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A Widening Web

Sukh Ram’s worries pile up as more charges are levelled

A Widening Web
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IF Sukh Ram could go back in time, he would probably cancel the interview he gave on December 1, in which he blamed the Congress high command and the ‘managed’ media for his ills. "Just wait," he told the television interviewer, "and I will show the world that they were party funds (the Rs 3.66 crore found at his houses during the first round of raids this August)." He did not get the time. Within 24 hours it became clear that he had talked out of turn.

CBI sleuths picked him up the next morning on charges far more serious than the ones he had to deal with till then. And though he secured bail that evening, his insinuations about ‘party’ funds had already brought Congress President Sitaram Kesri, who was party treasurer till recently, into the picture. On December 3, Kesri expelled Sukh Ram, regarded as a Narasimha Rao acolyte, from the primary membership of the party.

The move triggered off speculation that two other former Congress ministers, Satish Sharma and Sheila Kaul, could face similar action. But Sukh Ram’s case is slightly different. Privately and publicly, he took a tough stand against the party high command. This, despite being chargesheeted by the CBI for granting undue favours to ARM, a Hyderabad-based telecom company. According to Congress sources, the pressure of some party MPs was so strong that Sukh Ram’s public utterances gave Kesri the handle to move against him.

But in a curious stand-off, while the former telecom minister stands expelled from the party’s primary membership, his place in the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) is safe. As Ram Niwas Mirdha, returning offi-cer of the CPP executive, says: "Sukh Ram is on our voters’ list." Observers say this indicates that Rao still has clout in the party. Evidence of that came even before the December 10 CPP polls when four compromise candidates were picked up as office-bearers, none of them vociferous Rao-baiters.

Despite Mirdha’s reasoning, the technical position regarding expulsion from the CPP remains unclear. For instance, when Arjun Singh was expelled from the Congress, the then Speaker, Shivraj Patil, took him off the treasury benches and allotted him a seat near the Congress allies.

But could Sukh Ram’s expulsion pave the way for other such ousters as part of Kesri’s blitzkrieg to cleanse the party. Admits Congress spokesman V.N. Gadgil: "Similar action is under consideration against Kaul and Sharma. As for Narasimha Rao, no action is being contemplated. The same stands true for (former Union ministers) P.K. Thungon and Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav." Citing precedents, Gadgil says action was taken against party members when judicial pronouncements were made against them. However, Sukh Ram’s case remains unique. And the latest charge being pursued by the CBI is going to make his case doubly difficult. According to CBI sources, another chargesheet against Sukh Ram for "entering into criminal conspiracy" to defraud is likely. He is charged with granting favours amounting to Rs 30 crore by way of telecom biddings to co-accused Davinder Singh Chaudhary, chairman of the Rohtak-based Haryana Telecom Ltd (HTL).

Sukh Ram reportedly reopened telecom tenders to include HTL, which was not party to the biddings. The contract for the supply of a 3.5 lakh conductor kilometre cable was given to HTL at the end of 1995, overruling experts who felt that the company’s supply capacity was ‘precarious’. When Sukh Ram’s Mandi home was raided in August, Rs 1 crore in cash was found. This included an envelope containing Rs 3 lakh and Chaud-hary’s visiting card. CBI sources say this was "illegal gratification" for favours granted.

There was more trouble for Sukh Ram last week when a former associate of his, Chandigarhbased industrialist Chandrakant Khemka, told the CBI that in 1991 the minister had given him Rs 4 crore for ‘safekeeping’. Against that, Sukh Ram was reportedly getting Rs 4 lakh as interest every month. Khemka owns Haryana Sheet Glass and Chandra Lakshmi Safety Glass, for which Sukh Ram’s son is the sole supplier.

Preliminary investigations have also revealed that Khemka floated a front company for Sukh Ram in the US. "If Khemka’s charges are substantiated, then the total money involved in the telecom scam will go up by millions of dollars," says an official. Interestingly, the third diary recovered at Sukh Ram’s home reveals an entry "C.K.Khemka-4L". Clearly, things are not going his way. But officials say actual action will be taken only after the CBI files fresh charges. 

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