Because it was designed to collapse like most big scams. To be a true political opportunity, a scam has to be so exaggerated, even judges are left disbelieving.
Does the acquittal of all accused in the 2G case mean there was no telecom scandal?
Not at all. There WAS a telecom scandal, a brazen and big one. It is just that the prosecution was so politicised and mythologised between political interests and breathless activists that nobody bothered doing the boring and diligent job of presenting a coherent case before the judge.
The key to any prosecution, most of all in a case of political corruption, is focus. You need to decide early enough what your objective is. Is the objective headlines, noise, public anger which you can ride to an election victory? Or is it to catch the guilty and have them do their deserved time in jail?
Time and again, the Indian political class has chosen the first over the second. Exaggeration and hype impress the voters, not judges. Courts need hard evidence, not speeches, leaks and tweets. To say that a few political figures of a regional party probably made a few tens of crores in allocating spectrum, breaking their own First-Come-First-Served (FCFS) rule, would never have the sex appeal of a Rs 1.76-lakh crore scandal.
Especially as it then created an environment of ridiculous accounting promiscuity, adding zeroes at will. So, coal became a Rs 3-lakh crore-plus scam. Commonwealth Games, Rs 75,000 crore. So heady was the mood then, and so tempting the zeroes, that even a newspaper usually as cautious and correct as The Hindu “broke” what it called the ISRO-Devas scam of several lakh crores, never mind that the spectrum in space is entirely different from telecom and is available freely in infinity. When last heard, Devas had won a billion-dollar plus arbitration against the Government of India on the deal.
One after the other, these convenient exaggerations are leading to the unravelling of all these cases. Exaggerating scams makes politicians win elections (Bofors, for example) but the guilty all get away. In most cases, as Quattrocchi did famously in Bofors, even with the money.
The 2G case is just the latest example.
The older readers of National Interest will say I have said this before, but then Arun Shourie taught us to never underestimate the power of repetition.
So here I am again. Rs 1.76 lakh crore, the popularly peddled and believed size of the 2G scam in 2007 was 4.41 per cent of India’s GDP. It was a couple of billion dollars more than twice our entire defence budget for that year.
Now think, could the value of a little bit of spectrum be that much? Could India’s telecom sector have paid that kind of money for it? And if so, why didn’t you simply abolish the defence budget and ask the armed forces to auction little bits of the spectrum they hoard every year? They could then buy all the guns, submarines and jets they need, implement the OROP they want, and implement the next pay commission before it is even set up. India’s telecom growth has been held to ransom by that mythology and the BJP government will spend embarrassing months dismounting that tiger.
Coal is an equally cruel example. Of course, there were scandals in coal mine allocations under the UPA as there were in 2G spectrum, Commonwealth Games and elsewhere. But was every coal allotment fraudulent?
Again, could the loss really be the lakhs of crores that Vinod Rai’s CAG, with its “what’s a few more zeroes between friends” approach, conjured up? Because the NDA, particularly BJP, gleefully jumped for the highest figure on offer. As a result, it had no manoeuvre room once it was in the Supreme Court as the government on ‘coalgate’. It watched helplessly as all coal mine allocations, 1993 onwards (including by the six-year Vajpayee government), were set aside. This gave the BJP government its first major crisis that affects a range of sectors from mining to power, metals, cement and fertilisers, banking, almost everything. A new crisis is already building up in our banking sector with legacy telecom companies’ debt of nearly Rs 8 lakh crore getting stressed. Coal and power will be next. You watch this space.
Some bit of exaggeration is fine in politics, particularly as one heads for elections. The opposition everywhere exaggerates charges of corruption and incompetence on the incumbent. Problems arise when this assumes fantastic proportions.
Masayoshi Son, the fabled head of SoftBank, is a serial investor in India. He got an audience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 and apparently asked him what kind of information highway he would build when spectrum released in India was like a bicycle track. Japan’s population of 12.76 crore, he pointed out, had 200 MHz of spectrum while India’s 10 times as much had just 40. So why were we being so tight-fisted with a basic infrastructure need?
The reason is simple. When the CAG offered different figures of notional loss in 2G spectrum, from Rs 57,000 crore to Rs 1.76 lakh crore, everybody, from Modi to almost all of the media, jumped for the highest amount. The media has been slowly getting off that kerb. But the BJP is stuck. With every round of spectrum release, it faces the same embarrassing challenge, to justify its Rs 1.76 lakh crore loss fallacy as new auctions yield no more than a fraction of that. That’s why the shyness in freeing up more spectrum, a textbook case of shooting yourself in the foot. It was a touching speech a couple of years ago when speaking at a CAG event, Arun Jaitley cautioned it against exaggeration and drew the line between activism and sensationalism.
We have seen this sad movie more than once in the past, and we are fated to continue watching sequels and repeats. The V.P. Singh-led opposition (BJP included) built Bofors into a monster and India suffered. A fine weapon system was damned while nobody has as yet been punished, nor any money recovered. After one crash (in Bangalore, 14 February 1990) Rajiv Gandhi’s order of Airbus A320s for Indian Airlines was called a scandal and the planes, still with factory paint and grease, were grounded. The flying ban had to be lifted later as the Gulf War required tens of thousands of stranded Indians to be airlifted from Kuwait and Iraq. There’s been no problem with the planes since and even Indigo, India’s largest airline by market share, exclusively uses the same plane. Nobody guilty of corruption has ever been caught or punished.
The Congress similarly exaggerated the injustices and inequalities of ‘India Shining’, and became a prisoner of these over an entire decade. It was unable to take credit for economic growth in its own rule. Or its campaign over what was called the coffin-gate.
Voters are impressed by multiple zeroes, not judges. More the zeroes, more the number of votes you might get. Judges want a logical, clear thread of evidence. In modern, civilised law, jail-terms won’t vary whether you are convicted for stealing Rs 10 crore, Rs 10 thousand, or even, since nothing less than this impresses us these days, Rs 1.76 lakh crore. You need to bring evidence, not just popular outrage and angrier hashtags.