What do Subramanian Swamy, Prashant Bhushan and Vinod Rai have in common? Swamy could be called a politician turned anti-Congress evangelist, often dubbed as a man with a destructive streak and a pet peeve—targeting the top leaders of the Congress. Bhushan is a staunch human rights advocate whose strident attack on corruption has brought an unrepentant UPA-II to the point of paralysis. Rai heads a constitutional body, the Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG), whose stinging report on the 2G spectrum scam gave him an almost adversarial aura vis-a-vis the UPA. Such were the unlikely forces that finally coalesced on February 2, creating in their wake hope for those battling institutionalised corruption and lack of transparency in governance.
It might seem the trio was working in tandem towards the February 2 order of the Supreme Court cancelling 122 licences given to telecom companies by former Union minister A. Raja, now in prison as an undertrial. In the chaotic scenes witnessed after the order, the government was forced on the backfoot. The wider consensus in the public was that the verdict was a strong indictment of the government, accused by many of having looked the other way as scams overtook governance. Such a scathing order is bad news any time; it’s all the more so when crucial assembly elections are being held in UP and other states.
As for the three men, their persistence may have earned them the sobriquet of giant-slayers who brought UPA-II to its knees—whether they were the sort to hanker for it or not. For Bhushan, a senior Supreme Court advocate who was the first to move the Delhi High Court against the arbitrary parcelling out of licences, and whose petition sought the cancellation of 2G licences, the importance of the order lies in recognising how rules were bent to favour the rich and the influential. As for his petition seeking the appointment of a Special Investigation Team to oversee the CBI’s inquiry, which was turned down, Bhushan says all is not lost, as the court has asked the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) to monitor the CBI. There are those who think this might work against Bhushan’s fight in bringing the guilty to book, but he demurs. “The licences have been cancelled and the order sets right the advantages that some companies got. This is crucial and important,” he said. For the senior advocate, who has locked horns with the government on many occasions, including the long fight to legislate the Lokpal bill to tackle corruption in governance, the order is a victory.
For Swamy, a Harvard professor whose contract was terminated following an inflammatory article in a Mumbai-based newspaper in which he spewed venom on the Muslim community, February 2 was victory day too. He had petitioned the 2G spectrum trial court and the apex court, levelling charges against Union home minister P. Chidambaram of playing a role in the scam, though at one remove. Swamy wanted Chidambaram investigated. He argued that the home minister should be made a co-accused with Raja, as the latter could not have moved ahead without a nod from the finance ministry, then headed by Chidambaram. For Swamy, often described as a maverick and political outsider, the apex court ruling that the trial court should decide on prosecuting Chidambaram within two weeks is a vindication. He sees in it a possible victory and told a channel, “This is not a reprieve for Mr Chidambaram.”
The third player is Rai, the sports-loving head of CAG. He was accused of leaking the 2G audit report before it was placed before Parliament—a charge Rai vehemently denies. He maintains that the report was placed in Parliament and a press conference held after it was made public. Rai remained unfazed by the criticism. And present telecom minister Kapil Sibal’s open scepticism about CAG’s estimation of a Rs 1,76,000 crore loss to the exchequer has now come back to bite.
Rai had retorted that “these criticisms emanate from a mindset that views accountability agencies as an adversary rather than as an aid to good governance and better management”. Very clearly, CAG, whose reports were hitherto seen as routine, has emerged as an agency that exposes corruption. After the recent SC order, Rai told Outlook: “It is a total vindication of the stand taken by our department. We are very grateful to the SC.” But what has the order delivered by Justices G.S. Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly, who retired today, done? Quite briefly, it has scrapped 122 licences issued after January 10, 2008—all during Raja’s tenure. His decision to give licences to companies of his “choice” has been deemed “arbitrary, unconstitutional”. For the minister, this order considerably weakens his stance that he was innocent and only following orders of the government.
As for Chidambaram, it is up to the trial court of Judge O.P. Saini to decide whether he should be formally investigated. It’s still an open case. Justice Ganguly, in a retirement speech on the afternoon of the day he delivered the verdict, made this cryptic comment: “I am at the end of my innings as a judge. I always tried to play with a straight bat.”
By Anuradha Raman with Lola Nayar