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A scam or not a scam?

Pravesh Jain |

The 2G spectrum issue is back in national conversation. Almost everybody is talking about it. But no one is sure yet about what it really is. The recent judgment by the special CBI court has raised many specific questions. Is the 2G scam real or fake, true or a lie? Is it more about openness or secrecy; perception or reality? There are argument and counter arguments.

The divide is so clear that it has become an issue that puts lawyers against lawyers, court against court, political party against political party and one set of beliefs against another. Never has there been such a rarest of the rare case of corruption that might involve no corruption at all.

Just a few years ago, the nation was made to think of 2G as a historic corruption case with an astronomical figure of Rs 1.76 lakh crore involved. Today, the nation is made to believe that there was no corruption. The nation was shocked then and the nation is shocked now.

Why did the 2G story unfold like this? Who all were responsible for this? Why does the mystery deepen after years of digging? So many persons of position and credibility, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, the Central Bureau of Investigation and judges of the Supreme Court have looked at it. Some reputed business tycoons and industrial houses, some top bureaucrats, ministers and politicians and were spun into what at times looks like a craftily planned hoax of corrupt practices and unfair advantage?

The story unravelled when then CAG Vinod Rai, projecting the handling of spectrum distribution by the UPA government as huge irregularity, claimed that because of government action the national exchequer may have lost an astronomical Rs 1.76 lakh crore. But it was not clear if it was a case of direct loot by the corrupt or a matter of presumptive or imaginary loss because of some actions of the authorities.

Was it right on the part of the then CAG to calculate presumptive loss of such a high magnitude? Does it come in the domain of CAG to calculate presumptive loss? Is he not supposed to present only to Parliament about procedural lapses, systematic failures and irregularities, and on that basis, calculate real rather than the presumptive loss?

The media sensation at the time charged the atmosphere, and this was followed by protests organised by the opposition and social activists. Things happened in such quick succession that before anyone could sit and reflect, the nation found itself burning.

Had Dr. Manmohan Singh, the then PM, been an emphatic speaker, maybe things would have taken a different shape. But that was not to be, as even the ‘honest Singh’ was perceived to be dishonest being one with the corrupt and the dishonest. Why Dr. Singh could not be authoritative enough to neutralise questionable moves of some of his cabinet colleagues is not difficult to understand. After all the UPA regime was marked by the presence of two power centres, with Sonia Gandhi enjoying the allegiance of the party, the government and coalition partners.

To start with and looking at the gravity of the case, as perceived by all and sundry including CBI, many players including the minister, secretary, other officers, business tycoons and investors went behind bars while the case was being tried. It was as if a kind of “guilty until proven-innocent” consideration was working effectively.

Now after about seven years of trial involving 17 accused, 153 prosecution witnesses and 29 defence witnesses being examined by due process of law, the special court came out with yet another big shock – acquittal for all. After taking everything into consideration, the CBI special judge O P Saini produced a 1,553-page order stating he had not found a ‘’shred of evidence’’ to prosecute even a single person accused by the CBI.

The judge recorded with agony: “For the last about seven years, on all working days, summer vacation included, I religiously sat in the open court from 10 AM to 5 PM, waiting for someone with some legally admissible evidence in his possession but all in vain. Not a single soul turned up. This indicates that everybody was going by public perception created by rumour, gossip and speculation. However public perception has no place in judicial proceedings.’’

Can you feel the helplessness of a judge seemingly willing to find evidence to find and punish the guilty? The judge also said a very interesting thing: “In the beginning, the prosecution started with the case with great enthusiasm and ardour. However, as the case progressed, it became highly cautious and guarded in its attitude making it difficult to find out what the prosecution wanted to prove’’.
Can anyone say what the prosecution wanted to prove and why it became in the judge’s words “directionless’’? Did CBI lose the path or leave it? Did it find it difficult to walk on the path and thus change its way? Was the path so rough and rugged or filled with blockades that were unsurmountable? Did the agency known for its exemplary honesty and integrity lose its teeth?

Has the nation’s most elite and most credible investigating agency lost, not just its prominence but its very essence? The actions of the CBI were at times funny and at others motivated. In a land of extreme political interference where politicians are control freaks and the CBI is termed as a caged parrot, did it become imperative for the agency to lose interest for some specific reasons?

But one thing looks almost certain, that CBI suffered from its own leadership crisis. Great institutions are built and maintained by great individuals of character, strength and commitment. No one can ever deny that the CBI was not just our nation’s pride, but its world-class investigative calibre and functional superiority had won global recognition.

This was the result of its specially trained workforce, skilfully guided and carefully nurtured by uncompromising directors of vision and competence. Directors like John Lobo, Late M G Katre, PC Sharma and U S Misra, and a few others were the ones who would be watchdogs themselves at every stage of investigations.

But finally, what does the man who first created the perception of a scam have to say about it? Well after the judgment, as my knowledge goes, he is yet to open his mouth. But his perception changed all perceptions and created a whole new alternate reality. But just because the presumptions of the ex-CAG look questionable, does that mean all those now acquitted were honest? Looking at the history of Congress governments, one can fairly conclude that they were no holy cows.

Be that as it may, the fact is that today the 2G scam has become the cruellest chapter in Indian democracy that has questioned the credibility of many of our institutions. This scam that is not a scam has destroyed the reputations of individuals and institutions, sent many to jail, dragged many retired officers even in their 70s to court as witnesses and created fear in the minds of many who are still serving not to take independent decisions. Above all, it created panic among investors, caused a stock market crash, raised bank NPAs, almost destroyed the telecom sector and above all overthrew a government and helped bring the main opposition party to power.

No one knows whether the CBI will appeal in a higher court. Even if there is an appeal, no one knows if the story will look any different. No one knows how long the ghost of 2G will be allowed to haunt the nation. It may become another Bofors, where the ghost is resurrected from the grave from time to time. But one thing is certain, the scam that may not have been a scam will live long in our memory.