Home minister P Chidambaram will head the new empowered group of ministers (EGoM) that will decide on the controversial issue of auction of telecom spectrum.
File photo of home minister P Chidambaram. AFP
Chidambaram will become the third chairman of the body in 11 days, after Pranab Mukherjee resigned to contest the presidential elections and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar stepped down, saying his name was being dragged into the ongoing controversy about 2G licences.
The government is racing against a deadline of August 31 to auction spectrum and complete the process of allocation.
A communications ministry official told HT that the first meeting of the reconstituted EGoM will take place next week.
The decision to appoint Chidambaram drew flak from the Opposition. BJP leader Yashwant Sinha said it was like entrusting an accused person with the job of policing.
Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy termed the appointment "an insult to the Supreme Court".
"Mr Chidambaram has one judgment pending where I have asked for him to be made co-accused," he said.
Swamy has been running a campaign against Chidambaram alleging that his son Karti has benefited from a scam-tainted telecom company.
The home minister has maintained that his son has no connection with the telecom company.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said it was the prerogative of the Prime Minister to decide who should head a particular EGoM.
"Insofar as the BJP is concerned, they seem to have fine-tuned the art of tilting at windmills," he said.
Barring Pawar, the new EGoM comprises defence minister AK Antony, communications minister Kapil Sibal, I&B 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.
Curiously, the EGoM's mandate on the key issue of the 2G scam --- spectrum pricing --- will be limited to giving recommendations to the cabinet, which will take a final decision. Earlier, it was the final authority on this matter but has now had its wings clipped.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has recommended a reserve price of Rs. 18,000 crore for 5 MHz of spectrum, while the communications ministry wants to reduce it to Rs. 10,000 crore.
In February, the Supreme Court had ordered cancellation of 122 telecom licences awarded in 2008 by then communications minister A Raja, on the grounds that they were arbitrarily granted.
The 2G telecom spectrum scam is arguably the most high-profile corruption case in Indian history - valued at as much as Rs. 176,000 crore by the comptroller and auditor general.
Telecom firms, it was alleged, were granted the spectrum at cheap rates, robbing the government of revenues. Raja is out on bail after serving 15 months in jail.