New Delhi, Feb 2 (IANS) Three months after he was forced to resign as communications and IT minister in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, A. Raja was arrested here Wednesday for his suspected role in the allocation of airwaves for second generation (2G) phone services, billed as the country’s biggest corruption scandal to date.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Raja, a senior leader of government ally DMK, and two of his aides on primarily two counts — misuse of office in allocation of spectrum, a finite national resource, and amassing wealth much higher than the known and legal sources of their income.
The two aides are former telecom secretary Siddartha Behura and Raja’s personal secretary R.K. Chandolia. Raja, once a powerful minister, was alleged to have misused his office and given away spectrum at below market rates.
“CBI has today arrested then union minister for communications and IT, then secretary for telecom and then private secretary to minister of communications and IT based on the facts disclosed so far in the investigation, regarding their role in the allocation of letter of intent and resultant UAS (unified access service) licenses and spectrum to certain companies ahead of others in violation of established guidelines and procedures,” said CBI deputy inspector general Anurag in a terse statement.
“I would say this is the end of the beginning,” a beaming Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy told reporters, reacting to Raja’s arrest. It would have been embarrassing otherwise for the CBI to face the apex court later this week, he added.
Swamy’s petition on the 2G allocation — which names Raja as an accused in what is now being called the 2G spectrum scam — is to come up for hearing before the Supreme Court next week.
The apex court is itself monitoring the multi-agency probe into the irregularities in allocating spectrum that had become the country’s main talking point for the last several months. Raja was nicknamed ‘Spectrum Raja’ by a cynical public and rumours flew thick and fast that the entire government was involved in the billowing scandal after the highest court questioned the government’s silence on this critical issue.
The issue crippled parliament’s winter session, bringing important legislative business to a standstill, over the opposition’s demands for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) into the scandal.
The principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was unimpressed with Raja’s arrest and said their stand was now vindicated. “This is too little too late,” Rajiv Pratap Rudy said, wondering why Raja was allowed to function as communications minister for such a long time.
“I wish Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, rather than being in a denial mode, had acted two years ago when it became clear that the exchequer had lost crores and crores of rupees on account of spectrum,” his colleague Arun Jaitley added.
Earlier, Manmohan Singh had defended Raja and had told parliament May 24 that the then communications minister had only implemented the policy that was already in place. No norm was flouted, he added.
Raja’s successor in the telecom ministry Kapil Sibal had also defended the process adopted by Raja. Sibal said it was because of the policy in existence since 1999 that the average telecom tariff in India had came down from almost Rs.17 per minute (45 cents) to about Rs.3 (6 cents) per minute in 2004 and 30 paise (less than a cent) per minute now.
“If there is proof of any wrongdoing or criminal offence, the law will take its course,” insisted the minister, a lawyer by profession. “We are not here to protect or defend anyone.”
Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Sitaram Yechury wondered “if Sibal was right, then why the arrest”.
The ruling Congress party said that all the “doubting Thomases” should be silenced by the action of the investigating agency.
Commenting on the opposition’s lukewarm reaction, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said that the people of the country were now aware which political party had taken action against corruption.
“Those who said that the action (by CBI) has been taken under pressure, well, maybe they should also take action under pressure and do something in Karnataka,” said Singhvi, referring to the allegations of land grab against the BJP-ruled Karnataka government.
Raja was asked to resign Nov 14 last year after the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) indicted him in the spectrum allocation scam and for causing losses of between Rs.58,000 crore ($12.8 billion) and Rs.1.76 lakh crore ($40 billion) to the exchequer.
The issue dates to 2008 when nine telecom companies were issued scarce airwaves, a national resource, and licences for 2G mobile phone services at Rs.1,658 crore (less that $350 million) for a pan-India operation. As many as 122 circle-wise licences were issued.