crack teams is investigating the Isro-Antrix-Devas case), the PM was still briefed using the old Raja arguments, that the finance ministry and the full telecom commission (which includes the finance secretary) had okayed Rajas decision not to have auctions. That none of this is factually correct can be ascertained from the Justice Patil reportthe CAG report also says the same thing, but the CAG report has been dismissed by the government as a drain inspectors report!

The finance ministry is on record as saying it didnt agree with Rajaformer finance secretary D Subbarao, who is currently RBI Governor, even told the PAC he wasnt able to follow up his differences as he got involved in the budget exercise. P Chidambaram wrote a letter to the PM after the licences were given out suggesting a way to still retrieve revenue in case there were any M&A deals (as happened later with Swan and Unitech), but everyone in the government was too busy to follow up on it!

Apart from the fact that it contradicts itself on various occasions, the governments affidavit in the Raja matter is perhaps the most eloquent example of how sloppy it is. The affidavit defends Raja and while the government has arrested Raja, the affidavit has not even been changed.

The NDA cant be held responsible for the crimes committed by the UPA in telecom. The only thing the NDA can be held guilty of is of messing up its alliance partners in the 2004 election which allowed the UPA to come to power, of not getting its act together in 2009, and perhaps even in 2014. That, however, is the subject of another column.

sunil.jain@expressindia.com