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Digging for dirt

Have you noticed how spectrum scams have suddenly begun proliferating? This week alone we’ve discovered two new ones. It seems, like amoeba, they are multiplying. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:27 IST
Karan Thapar

Have you noticed how spectrum scams have suddenly begun proliferating? This week alone we’ve discovered two new ones. It seems, like amoeba, they are multiplying. The picture that emerges is of an infectious disease that’s spreading, possibly like an epidemic.

This wider concern, however, is not my principal focus today. Instead, I want to draw your attention to some of the things Justice Shivraj Patil has said in his 2G spectrum report, which telecom minister Kapil Sibal selectively made public. I find them not just disturbing but perplexing, which is worse.

To begin with, the newspapers say Patil has found that “all decisions taken by the Department of Telecommunication between 2001 and 2009… were procedurally wrong and unfair”, i.e. they didn’t follow Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommendations that were endorsed by the Cabinet. In fact, by one reckoning, his report identifies 25 separate lapses in following rules since 2001.

Now I find that amazing on three counts. First, the bald and brazen fact that for almost 10 years, governments have knowingly and deliberately followed the wrong policy. Second, that the number of lapses that ensued wasn’t one or two but 25. And, third, that this involves two separate but rival governments — the NDA and the UPA.

How can governments for so long, so blatantly and so frequently do the wrong thing? And that too knowingly, if not defiantly? But wait, hold your breath, that’s not all.

If you share the view of Sibal and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, that auctioning is not the right way of selling spectrum — because revenue maximisation ought not to be the goal — then the policy recommended by TRAI (an auction, which successive governments ignored) was not the right one but the wrong one. Ipso facto, by ignoring it both the NDA and UPA did the right thing and not the wrong thing. What a topsy-turvy upside-down world this has become.

Incredibly, the confusion goes further. You will realise this when you ask what does TRAI actually consider to be the right way of handling spectrum? This is not as clear cut as Patil would have us believe. Between January 7, when Kapil Sibal held his first press conference, and February 4, when he held his second, we have two contradictory answers.

In January, Sibal said an August 2007 TRAI report had “recommended that spectrum in 2G bands should continue to be priced as before”. But in February Sibal said Patil had found a TRAI recommendation of October 27, 2003, endorsed by the AB Vajpayee government four days later, which recommended a “multi-stage bidding process” i.e. an auction.

So did TRAI change its position between 2003 and 2007? If not, has TRAI simply contradicted itself? Or is TRAI being quoted out of context? Or what?

No doubt Sibal and Arun Shourie (the last BJP communications minister) will clarify where they stand on the Patil report and the questions it raises. But as far as the ordinary Joe is concerned, the issue is already as clear as mud — the situation is a filthy mess and it’s reeking. If ever you needed proof that our system is rotten to the core, that we are corrupt or easily corruptible and that the more we look the more dirt and scandal we find, this has to be it.

Ultimately, it’s perception that counts and the lingering, if not ineradicable, image of the spectrum scams is of deep moral corrosion. It will trouble us for years to come.

The views expressed by the author are personal