May 25, 2020
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Unblanking The Tapes

The first set of tapes was a selective leak. What lies under?

Unblanking The Tapes
Sanjay Rawat
Unblanking The Tapes

Lobbying, manipulation, subversion and media management in India has a new name. Niira Radia. Its exposure has left some whining about “the India story”, while others are lamenting the “invasion of privacy”. The 800 new Radia tapes accessed by Outlook and released partly on its website earlier this week are an exploration of India’s underbelly. The upshot—despite the protestations of infringed privacy—is that public policy, formation of the Union cabinet, distribution of the country’s natural resources all became subject to the cynical game she played using her vast “contacts” list, which included ministers, industrialists, politicians, bureaucrats, fixers and journalists.

After Outlook brought the first tranche of the Radia tapes into the public domain, it followed up with an investigation into the stories contained within them—and beyond. This has thrown up startling facts, and 800 new tapes. It’s now established that there are many more dramatis personae in the 5,800 conversations tapped by the the director-general of income tax (investigations) in 2008-09. But some of these names—it is believed that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, Congress MP Annu Tandon and CPI(M) leader Biman Bose are among those  who spoke to Radia, among others—were not in the tapes leaked to the media. Clearly, the leaks were selective (see: The Quarry Is Watching).

Meanwhile, on December 16, the Supreme Court directed that the spectrum allocation probe also include the NDA years—starting from 2001—and extend into the UPA regime and its role, till 2008. The day before, the CBI conducted raids on 34 places linked to Radia and her associates in Delhi, along with simultaneous raids in Chennai on A. Raja’s relatives and friends.

The initial investigation launched by the income-tax department into Radia’s activities was in fact not focused on the 2G spectrum allocation; it was meant as an overall probe into  her influence-mongering in telecom, gas, power, civil aviation and mining—aggregating into something much bigger than what the CAG calls a Rs 1.73 lakh-crore scam. If an attempt were made to assess the worth of the deals Radia was dabbling in, the figure would  be mind-boggling—perhaps matching the combined annual defence, railway and social sector budgets.

Was the investigation a sham in the first place?

The income-tax investigation of Radia started when P. Chidambaram, then finance minister, received a complaint dated November 16, 2007. It alleged that Radia had raised a Rs 300 crore empire in less than nine years and that she “was an agent of foreign intelligence agencies”. By August 2008, the income-tax department had enough material on her to begin raids. On August 19, 2008, a decision was taken to tap 14 of her personal and official phones, including those of her colleagues. The tapping, authorised by then Union home secretary Madhukar Gupta, continued for 120 days, till December 2008.

The income-tax department’s next round of surveillance began on May 8, 2009. “For some strange reason, surveillance had been stopped during the election period,” a senior intelligence official familiar with the inquiry told Outlook. After resuming, it ran for another 60 days, and ended on July 9, 2009. The leaked tapes all belong to this 60-day period.

Through Niira Radia, big business subverted government processes to its advantage. The full story is yet to out.

Worried about the national security implications of the tapes and the investigations, senior officials shot off a letter to Rajiv Mathur, director, Intelligence Bureau, on November 16, 2009. They pointed out that “an analysis of the intercepts suggested that some of the conversations were quite sensitive”. If this was the case, why did the government wait till December 15, 2010, to conduct the first raids on Radia? And what did the CBI hope to unearth almost two years after the income-tax department had begun investigations and interceptions? These are uncomfortable questions no one in the government seems to have answers for.

The most disturbing question, perhaps, is: What is the government doing about the massive manipulation of processes that has come to light after Outlook put up the tapes in the public domain? Consider some segments of the taped conversations: Sunil Arora, an IAS officer, tells Radia that a Delhi High Court judge was paid Rs 9 crore; a bureaucrat-turned-MP tells her Union minister Kamal Nath had gone through a “spectacular decline”; Tarun Das, a former industry lobbyist, calls Kamal Nath “Mr 15 per cent”. So why is the government’s anti-corruption machinery ignoring the contents of the tape ?

Power-brokers Inc had a field day

The new set of tapes obtained by Outlook shows ministers, bureaucrats and power-brokers on Radia’s speed-dial. Here are some revealing conversations:

  • Tarun Das, former head of CII, tells Radia he had put in a word to ensure that Kamal Nath got a berth in UPA-2 as surface transport minister. Das says Nath can still make his “15 per cent” while doing “national service” building highways.
  • JD(U) Rajya Sabha member N.K. Singh, a former bureaucrat, describes the UPA-2 cabinet as “Shivji ki baraat”, a reference to the creatures that danced attendance at Lord Shiva’s wedding.
  • Referring to Murli Deora’s second innings, N.K. Singh says, “...perhaps Mukesh (Ambani) has swung it for him”.
  • Radia also reveals in conversation that Unitech, one key beneficiary of the spectrum allocation, had been defaulting on payments to the Tatas. A Rs 60-crore cheque had bounced, she tells Ranjan Bhattacharya, foster son-in-law of former PM Atal Behari Vaypayee. Bhattacharya says Unitech thought Union commerce minister Anand Sharma was “proprietary”. Sources told Outlook the Tatas are yet to be repaid Rs 400 crore out of the Rs 1,600 crore given to Unitech.

Phone Taps: Public-private subversion?

Last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally broke his silence about the tapes. But he didn’t express any concern about the subversion of the entire political process, in fact, of his cabinet itself, by corporates, as revealed by the Radia tapes.

Instead of corruption, the PM chose to assuage people on privacy.

Instead, Manmohan sought to focus on assuaging corporates and other stakeholders on the question of invasion of privacy. Strange, considering the revelations the tapes make. Even stranger, considering his own government is in a way soon going to institutionalise the invasion of privacy through the uid and natgrid projects. Interestingly, while all official phone taps  are cleared by the Union home secretary, the monitoring is done by a committee headed by the cabinet secretary. The other two members are the telecom and law secretaries. So, both the ex-telecom secretaries now in the dock, Sidharth Behuria and P.J. Thomas, could have accessed the tapes.

The Media

Long-standing reputations in the media have come crashing down. Two names stand out in the current lot of tapes. A reference to NDTV’s Barkha Dutt is revealing: speaking to R.K. Chandolia, an aide of Raja, Radia says Barkha got a statement issued by Congress spokesman Manish Tiwari to clear the air on certain remarks made by DMK leader T.R. Baalu to the media. Vir Sanghvi, associated with the Hindustan Times, discusses his column with Radia before publication: “I’ve  dressed it up as a piece about how public will not stand for resources being cornered, how we’re creating a new list of oligarchs. It’s dressed up as a plea to Manmohan Singh, so it won’t look like an inter-Ambani battle except to people in the know.”

“Very nice, lovely. Thank you, Vir,” responds Radia.

Following the December 16 raids, the CBI seems to have awakened from a long hibernation. But the truth buried in the Radia tapes, now in the Supreme Court’s custody, needs to be made public. They must be investigated and the guilty must be punished. India is now witnessing the ugly subversion of fair processes across several sectors. It’s of monstrous proportions, of a scale never seen before.

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